Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tracking the Decline of Cajun French

The history of the Cajuns in the twentieth century often touches on the subject of language — that is, the decline of Cajun French as more and more young Cajuns learned to speak English as their first and often their only language. As I wrote in my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People

As I grew older, I became increasingly aware of the cultural rift between [my Bernard family’s] generations. How was it, I wondered, that after more than three hundred years in the New World, our family had suddenly lost the ability to speak French? What had occurred between my generation and that of my grandparents to bring about this significant change?
Americanization, I asserted, is what had occurred. And that Americanization was spurred along, more than any other factor, by the punishment of Cajun children for speaking French at school. As I noted:

The consequences [of punishment] were disastrous for Cajun French, pushing the dialect to the brink of extinction. For the first time [1946-1950], a minority of the ethnic group's children spoke French as their primary language. The percentage would plummet to 21 percent for those born between 1956 and 1960, a woeful decline from the 83 percent for Cajuns born at the dawn of the century. . . . [Furthermore] Among Cajuns born between 1966 and 1970 . . . only about 12 percent grew up speaking French as their primary language; for those born between 1971 and 1975, the figure dropped to about 8 percent.
I arrived at these figures by using census data — in particular, Public Use Microdata Samples (PUMS), available mainly to scholars through academic institutions. PUMS offers raw census data extrapolated from 5 percent of households in specific geographic regions.

In my case, I used PUMS data to track the decline of Cajun French throughout the twentieth century. This is shown in the below chart, which I made in the 1990s and now publish for the first time.

Click to enlarge chart.

A word of caution:

The chart does not measure the percentage of Cajuns who spoke French in any given year. It does, however, measure the percentage of Cajuns who spoke French as their first language in 1990 according to their dates of birth (broken into five-year age groups).

So the chart reveals, for example, that for the five-year age group born between 1921 and 1925, approximately 76% spoke French as their first language in 1990.

(Some may wonder why I placed the dark vertical line denoting the start of the World War II era with the 1936-40 age group and not the 1941-45 age group. I did this because children born in the mid- to late 1930s would not have exhibited linguistic traits until they actually began to speak and they would not have exhibited permanent linguistic traits until they entered school at age five or six — and by that time the US would have entered World War II.)

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