After co-valedictorians Hue and Cindy Vo flavored their recent Ellender High School graduation talks with a pinch of Vietnamese, the president of the Terrebonne Parish School Board, who wants English-only school ceremonies, proposed banning foreign languages in future graduation speeches.
The two cousins used Vietnamese in their speeches to honor their immigrant parents, whose English isn’t fluent, and to thank them for the sacrifices they made to raise their children in the U.S. Cindy dedicated a sentence about “being your own person” to her mother, then translated it for the audience. Hue spoke a bit longer in Vietnamese and didn’t translate her words.
But some people in Terrebonne were unhappy to hear an immigrant language spoken at a high school graduation. The name Terrebonne – which means ‘good earth’ in French – reflects an earlier time when French was the most widely-spoken language, after Choctaw and Spanish, in the multilingual Louisiana Territory. Initially there were few anglophones in Louisiana, also called Orléans, one reason many Americans were skeptical about the Louisiana Purchase. It’s said that at one point Thomas Jefferson contemplated sending 3,000 English-speaking settlers to the region to make the acquisition more palatable to the rest of the country.
Jefferson didn’t follow through with that plan, but although English speakers soon became a majority in the territory, French remained important In Louisiana even after it achieved statehood in 1812. True, the state motto is English, but early official documents like the first state constitution were printed “in the two languages,” suggesting that both French and English were common and unremarkable (Baron, The English-Only Question, 83-87).
While many states have Latin mottoes, Louisiana’s, which dates from 1902, is “Union, Justice, Confidence.” The Louisiana state bird is the pelican, shown on the state seal in a nest feeding three baby pelicans. This refers to a legend which has the pelican stripping off its own flesh to feed its young, a symbol of the state nourishing its citizens, so long as they speak English.
By the mid-1800s, to prevent what some feared was the imminent death of French in the state, some francophones began calling for official recognition of their language, though one English-speaking legislator complained that the next step would be calls for protecting Spanish or even Choctaw (though that might not have been a bad idea).
So adamant had Louisiana’s English-only crowd become by mid-century that its secessionist constitution of 1861 ordered that all laws be printed in the language of the United States Constitution, forgetting in the zeal to promote English that the federal Constitution had been dumped when Louisiana joined the Confederacy.
But reports of the death of Louisiana French were premature. The state constitutional convention of 1864 once again rejected proposals to protect French, but the convention’s opening prayers were recited in French and English, and its proceedings were published in both languages. In addition, schools in predominantly French-speaking areas were allowed to continue using French as a language of instruction.
On the other hand, that 1864 constitution also contained a provision that should sound familiar to today’s supporters of official English, who incorporate it in their “defense of English” legislation: no public official in Louisiana could be required to speak any language other than English.
As recently as the 1950s, children in Louisiana were punished for speaking French at school. Happily, such punishments have long since ended, and supporters of French education, encouraged by France itself, are active in the state.
But while the official language of Louisiana remains English, and the most widely-spoken language in the state is Spanish, not French, the Terrebonne school board proposal for English-only graduations might actually conflict with the state’s most recent constitution: “The right of the people to preserve, foster, and promote their respective historic linguistic and cultural origins is recognized” (Constitution of 1974, Art. XII, sec. iv).
When the Terrebonne School Board debates the proposal to ban foreign languages from school ceremonies, it should remember that English itself is an immigrant language not just in Louisiana, but also in the United States. English is even an immigrant language in England: it was brought to Britain by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes crossing the North Sea from Europe.
And someone should remind Louisiana’s official English crowd that the words of the state motto, union, justice, confidence, come from Latin into English via French and the unfortunate incident at Hastings in 1066.
Union reminds us how a French-speaking territory can become a state (even rejoining the other states after the late unpleasantness of the 1860s). Justice suggests the state will treat its children equally, even if some of their parents are immigrants. And confidence symbolizes the fact that the children of immigrants, two bilingual Vietnamese cousins, can learn English, graduate at the top of their high school class, and deliver a valedictory address, two words that have been imported into English, and that no graduation ceremony can do without.