Lingua Franca

Assimilation shouldn’t mean leaving your language behind.

By Paul Doiron

Paul Doiron, Magazine of Maine, Down East MagazineLike many Mainers of his generation, my father grew up speaking French as his first language. He spent his earliest years in a neighborhood of immigrant families, many of whom worked, or had worked, at the Goodall Mills in Sanford, making everything from military uniforms to railroad car upholstery. Every two weeks, he had his hair cut at his grandfather’s barber shop on Main Street, where men sat around reading the weekly La Justice de Sanford newspaper and reminiscing about les fermes they had left behind in Quebec.

But even in preschool, my father began feeling the push to assimilate. In Sanford, as in so many Maine mill towns back then, the lingua franca was not French but English. Among Franco-Americans, it was understood that success in the United States could only be attained by those willing to embrace their adopted culture, if not abandon their old one outright.

And so my father became an English speaker. He retains slight traces of his French accent in certain consonant sounds (th gives him occasional trouble), and his intonation bears no resemblance to that of my Midwestern-born mother. Or my own, for that matter.

There were other reasons to leave his heritage behind. Kids with names like Pelletier and Michaud might find it hard to believe that Franco-Americans were, until very recently, forbidden to eat at certain Maine restaurants and stay at certain Maine inns. That particular discriminatory era predates ours (although discrimination is still a sad fact of life for many in this country). But I am old enough to remember being the subject of mean-spirited “frog” jokes.

The irony is that I don’t even speak French. My father wanted us to enjoy the benefits of his own hard-won assimilation, and so he never taught us his native tongue. I don’t blame him for that — I am too grateful for all the other gifts he has given me. And besides, it wasn’t his fault I made only half-hearted efforts to learn the language in high school. Even now, there’s nothing keeping me from buying a copy of Rosetta Stone or taking a Berlitz course.

As I have grown older, I have found myself occasionally haunted by a vague sense of loss. I sometimes wonder if other Franco-Americans — or Italian-Americans or German-Americans — share the wish that our ancestors hadn’t felt compelled to make such a complete break from the past. Once lost, a culture can never be fully regained. It’s so easy for newcomers to this nation of immigrants to fall into the trap of thinking that in order to gain you must also lose.

My brother has always seemed to recognize that this is a false choice. Like me, he never learned French at our father’s knee. Unlike me, he embraced his heritage from a young age. He studied abroad in France (twice!), worked for years in Belgium, and eventually returned to live in Maine with a Belgian-born wife and three bilingual boys. My nephews are now as American as any of their friends in Scarborough. They just happen to speak French at the dinner table.

It pleases me that my nephews and their grandfather can converse in the language of his childhood while watching a New England Patriots game together. I hope the bilingual grandchildren of more recent Maine immigrants — whether from Somalia, Guatemala, or Vietnam — will get to enjoy future moments like those.

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Paul Doiron

Paul Doiron is Down East‘s former editor and the bestselling author of the Mike Bowditch crime novels, including The Poacher’s Son and Widowmaker.