I Will Not Speak French

Black and white photo of Franco-American school children in the 1930s

World War I shook people in many ways, yet certain aspects of the aftermath are seldom talked about. The desire to disaffiliate with our wartime adversaries pushed many people of the United States toward a more nationalistic idea of ‘Americanism.’ It was considered by many that speaking languages other than English was un-American and unpatriotic.  These aims were broadly targeted toward German speakers, but reached into many communities with various cultural backgrounds. In 1918 Iowa enacted the Babel Proclamation that banned the usage of languages other than English in schools, transport, and most public places. This proclamation was followed by a similar law in the State of Maine in 1919, but the target was to assimilate and Americanize the Franco-American communities.

Part of the Babel Proclamation from the Executive Department of Iowa 1918
Government of Iowa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Babel_Proclamation_(1919).jpg

French was a common language in northern Maine and could be heard and read in many of its cities and towns. Communities known as ‘Little Canadas’ or ‘Les P’tits Canadas’ had formed around the mills and textile factories which employed many French-Canadian immigrants. These areas, with their large and growing Franco-American populations, were rich with their native language and culture.

On April 1st, 1919, Governor Carl Milliken signed the English Education Bill into law. This bill forbade the use of the French language in public schools of Maine. Students who disobeyed could be punished with detentions or forms of self humiliation, such as writing: ‘I will not speak French’ on the chalkboard, or other punitive measures.

Laws of Maine Schools text stating that only English was allowed to be used.
Laws of Maine Relating to Public Schools: 1919. Augusta Me., 1919. Print. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t8pc2wg94

The French language was severely affected by this law especially in high percentage French-speaking regions such as Aroostook County. Generations that had grown up speaking their native tongue in stores, out with friends, and in school, now found this freedom had largely ended. The younger generations would be taught that English was the language of the world, and it must be learned and used to be successful. In homes where parents were raised speaking French, it was often decided that it would be better for the children to speak English.

Photo of a school house exhibit with I will not speak French in school written on the chalk board.
“Ste. Agathe Historical Society Features New Schoolhouse Exhibit.” Fiddlehead Focus, fiddleheadfocus.com/2018/07/14/news/ste-agathe-historical-society-features-new-schoolhouse-exhibit/.

The French language did not die out completely with older generations. In areas like the Saint John Valley people still speak French daily—some preferring to use French privately or when the topic is important. Interestingly, many of those who were forced to speak English still report being able to comprehend French to a rather impressive degree, even if they can’t speak it comfortably themselves.

The law was finally repealed in the 1960s but the effects are long lasting. The English Only Law hurt the presence of the French language in Maine, but it did not eradicate it. The language in Maine hasn’t fully recovered as younger generations are more comfortable speaking English. While this remains an unpleasant reality to the older generations who wish to see the language remain strong in their communities, it still reminds many young people of their home and their families. The French language will always remain an important piece of Maine’s story, culture, and heritage.

Thanks for Reading!

This post was written by Dylan Smart-Pelletier. It was produced by Rhumb Line Maps and the University of Maine’s Franco-American Program in March 2021. We would like to give a special thanks to the Bicentennial Grant that made this possible.

Title Image Citation:

“St Peter’s School, Lewiston – 4th Grade 1937.” University of Southern Maine, Lewiston, 1937, www.usm.maine.edu/franco.


Writer — Dylan Smart-Pelletier
Editors — Ben Meader and Emily Meader
Media Sources — University of Southern Maine,Fiddlehead Focus, Hathi Trust Digital Library, Wikimedia Commons
Further Reading
— on Americanization and Maine Education Laws

Lleras-Muney, Adriana, and Allison Shertzer. “Did the Americanization Movement Succeed? An Evaluation of the Effect of English-Only and Compulsory Schooling Laws on Immigrants.” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, vol. 7, no. 3, 2015, pp. i-vi., doi:10.1257/pol.20120219.

Baron, Dennis. “America’s War on Language.” The Web of Language, 3 Sept. 2014, blogs.illinois.edu/view/25/116243#image-1.

Lacroix, Patrick. Hauntingly Silent: Some Questions Concerning Maine’s English Education Bill.

Laws of Maine Relating to Public Schools. 1919

— Further Resources

Paradis, Philippe. Interview by Smart-Pelletier, Dylan. “Conversations about Saint-John Valley”
December 2017  

This is the logo for the University of Maine.
This is the logo for Rhumb Line Maps, a GIS and cartography consulting firm.

Maine Bicentennial Logo

One response to “I Will Not Speak French”

  1. Denise Lalancette Avatar
    Denise Lalancette

    Monsieur Dylan Smart-Pelletier,
    Votre texte sur la situation des francophones aux U.S.A.m’a grandement intéressée.
    C’est ma cousine, Lori Fineman, qui m’a transmis le lien avec votre article. Je lui en suis très reconnaissante car, je ne connaissais aucunement ce pan peu glorieux de l’histoire américaine. Ayant des membres de la famille qui ont émigré au Mass pour le travail, je reconnais les efforts qu’ils ont dû déployés pour apprendre le français à leurs enfants qui le parlent encore aujourd’hui.
    C’est une histoire de cœur. Félicitations pour votre article!
    Denise Lalancette

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