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Parlez-vous français?

French conversation group meets weekly at Brooksby Village

Created date

July 31st, 2017
Le Cercle Français: (Clockwise, from left) Roger Deschenes, Jean Desrochers, Margot Holender, René Cormier, George Brawerman, Phyllis Toban, Emil Paige, Carolyn Payne, Georgette Labrie, Simone Howland, Louise Netten, and Ruth Brawerman.

Le Cercle Français: (Clockwise, from left) Roger Deschenes, Jean Desrochers, Margot Holender, René Cormier, George Brawerman, Phyllis Toban, Emil Paige, Carolyn Payne, Georgette Labrie, Simone Howland, Louise Netten, and Ruth Brawerman.

At first glance, you might think the group gathered in the Towne Centre Clubhouse at Brooksby Village is one of the Peabody community’s resident-run clubs.

And you’d be right.

But lean in a little closer and you might be surprised to hear the group of residents conversing in French.

Le Cercle Français (The French Circle) meets three Thursday mornings a month for an hour of French conversation. On the third Thursday of every month, they meet for dinner, speaking French while sharing a meal. The club was founded by Brooksby resident Phyllis Toban as a way to keep the language fresh in her own mind.

“Le Cercle Français started as a Live and Learn class four years ago,” says Phyllis, a former French teacher. “I hadn’t spoken French in a long time, and I didn’t want to forget it. Offering a Live and Learn class was a way for me to continue using the language.”

Live and Learn is a continuing education program at Brooksby, with residents teaching residents. There are two Live and Learn semesters each year, one in fall and the other in winter/spring.

“The class was more popular than I could have imagined,” says Phyllis. “We had a number of French speakers, as well as others who couldn’t speak the language but just came to listen.”

The popularity of Phyllis’s class led to the creation of Le Cercle Français, which has evolved into the weekly French conversation group.

“It’s grown into something that’s helped me and others keep French alive in our minds,” says Phyllis. “We’re like a little United Nations. We have two residents from French Canada, one from Paris, two from Belgium, one from Germany. It’s fascinating that all our paths led us here to Brooksby, where we can sit down once a week and talk together in French.”

An appreciation for French language and culture

Phyllis is one of three former French teachers in the group. Her own understanding and development of the language benefitted from the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958.

“When I was growing up in British Columbia, Canada, French teachers didn’t speak French,” says Phyllis. “They taught grammar, but they didn’t really know the language. After the Russians launched Sputnik, the U.S. government passed the NDEA, afraid that education in the Soviet Union was surpassing the U.S. educational system. The act introduced a whole new approach to language education.”

Phyllis was teaching in the U.S. at the time, and the NDEA allowed her to take two summer courses, one at Rutgers University and one in Toulouse, France, to enhance her understanding and appreciation of French culture.

That appreciation of French language and culture is at the core of Le Cercle Français. On a recent Thursday morning, Phyllis read an excerpt from Les Adventures d’Alice au Pays des Merveilles (Alice in Wonderland) as group members listened intently before considering the meaning of certain words from the excerpt.

“Dégringoler means more than just to fall,” explained Phyllis. “It’s a tumble, the way Alice tumbled down the rabbit’s hole.”

Group members nodded in agreement, including Margot Holender, who moved to the United States from Paris in 1952.

Margot’s father was from Lithuania, and her mother was from Poland. They had Yiddish in common, so they spoke Yiddish in the home.

“I didn’t learn French until I started school in Paris,” says Margot. “When I moved to America, I didn’t know any English, except how to count from one to ten and how to say ‘door’ and ‘window.’”

These days, Margot switches effortlessly between French and English, often changing languages in her thoughts as well. “Whatever works best for the situation,” she says.

Margot says the French conversation group is an avenue for connecting with a vital part of herself in addition to having a good time with friends.

“On s’amuse bien,” she says. “We have a lot of fun.”

From far and near

George and Ruth Brawerman both attend the weekly conversation group. George is from Belgium, while Ruth is originally from Berlin, Germany. The pair met in New York and later had the opportunity to study in Paris. Ruth, who immigrated to the U.S. via Bolivia, also speaks fluent Spanish and German.

Simone Howland, a war bride from Belgium, left her homeland to sail across the Atlantic to marry a U.S. soldier she met during World War II.

Other French conversation group members have North American ties to the language. René Cormier moved to Brooksby in early 2017. His parents lived in Québec and spoke French at home.

Prior to moving to Brooksby, René lived in Danvers, where he was a member of the Richelieu Club, an international service club dedicated to promoting retention of the French language.

“I like the fact that we have a group doing that same thing at Brooksby,” he says.

Louise Netten moved to Brooksby with her husband Bruce from Stoneham, Mass., in 2015. Louise is a former French and Spanish teacher who hadn’t spoken French since she retired.

“I’m thrilled that we have the French conversation group at Brooksby,” says Louise. “Thursday mornings are a priority for me. Everything else in my schedule is more flexible, but Le Cercle Français is my ‘can’t miss’ activity.”