Decades of Decline

After the Civil War, immigration to Louisiana from France dwindled, and Louisiana francophones were unable to maintain the kind of regular contact with that country that had been possible in the ante-bellum period. The status of the French language declined as political and economic power came increasingly to be concentrated in the hands of Louisiana's Anglophone population. French speakers either assimilated linguistically to "American" society or retreated into their close-knit circle of friends and family to preserve what was left of their culture. In 1916 education was made compulsory by the Louisiana constitution, and when in 1921 English was declared to be the only language of instruction in public schools, French-language education became limited to a few private schools. For the next two or three generations, children who grew up in exclusively French-speaking homes suffered difficulty in learning, as well as humiliation, when they arrived at school only to find that they could not speak or understand the language of instruction and that their native language was prohibited on the school grounds. To make matters worse, the particular variety of French they spoke was often denigrated as corrupt or "broken" French, or worse, as something less than a "real" language. Louisiana Creole was even more strongly stigmatized than Louisiana (Cajun) French. Internalizing such negative attitudes towards their language, and determined that their own children should not suffer as they had in school, many chose to teach them only English, such that French and Creole ceased to be transmitted in the home. Not surprisingly, the French and Creole languages tended to best be preserved in rural and poorer areas that featured tight-knit francophone communities and, often, limited access to education. For this reason, French and Creole have virtually disappeared as native languages among locally born New Orleanians, but often continue to be spoken among the elderly in rural areas and smaller towns and cities in south Louisiana.