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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The French House: A space of cultural encounter

At 633 North Frances Street, by Lake Mendota, stands the French House — a century-old establishment for learning conversational French and celebrating French and francophone cultures.

The French House is an immersing residence for French-speaking students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a French cultural center for the state of Wisconsin. UW-Madison Professor H.A. Smith and Mme. Jeanne Harouel Greenleaf founded the house in 1918 with the support of the UW-Madison Department of Modern Languages.

Anne Theobald, French House director and UW-Madison French instructor, believes the house is a space that values the French language and keeps it circulating in the city of Madison. 

“The French House is a residence for students who want to speak French on a daily basis, but it’s also for native French speakers who are participating in exchange programs,” Theobald said. “Having both groups together is, I think, mutually beneficial.”

Theobald also explained how the French House aims to continue this circulation by hosting events throughout the year for students and Madison community members.

“We have public meals on Wednesdays and Fridays as an opportunity for people in the community to come and speak French,” Theobald said. “We also host events, such as lectures, receptions and concerts.”

The French House is a space of encounters between people from different cultures: French-speaking Americans, Franco-Americans, French nationals and Francophones of the world can all learn about one another through the French language.

Elsa Debargue is a Franco-American resident and UW-Madison senior. Her parents are both French, but she has lived in the U.S. since she was eight years old. She said the French House provides her with an outlet to embrace her French culture with others.

“The French House helps me because there aren’t only French people or native speakers here, but also Americans who learn French,” Debargue said. “It’s very refreshing. It shows that the French language is not as rigid as you’d think and that everyone can fit in it.”

While the French House provides various educational opportunities, Theobald said it also offers a chance to learn and appreciate French and Francophone cultures.

“It's really an incredible opportunity to grow and learn, not just about French, but about people,” Theobald said. “And that's something that's really striking, to see the group of residents at the beginning of the school year and at the end of the school year, because just being in the same house with people from different cultures gives them an opportunity to mature.” 

Mary Neville, an American resident at the French House and UW-Madison senior, explained how she has become more culturally aware through intercultural exchanges in the house.

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“Cultural mix makes you better at communication, at least, because then you're more aware that not everybody has the same experiences as you do,” she said. “It changes the way you interact with people. I think it makes you try to be more inclusive, even when you're not talking to people outside your culture, because you're more aware that people don't all come from the same place.”

Neville also mentioned how throughout her experiences at the French House, she has gained an admiration for those who speak English as a second or third language, similar to her French speaking. 

“When you interact with native speakers, it's frustrating because there are sentiments or feelings that you want to express, but you don't have the words, and you have to settle for second best.t makes you reflect on people in your life who speak English as their second or third language,” Neville said. “I'm honestly stunned by people who can live their whole lives in a country that's not their own.”

The house traditionally hosts various cultural events. For the 2023-24 academic year, Theobald organized a series of public lectures in collaboration with Professor Gilles Bousquet and with support from the French Consulate in Chicago. The lectures began in July.

“We're trying to provide a service of outreach to the community, but it also benefits the people who are here,” Theobald said. “We want to increase visibility for the French House in Madison and in Wisconsin, but I'm most interested in what we can offer to the community of residents.”

One of the events Theobald organized was a visit from François-Henri Désérable, an acclaimed novelist whose books have been translated in a dozen languages. 

Theobald believes one of the benefits of the house is that it allows the French-speaking community of the Madison area to come together and appreciate another perspective on art and literature available through French.

For Theobald, “Language is like a key that unlocks the door to another real and imaginative life.”

“Désérable was talking about literature and culture in French, and we had audience members from different cultures and backgrounds, and they all could take something from this moment,” Theobald said. “It felt like we were invited to share as a community in someone’s personal experience and to make it part of our own. And I think that summarizes the mission and the experience of the French House.”

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