Culture

Here's how they're keeping French alive in Louisiana

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FLAIM halls

The hallways at Baton Rouge FLAIM are papered with children's drawings and school work in French and Spanish. 

Credit:

Nina Porzucki

This episode of The World in Words we take a trip down to the bayous to explore the language, culture, and music of French-speaking Louisiana.   

If you ever find yourself driving through swampy southwest Louisiana some morning, tune your dial to KVPI 1050AM and enter a world that’s part English, part French and all Louisiana. 

“Bonjour! Qui c’est qui parle? says Jim Soileau, the host of morning call-in show, La Tasse de Café.  That’s “The Cup of Coffee” for you English speakers.

And the show indeed lives up to its name. I recently visited KVPI and sat in on a broadcast one rainy Wednesday morning. Soileau and co-host Mark Layne were fielding phone calls and drinking cup after cup of coffee. 

Jim Soileau, left, and Mark Layne are at the mics on an early Wednesday morning during "La Tasse de Café."

Credit:

Nina Porzucki

KVPI, or, as locals know it, Keeping Ville Platte Informed, is nothing fancy. It’s a one-story brick building, one car out front, a small wooden sign and an American flag. But even if the station looks nondescript, the radio program is anything but, says Layne. Anything goes. Nothing is pre-planned for the show, not the topics of conversation, not even the language

“We can talk in French. We can talk in English. We can do half and half. We call it Franglais," Soileau says.

KVPI has been broadcasting in French since 1953.  Even as the number of fluent French speakers dwindles in the area, the station is dedicated to reviving the heritage language.

Next we’ll head east to visit the Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet — they call it Baton Rouge FLAIM for short.

Morning assembly at Baton Rouge FLAIM.  Every day begins with some walking, dancing, singing and announcements in French, Spanish, and English.

Credit:

Nina Porzucki

Cheryl Miller is the principal of FLAIM and walking around the school she exudes authority. 

It’s never “yes” when you address Ms. Miller, it’s “Yes, ma’am.” Miller's been principal at FLAIM for the last 16 years. 

FLAIM is part of East Baton Rouge Parish School System, the largest school system in the state. The district is also party to one of the longest desegregation cases in the country, lasting 47 years. For that reason, FLAIM has undergone many changes throughout its history. It was once a white-only school, then it became all-black, and then, under the desegregation order, the school eventually became a foreign language magnet.  

Language was used in two ways: both to attract middle class families into the inner city school.  And then once they get there, it's language that serves to equalize the dynamics inside the classroom between rich, poor, black and white.

Finally, we’re headed back to KVPI to hear a little swamp pop.  Never heard of swamp pop?  Well, you’ll just have to listen.

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With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities

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