by Jen Anderson
For students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the French House is a social experience where they can practice language skills outside of the classroom. For francophones from the Madison community, the French House is an opportunity to share their culture and experiences with others.
Throughout the past 97 years, the French House has been a valuable resource for the university and a private entity within the community. Most importantly, though, the French House represents a continuation of tradition: where meals become social gatherings and encourage open discussion of any form.
Although the French House is a private non-profit registered business in Madison, the house is historically a part of UW-Madison’s Department of French and Italian.
Andrew Irving, Senior Lecturer and Undergraduate Advisor Director for the Department of French and Italian, dedicates 50
percent of his time at UW-Madison towards the direction of the French House. Irving works to maintain the French House’s Mission Statement: “French immersion residence for UW-Madison students and Francophone cultural center for the Greater Madison area.”
Created in 1918, the French House became a place of residence for French speaking students as well as a public restaurant for the surrounding community. Over time, though, Irving said the French House has become much more and incorporated students of all kinds.
“The French House seems to maintain connections with French teachers all across Wisconsin, and so, more and more, it has become a way for us to reach out to teachers,” Irving said.
Irving’s connections with teachers as well as the native French speaking community in Madison provides the French House with consistent student to community interactions, as French culture and language is exchanged on a day-to-day basis.
Every Wednesday dinner and Friday lunch are open meals for the public along with an assortment of free events sponsored by the Department of French and Italian. Irving invites teachers from all over Wisconsin to engage in these events throughout the year.
These meals and events offer a broadened perspective for both the surrounding public of these community members and teachers as well as the students at UW-Madison. In true French style, meals at the French House encourage the exchange of conversation in a warm and welcoming environment.
“I think in our culture we don’t think of meals as a time for talking that much, not as much as we should,” Assistant Professor Joshua Armstrong said. “But, of course, in France they do. It’s a social time. And because it’s the French House and people go there because they want to use their French, going there for a meal
becomes this very socially charged event.”
Armstrong encourages student conversations outside of his classroom via open meals at the French House.
“It’s not like going and getting a meal from a French restaurant. It’s all about meeting other people and connecting, and putting yourself in a sometimes vulnerable situation where you know your French isn’t perfect,” Armstrong said.
However, the weekly chance to eat at the French House cannot compare to the opportunity for students to live at the French House during the school year.
Armstrong said that he can see the difference between the students who reside at the French House and those who don’t.
“My students in class who live in the French House talk about it with a smile on their face, very proud. I think people feel proud to be living there,” Armstrong said. “It’s a sense of accomplishment to be taking on that situation of putting yourself in a Francophone living environment. It’s immersion in a way.”
Matthew Rochat, an American student at UW-Madison, is one of the 27 residents living at the French House this semester. At 23-years-old, Rochat has had his fair experience of French culture, both inside and outside of his studies. Rochat came to live at the French House after spending time studying abroad in France and teaching abroad recently as an English teacher for French speaking students.
For Rochat, the French House acts as a means for him to continue practicing his French and his conversational skills.
Although many of the conversations between his fellow residents can be more serious and educational given the nature of the French House, Rochat said he enjoys the time when the French House provides the opportunity to have fun conversations.
“I think [the French House] does a good job at opening up a dialogue where people really feel comfortable to discuss everything,” Rochat said, reminiscing on a recent enlightened conversation he shared with fellow residents about politics.
The French House is first and foremost a place for conversations like these, where students can feel comfortable to open up. The house promotes education outside the classroom through culture, and this education of French language keeps the French House alive.
“If we didn’t have this much more educational mission, I don’t think the French House would be the great place that it is. Everything we do underlines that educational mission in the community and on campus,” Irving said.
In addition to its dedication toward educating students as an extended reach of UW-Madison, Irving said that the Department of French and Italian also looks at the French House as a way to educate the community through public events such as alumni dinners, movie nights and social gatherings with high school or middle school students.
“It’s really a great space for our department because if we have a speaker come or [an] award ceremony, it’s a good place where we can get together faculty, graduate students and undergrads,” Armstrong said, observing the French House as a more central location than the classrooms in Van Hise.
As a gathering space, the French House lends itself to a social climate, much like a house is to any family. This smaller sense of community is much more inviting for the three or four native French residents the house accommodates each year.
Mailys Krier, a French teaching assistant at UW-Madison and current resident of the French House, sees the French House as a community similar to her big family back home in France. For the past eight months, Krier has lived at the French House while she teaches French 101, an introductory course, at UW-Madison.
“As a community, everyone knows everything about everyone — but not in a gossipy kind of way, more in a fun kind of way,” Krier said.
Krier said she believes that this environment fosters the creation of friendships between students of all ages and French language background.
Krier joked about her time spent with Rochat during a recent trip to get fast food. Krier could not believe the difference in culture between her and her housemate as she watched him dip his burger and fries in his Wendy’s Frosty. According to Krier, this food combination would never happen in France.
But these differences between American and French culture fascinate Krier as she continues to spend her time living at the French House.
Krier said she does not see the French House as a complete immersion experience. As a native French speaker, she believes the French House is as a place to linguistically and intellectually challenge students rather than introduce French culture into the daily lives of American students.
“When I’m in the French House, I do not feel like I’m in France, because I know I’m in the states, but that’s fine by me. I don’t know if the mission of the French House is to provide students with the French experience but certainly to provide them with a [place] to hone in on their linguistic skills,” Krier said.
Despite the cultural differences that might separate the American students from the francophone community who come for public events and the native French-speaking residents, the interest in French language bonds people of all backgrounds together in one location.
“Everyone who applies to live [at the French House] has a common interest in French or interest in another culture,” Krier said. “It’s a mix of people who are all alike in a way.”
For more on this topic, click here.