Around Acadiana

Mar 30, 2014 1:33 PM by Bill Decker

La. cultural advocate seeks global connections

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) - To judge from a glance at the headlines, 2014 isn't the best of times for the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana.

The state government's CODOFIL budget has dwindled over the years, down to about a quarter-million dollars. CODOFIL President William Arceneaux said the appropriation comes nowhere near paying for the work CODOFIL is expected to do.

Louisiana, where public business was often conducted in French two generations ago, now has only about 150,000 French speakers. And a legislative attempt to let parents petition to create language immersion programs, long an important part of the CODOFIL agenda, got a push-back from school boards.

But Charles Larroque, appointed executive director by the CODOFIL board earlier this month, sees another side to those stories - expanding trade with francophone countries, reality TV's love for Louisiana and the need to improve Louisiana public school performance.

"CODOFIL, arguably, made the Louisiana brand, and not just hot sauce and swamp tours," Larroque said. "We're a people who have been proud to embrace our language.

"We're trying to articulate school to work and leverage the current attention to all things Louisiana. This is our time."

Larroque takes the top CODOFIL staff job at a time of transition from the agency's traditional role in education to one focused on language as a bridge to the larger world of international culture and commerce. Managing transitions has been part of Larroque's career from the start.

A native of Jeanerette, he went to what was then Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe to train as a pharmacist, following in his father's career path. But ,"I realized after a couple of years that chemistry and I didn't hit it off," he said.

After a hitch in the Army, he returned to Northeast to earn a psychology degree in 1975. The year before, he heard a speech by CODOFIL founder James Domengeaux, of Lafayette, one of the first and greatest evangelists for the need to preserve Louisiana French.

"I was galvanized by his message," Larroque said. "His charm, his enthusiasm, his passion were contagious."

About the same time, he met a group of French immersion teachers who had come to north Louisiana from France, Haiti, Belgium and Quebec. "I had another cultural awakening," he said. "I was smitten by the opportunity to enter that world."

Larroque did just that, moving to Quebec for 10 years. There, he picked up a master's degree in social work and became a restaurateur, owning the Bayou Pon Pon. It closed after a couple of years.

Also while in Quebec, he married a local woman, Dorise Côté.

A friend, David Mercantel, of Jennings, persuaded him to come home to teach. He taught French in Lake Arthur, North Carolina and St. Landry Parish, where his students won a Le Monde contest by marking the bicentennial of the French Revolution.

Larroque also taught in Lafayette. He also worked on two documentaries -"Acadia North and South" and "Gumbo La La" - and developed video content in French for broadcast on Louisiana Public Broadcasting.

Larroque retired from teaching in 2011, but education still figures in his plans.

"I would like to see CODOFIL become more involved in tightening up the connections between the language and the global cultural economy," Larroque said.

The raw statistics suggest there's room to grow. According to 2013 statistics from the World Trade Center in New Orleans, the only francophone nations that make the top 10 as Louisiana export targets are Canada, No. 3 with $3.1 billion in exports, and France, No. 8 with $2.5 billion.

France has one distinction on the list: It was the fastest-growing export target. Exports to France grew by 121 percent 2012-13.

"It's basically shifting a little bit from school to work to make those connections," Larroque said.

He talked about a new rule for French immersion schools, the "12 percent cocodrie" rule.

"Cocodrie" is French for "alligator." When alligator eggs are hunted in the swamp, the hunters are required to return to the wild a number of young alligators equal to 12 percent of the number of eggs taken.

Larroque would like to see Louisiana take extra steps to nurture the talent of at least 12 percent of the 4,000 French immersion students, a way to help them see they can make a living here as young adults rather than leaving for work in Atlanta or Houston.

"We should treat our children at least as well as we treat our reptiles," Larroque said.

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