Part of the experience of growing up Franco-American in Maine was being told the French spoken at home was wrongly labeled as “not real” because of a regional accent.

But, it’s real French.

“In the past, Franco-American French was overlooked or discounted as not being real,” says Chelsea Ray, assistant French professor at University of Maine in Augusta.

Franco-Americans who grew up hearing criticism of their family’s native language will be delighted to know about a children’s after-school Franco-American language immersion program.

La Riviere is a French heritage language program Ray is organizing at Lincoln and Hussey elementary schools in Augusta.

“This French immersion afterschool program is based on Franco-American language and culture,” says Ray. In other words, the children will learn pride in their Franco-American French and heritage. A parallel program is planned in Lewiston by the Franco-American Heritage Center.

Programs will be supported by funding from a grant from the French-American Cultural Exchange program. Ray with other supporters are now seeking additional funds to keep tuition costs as low as possible.

Like all international languages, regional differences develop over time.

Geographic locations where French is spoken like in Quebec, Haiti or Indo-China were historically disconnected from France for centuries while the local use of the language was retained through work by missionaries and teachers. Nonetheless, French is the same language regardless of where it’s spoken.

Ray says the afterschool immersion program will emphasize teaching children French and the Franco-American dialect.

“Ideally, the children will learn how to respect the North-American French, particularly how it is spoken in Maine. They will be taught how to understand the Franco-American culture. Most important, they will learn how French is spoken differently in various parts of the world with North-American French holding an important place.”

Lessons will be interactive in French to engage children in discussions about their personal Franco-American heritages. The Franco-American culture is included in the curriculum in the form of idioms, special words, stories, food and music. Programs are designed for children as young as kindergartners.

“There is value in teaching children a second language as early in their development as possible. We want to make the programs fun,” says Ray.

Although the immersion program is still in development, the lesson plans will teach about holidays like Noel (Christmas), the seasons, weather, traditional celebrations and regional cuisine. Classes will be taught by experienced professionals who are familiar with North-American French culture and identity.

Working with Ray is Louise Tanguay-Ricker, a French teacher at St. Michael’s School in Augusta and a Quebec native who wrote the curriculum about North American French language and traditions.

Plans for the language immersion program began last spring when the Augusta schools were faced with budget cuts. Ray pulled together advocates to help figure out a way to keep the school programs going with grant funding.

Some of Ray’s UMA students created a video in French to apply for funding from Centre de la Francophone de Americque. This funding supported a four-week French program in Augusta elementary schools last spring.

But, more funds were needed to create an immersion program. Help came from the French Consulate’s office in Boston when Ann Miller, the cultural attache, came to tour Maine’s Franco-American community programs.

Miller became aware of the educational work Ray was doing in Augusta’s schools and helped obtain the grant for the new immersion program.

“Ideally, children will learn through immersion how the Franco-American culture and language are intertwined,” says Ray.