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Let the irony-free times roll

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 30, 2008 11:21 PM

From an Associated Press story so piquantly sauced with its own commentary that mine would be superfluous:

HOUMA, La. -- As an agency created in response to the long suppression of French in state schools turned 40, a south Louisiana school board member suggested that only English should be allowed in graduation speeches.

Rickie Pitre (pronounced "PEE-tree") is among six people with French surnames on the nine-member school board in Terrebonne Parish, where the county's name is French for "Good Earth" and elders of the local Native American tribe speak French as their first language.

His proposal was made after co-valedictorians and cousins Hue and Cindy Vo, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam, gave parts of their commencement speeches in Vietnamese during Ellender High School's graduation ceremony.

Cindy Vo translated her single sentence in Vietnamese, telling her classmates it was a command to always be your own person. Hue Vo spoke a bit longer in her parents' language, without translation, said board president Clark Bonvillain and schools superintendent Ed Richard.

"I don't like them addressing in a foreign language. They should be in English," Pitre said during a recent committee meeting.

But Richard -- pronounced "REE-shard" -- is dubious. "I did advise them that I didn't think they needed to go there," he said. "But I'm only a superintendent, not a board member."

. . .

As late as the 1950s, children who spoke French in school were routinely punished. "It seems like these issues will never go away," said Warren Perrin, president of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, which is turning 40 this year.

The state constitution passed in 1974 specifically recognizes "the right of the people to preserve, foster and promote their respective historic, linguistic, and cultural origins," he said.

Terrebonne Parish is part of Acadiana, the 22-parish area settled first by French-speaking Catholics deported from Nova Scotia in 1755. Perrin said the last Census found the Acadiana region to be the nation's most culturally diverse.

"Realizing that, we have to be sensitive to the many, many cultures in this region," he said. "It would seem the French, who have been subjects of prejudice, would be more sensitive to the issue. I find that extremely ironic."

Hue Vo said that in her speech, she told her parents that she is grateful to them, and honors the hardships they faced moving here from south Vietnam. "It's very important to my parents that I keep my culture," she said. "I felt if I expressed myself in Vietnamese it would be more heartfelt."

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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