Will McGrew has seen the economic power of a heritage language in places like the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick.

There, French helps to support a robust economy. Here, McGrew, who founded a media start-up called Télé-Louisiane, the state’s first multimedia platform that produces and distributes audio, visual and other media content focused on Louisiana French and Creole, sees the same potential in Louisiana with the state’s own heritage languages.

On behalf of Télé-Louisiane, he traveled to Canada in August to attend an entrepreneurial training where he also participated in the Congrès Mondial Acadien 2019 and met Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Now that he has returned to Louisiana, he sees so much potential. 

“There are all of these new jobs that could be created by speaking the language,” said McGrew, a New Orleans native. “You’ll see this in Quebec or other regions where they’ve done a lot of work to keep their heritage languages alive. It’s been a huge economic boon because that’s a whole industry that develops around teaching people the language and keeping the language alive.

“Trudeau and his staff wanted to come and show their support that the government of Canada is interested and supportive in pursuing economic and cultural ties with other francophone regions and countries in the Americas. I told them that people would be eager to find ways to partner with you and collaborate.”

McGrew spent last year researching and then identifying a need for a media company to serve the French and Creole-speaking population. Social media metrics have provided him and his team with a validation that there is demand — since its founding in October 2018, Télé-Louisiane Facebook and YouTube videos have received more than 150,000 views with a majority of those coming from within Louisiana.

McGrew said Télé-Louisiane will eventually host regular programming in French and Creole while building a staff to handle daily operations. He said his team is at work crafting a web and mobile platform to host content that will allow Télé-Louisiane to more easily have access to advertising revenue, subscriptions and sponsorships.

Around the same time Télé-Louisiane was founded, so was Charrer-Veiller, a podcast that is broadcast in French, and Le Bourdon de la Louisiane, an online source providing articles in Louisiana French and Creole. McGrew said similar media outlets exist in countries or regions with a heritage minority language, including New Brunswick and Basque Country in Spain, and the benefits are twofold.

There’s economic activity like jobs, which McGrew said also helps to grow and preserve the minority language that may be in danger of dwindling further.

“The issue is that this is a critical moment,” he said. “Either we take this advantage over the next 10 years where we really are at this tipping point, where we really have authentic Louisiana French speakers still alive and we do have this renewed interest in Louisiana from our international partners.

"If we don’t…we’re going to not only lose tens of thousands of Louisiana French speakers who are older. We’ll also lose the interest of the international world.”

Just how many? 

The latest U.S. Census data from 2013 shows French speakers in Louisiana at around 100,000 people, a number that's dropped from 250,000 in 1990. Yet, that’s difficult to quantify, said Robert Melanson, director of International Trade and Development for the Lafayette International Center, because the question doesn't determine how fluently someone speaks French. 

This year his office partnered with the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), Vermillionville and other parts of the Lafayette Consolidated Government to initiate a first-of-its-kind census to see who claims to be a French or Creole speaker in the parish. The pilot, unofficial census survey was sent to 800 parish homes, and Melanson said they have received around 400 responses so far.

The survey asks residents if they claim to speak another language, such as French, but also if they can read or write in the language. The survey also attempts to gauge proficiency by asking respondents if they can only exchange simple greetings or hold complex conversations. Melanson said his team will track where pockets of French and Creole speakers live, which can have benefits like targeting them for immersion programs or identifying a need for bilingual business development.

Already, there are bilingual businesses scattered across Acadiana. CODOFIL has been cataloguing those that offer services in French or Creole as a part of its Oui Initiative, available online as a list or map. There are more than 130 that have contacted the agency to get recorded, with more waiting to be logged into the database, said Maggie Perkins with CODOFIL.

Up to this point, though, there hasn’t been a coordinated public-private economic development push as there has been in places like Quebec. Kate Durio, chief cultural officer with the CREATE Lafayette Cultural Economy Initiative, said different facets of local and state government have undertaken initiatives while, mostly separately, businesses are left to employ tactics of their own such as Bonjour/Hi, a greeting that showcases bilingualism, or offering menus or signs in French and Creole.

Durio believes the number of bilingual businesses in Acadiana have grown in recent years but that’s based on personal observations. No studies have been done to accurately portray the economic potential of bilingualism in Louisiana.

“We’d love to have a report that shows the economic impacts of being bilingual or speaking French in Lafayette, but because we’re not officially bilingual yet," she said. "It’s hard for us to figure out what those metrics are to track that.”

Economic potential 

Durio said it’s possible to use other factors to showcase the economic potential of French. She considers the thousands of immersion students and dozens of immersion teachers as an example.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette announced in 2018 that it will offer a master's in teaching in elementary education with a focus on immersion to help fill a need for local teachers. She said current and former immersion students are a growing base of French speakers who are well-suited to work in industries where bilingualism is present.

Lafayette High School French teacher Laure Warner has been chipping away on that front, requiring her students in the last year of French immersion to complete 20 service hours around the city. Her vision, she said, was to take French immersion students and prepare them for a career, either abroad or in Louisiana.

“I wanted them to realize they are an asset for the community,” she said. “For the longest time, I feel like immersion was seen as a way to narrow the gap so the French wasn’t lost. Now we’re thinking: How do we prepare those kids to have a job where they are using their language?”

Warner’s students, juniors and seniors, have worked with Vermillionville and Festivals Acadiens et Créoles and have completed translation work for popular businesses such as the Blue Dog Café.

They will also attend the French Language Job Fair in New Orleans on Nov. 14 where they can meet francophone companies to learn what career opportunities are available.

According to data from Lafayette Consolidated Government, there are close to 20,000 Louisiana workers already employed by French-speaking countries, with Louisiana’s fastest-growing market for exports partners being France. Reports from Louisiana Economic Development show that since 2003 French companies are responsible for 10 projects in the state, which amounted to $926.8 billion in total capital investment, creating 1,778 jobs.

“Those people who have businesses, who say they are franco-friendly, can use students to reach out — not just to the tourists, but the community that speaks French here,” Warner said.

Acadiana Business Today: After the Congrès Mondial, Acadiana leaders realize it's not just about preserving French in Louisiana. It's also about connecting to the world's economy; Digital consulting firm Perficient looks to fill 70 positions at Thursday job fair

Email Adam Daigle at adaigle@theadvocate.com.