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With the evening’s conversation taking place almost entirely in French, members of the Franco-American Centre shared their personal relationships with the French language and culture at Murphy’s Taproom & Carriage House in Bedford recently. (Travis R. Morin/Union Leader Correspondent)

‘Prêt-à-Parler’ helps keep French culture thriving

Once a month, French speakers from Canada, Indonesia, Algeria and everywhere in between gather together to break bread and celebrate French language and culture at the Franco-American Centre.

Known as Prêt-à-Parler, or ready to talk, the recurring event is a monthly social gathering open to the public, with roots in the Goffstown-based FAC’s founding in 1990.

With the simple goal of bringing New Hampshire’s many Francophones together to exchange ideas in the French language, Prêt-à-Parler has grown to include French-speaking peoples from a variety of countries and regions within the United States.

Sitting around a dinner table in an intimate dining hall in Murphy’s Taproom & Carriage House in Bedford, the evening’s nearly 20 attendees spoke about the ways they came to speak the French language.

“I was the last generation to speak French as a first language. My parents spoke French, my grandparents spoke French, and my great grandparents spoke French,” FAC member Henri Vallancourt said at the group’s July 11 gathering.

The 68-year-old Vallancourt said he grew up in Greenville at a time when the town was heavily populated by people of French-Canadian descent.

Acknowledging the rarity of a third-generation American maintaining the French language, Vallancourt said many Franco-Americans may have felt pressured to assimilate into American life by leaving French behind.

“It was very common for French-speaking children to be picked on,” Vallancourt said. “When I went to the local regional high school that was out of town, that was the first time I encountered prejudice. I still carry the scars from speaking the language I grew up with. We were even mocked for our Canadian dialect by the high school French teacher.”

Celine Desrosiers, a member of the FAC’s Board of Trustees who coordinates Prêt-à-Parler, noted that she’s done her best to make sure French continues to be spoken in her family.

Born and raised in a small town in Quebec, Desrosiers said each of her three children spoke only French until they were five.

“It’s my heritage,” Desrosiers said of her French Canadian roots. “In my language, there’s so many more ways to express the idea of love than are available in English. You say it in French and it’s entirely different. I want my children to feel that from their mother, and to appreciate the beauty and heritage of the French language.”

In addition to the monthly social gatherings, FAC uses its bilingual membership to engage with the French-speaking immigrant and refugee populations in the state.

In August, the FAC will hold an outreach initiative aimed at introducing French-speaking immigrant children to key locations in Manchester. Known as Camp Bienvenue, the summer program will feature visits to a New Hampshire Fisher Cats game, a play at the Palace Theatre, and the Manchester Public Library.

“Today’s immigrants from Senegal and Congo, just like the Franco-American immigrants who came down from Quebec not so many years ago, tend to form their own tight-knit communities,” FAC executive director John P. Tousignant said. “It’s our hope that programs like Camp Bienvenue will be helpful in getting them to come out of their comfort zone a little bit.”

The FAC’s next Prêt-à-Parler session will take place on Aug. 7 at 5:30 p.m. at Murphy’s Taproom & Carriage House.

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