When Nathalie Burguet first left her home in Dordogne to teach French to Louisiana schoolkids in the early-to-mid-1990s, the lessons relied largely on textbooks and rote grammar. 

Three decades later, she’s coming back as part of the same program through the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana — only this time with a more immersive approach.

“The children pick up really fast because their hearing can catch all the sounds,” said Burguet, who will teach her native tongue to pre-kindergarten students in Lafayette this school year. “The little ones, their hearing is still open.”

This week, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, known as CODOFIL, and the Louisiana Department of Education welcomed Burguet as one of 80 international teachers hired to teach French and Spanish immersion programs in public schools across the state in the coming year.

CODOFIL — a collaboration between the Consulate General of France in New Orleans and the Ministry of Education in Spain now in its third decade — hews to Louisiana’s larger aim to preserve the state’s French-language roots while preparing students for an increasingly globalized economy.

“Traditional language education is really hard to do well,” CODOFIL spokesman Matt Mick said. “A lot of it ends up being conjugating verbs and learning grammar rules, stuff that’s not necessarily practical in a real-world setting. The research is starting to (show) that neuropsychologically, (immersion) is how humans learn languages — by being dropped into them and letting them learn that way.”

Hailing from 10 nations, including France, Spain, Canada, West Africa, Mexico and Guatemala, teachers selected for the three-year program are certified educators in their home countries who went through extensive background checks.

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser appeared at the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center Wednesday afternoon to exhort the teachers at an event marking the end of their four-day orientation.

Running a school system during a pandemic topic of West Feliciana's school board meeting

“These immersion teachers coming from all over the world to teach our kids is so important, especially today,” he said. “When children learn a second language, it opens up the doors to the world for them. Everything is international now, so I just wanted to be here to say ‘thank you’ to (these teachers) and let them know we’re going to continue to do everything we can to encourage young students to take foreign languages that will give them opportunities beyond the borders of America.”

CODOFIL was created in 1968 by state lawmakers to help Louisiana preserve its French-speaking roots.

According to the 2000 census, the most recent available data, about 198,784 Louisianans over the age of 5 — about 3.5 percent of the population — reported speaking French or French Creole as their primary language at home.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

“The analogy I often use is that the French language in Louisiana is like a tree,” Mick said. “It has roots that are very deep that go far back into the history of Louisiana, across lots of different populations that wound up in Louisiana, and it really anchors us to a sense of place here.”

Betsy Barnes, left, press secretary for the office of Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, photographs a tablefull of some of the French and Spanish teac…

Growing up and out of those roots, of course, are the branches.

“The French immersion system is a huge part of what feeds those branches as they spread,” he said, “because so many of the young people here have that heritage where they have French-speakers in their family’s past, but the language may have been lost to a certain generation.”

For many families, he said, pride in that French-speaking heritage sparks an interest in passing it on to their children.

In 2018, Louisiana was formally accepted into the International Organization of La Francophonie — a group that represents French-speaking parts of the world. And this past February, Lt. Gov. Nungesser signed renewed accords with France and Belgium to enlist more teachers from those countries.

Many young Louisianians who attend these immersion schools are “functionally bilingual” by the third grade, Mick said. The language programs welcome applications from all children from kindergarten through middle school.

“By the time these students come out of eighth grade,” he said, “they are fully equipped speakers who can go out into the world and use that language as young people.”

Lafayette school board approves new discipline policy for students in virtual learning settings

Today, more than 5,500 students are enrolled in 26 French immersion schools across eight parishes. In all, nearly 100,000 students across the state study French, according to CODOFIL.

“It’s not just something that’s beautiful and unique in our history — it’s something we can carry into the future that’s practical and that presents really significant, concrete opportunities for Louisiana’s young people,” Mick said. “We like to say it’s not a question of revival or even renaissance, but a question of maintenance, because that stuff never fully disappeared. It’s always been here.”