AUGUSTA — Dominick and Rocko Napolitano are learning how to speak their grandmother’s language: French.

And not just the French spoken in France or found in most of yesterday’s French language textbooks. Dominick, 7, and Rocko, 6, are also learning the Franco-American variant of the language, and a bit about the rich Franco-American culture and heritage in Maine and the Augusta area.

That’s “tres bon” — very good — to their mother, Amanda Napolitano, of Augusta. She’s thrilled her two boys, enrolled in the new afterschool Maine French Heritage Language Program, are learning about their family’s Franco ancestry and building a new connection with their grandmother, Theresa Dostie, who grew up in Augusta and still speaks French fluently.

The ability to speak French “kind of got lost in my generation,” Napolitano said. “This is a great opportunity for them, to gain that knowledge and appreciate the language and culture of their ancestors.”

Franco-Americans’ culture and their regional variant of the French language wasn’t always so appreciated, either in the streets of Augusta or the classroom.

Napolitano said her mother told her stories about growing up Franco-American in Augusta and being afraid to cross the Kennebec River because she didn’t feel welcome in some of the city’s non-Franco neighborhoods.

Not always welcome

Nor did some Franco-Americans feel welcome in the classroom, even in French class. That’s because the French they spoke wasn’t quite the same as the classic French taught in school.

“The way French was taught in the past has sometimes been a very negative experience for Franco-Americans in Maine — that’s part of the reason I created this program,” said Chelsea Ray, a University of Maine at Augusta assistant professor of French and an organizer of the pilot French program, which began this year in some public elementary schools in Augusta and Lewiston.

“You here these stories over and over again. People were made fun of. They were told they didn’t speak the right French, that their French was bad. So they had a real incentive not to speak French. A main goal of this program is to acknowledge that history, and also say we can move forward with this new generation of children, of French speakers. We’re trying to show the positive aspects of this culture, so the children will know something about Franco culture in Maine.”

Ray described the variation within the French language as similar to someone from Maine having a hard time understanding, or being understood by, someone from the deep South, even though both are speaking English.

The Maine French Heritage Language Program aims to teach multiple variants of the language, especially, but not exclusively, the variant spoken by Franco-Americans in Maine. Students have also learned about other variants from their teachers and guest speakers from French-speaking locales including France, Rwanda and Madagascar.

Ray said children seem to grasp the idea of there being different ways of speaking the same language much better than most adults.

The 22-week grant and fee-funded program started this year, offered to students from kindergarten to third grade at Hussey Elementary School, and kindergarten to sixth grade at Lincoln Elementary School, with students attending the city’s other two elementary schools also welcome to take the classes.

Parents pay about $150 per child tuition, but Ray said the true cost of the program is probably closer to $500 per child.

Grant money from Centre de la Francophonie des Ameriques and the French Heritage Language Program, collaborators in the project, subsidizes the program. It’s also an extension of two successful programs established in New York City and Miami. The University of Maine at Augusta also provides support for the program.

Officials are seeking grant funding to continue the program next year and possibly also expanding to other sites. Ray said if the program does get grant funding to continue, enrollment will take place before the next school year starts. There is already a waiting list.

In addition to the Augusta classes, there is a similar class at Sherwood Heights Elementary School in Lewiston, which has a partnership with the Franco-American Heritage Center there.

Only option

In Augusta, the program, which holds classes twice a week, is the only option for parents of students attending public school. The elementary school French program in the city’s public schools was cut from the budget last year.

The classes follow a curriculum created by Louise Tanguay-Ricker, elementary foreign language teacher at St. Michael School in Augusta.

The classes’ goal is for French to be 80 to 90 percent of the language spoken in class. Teachers use words familiar to young students, often in song, so they can understand them easier and are more likely to enjoy using the language, building skills and confidence as they go.

“The more we can make the classes creative and dynamic and memorable, it helps students remember the words associated with those experiences,” Ray said. “The way the language used to be taught, rote memorization and drills, didn’t work so well, because you never experienced the language for yourself.”

Michael Parent, a Franco-American storyteller and singer, recently entertained and taught students in the program in Augusta.

He used familiar words and songs, in French, to reach students, including the song “Frére Jacques,” the story Peter and the Wolf, and three balls he juggled after having the students identify the color of the green, blue and red balls in French.

Parent said studies have shown children are able to learn languages best when they are young. Their minds are more open and they lack the self-consciousness that impedes older students, such as teenagers, from trying something unfamiliar, he said.

“These kids are sponges, and they don’t even know they’re soaking it up,” he said. “It gets harder and harder to learn a language as you get older. These kids, at this age, are wide-open. They’ll try anything. If they make mistakes, and they will, we all do, it’s no big deal. We’re trying to communicate. That’s the whole point.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

kedwards@centralmaine.com