Alumni Focus: Dr. Johnny Laforêt
Born and raised in Haiti, Dr. Johnny Laforêt found his passion for teaching at an early age and today graces the halls of Princeton University where he lectures in French. The road to Princeton, however, took several detours along the way.
In Haiti, opportunities for education remain at a premium and the competition to move beyond secondary school is quite rigorous. Laforêt was up for the challenge. In high school, he excelled in his courses finding a passion for physics, chemistry, and languages. In fact, he was so highly skilled that he would often form groups around his city to help those who needed additional tutoring in the subjects. After graduating from high school, Laforêt took the entrance exam to apply for the State University. Competition was tough among students with the school only accepted around one hundred students each year. Number twenty-three on the list, he passed the entrance exam and gained admission to the school of Applied Linguistics at the State University.
After completing his bachelors program, Laforêt received a Fulbright Scholarship, which brought him to Texas Tech University, where he attained his Masters of Arts in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. From Lubbock, Laforêt went on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he received his Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) in French Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition, and Teacher Education as well as a Graduate Certificate in Business Administration. His dissertation focused on the phenomenon of language maintenance among Haitian immigrants who settled in the Chicago area. He spent a year interacting with the community and studying the various strategies used in maintaining their language—a somewhat difficult task considering that these communities are much smaller, more dispersed, and define themselves differently than their much larger counter-parts along the east coast.
After receiving his Ph.D., Laforêt accepted a position at Princeton where he currently lectures in French. He has mastered four languages- French, Haitian Creole, English, and Spanish; continues to share his passion for teaching and research, and still loves chemistry just as he did in high school.
Many young people in Haiti do not have access to education. What inspired you to pursue a Ph.D. in Linguistics?
Haiti does have many problems, but Haitian parents believe in the power of education and will do whatever it takes to provide those opportunities for their children. In turn, students also realize the importance of education and that it is their only hope to help their family have a better future. Therefore, the students themselves can be quite competitive in their studies. My parents did not have degrees from good universities, but they wanted their children to have a good education. They encouraged me to study hard in order to be accepted into the State University, which is the best in Haiti.
You speak fondly of your Fulbright experience at Texas Tech. What were the highlights of this experience? This was your first exposure to American culture. What shocked you about this experience?
Well, my first stop before coming to Texas was in Ohio. Every day I saw students walking around campus dressed in their gym clothes and I thought- wow, they are going to the gym very early. This is good. But, then I would see them in the afternoon dressed the same way. I thought- Is gym all day? Soon I realized this is just how students dress for school. This was somewhat shocking to me because in Haiti we dressed more conservatively. You would not see skin showing in public. Even when I came to Texas, it was the same- very casual.
I would say my years at Texas Tech University prepared me well. The Office of International Affairs staff was wonderful. They do a very good job of helping students transition into the university and local culture. The library on campus was my favorite spot! I love to read and I would go to the same spot on the sixth floor and read for hours and hours. Tech also has great traditions like the Carol of Lights, which I really enjoyed while on campus.
You say you were born to be a researcher and teacher. What were the most interesting aspects of your research while working with Haitian communities in the Chicago area?
I wanted to know how Haitians that had been living in Chicago for years were able to maintain their traditional Haitian Creole and French languages after immigrating to the U.S. I spent a year interacting with the communities, studying the strategies they used to maintain these languages, and the context in which they used them. I was also interested in learning if they had lost the use of these languages because of immersion in the English language. What I discovered was that there are differences between the three generations that I studied. The first-generation were trying to maintain steadfast their ability to speak French and Haitian Creole, while using English for other interactions such as work. The second-generation was not that straightforward. In my research, I found that their ability to speak and understand French was somewhat lost even though it is one of the country’s official languages. Most of them know how to speak Haitian Creole or could at least understand the language, but could not answer in Haitian Creole. They preferred answering in English. My access to the third generation was limited because they had to be eighteen years old to participate, so I contacted their parents to ask about their communicative skills. I found that they were able to maintain Haitian Creole throughout this third generation, but not French. This was due in part to their age when immigrating or the fact that they were born in the U.S. What was interesting were the strategies used to maintain the languages across generations. Haitian communities in Chicago are quite different from those in New York or Florida, which have a much larger influx of immigrants. In Chicago, there is no “Little Haiti“and; the communities are much more dispersed. They do however still use some of the same strategies in trying to maintain their language and cultural practices. There are churches that conduct services in Haitian Creole and a Haitian museum in the Chicago area, but it is not the same as being embedded in a community where you are interacting with the language daily. Probably the most interesting was the study of the third generation, because in my research all of the literature I read said that by this generation the language was lost. In Haitian communities, it was different. One of the most interesting strategies used to maintain the language for the third generation was to have them constantly interacting with the grandparents (first generation). Even if the grandparents were still in Haiti, they would have them come to the U.S. to stay for a month or so. When the parents (second generation) were working, the children (third generation) were spending time with the grandparents who primarily spoke Haitian Creole. It was the family’s way of trying to preserve their language and home culture. I found this very interesting.
You have accomplished a great deal during your time in America. Do you return home to Haiti often?
Most of my family is back in Haiti and I return almost every year not only to visit, but also to help the university where I did my BA. I want to help in the rebuilding of the country, so right now I am working with the university to help reshape some of their programs.