The French language in the world: what influence does it have today?

French, a Romance language derived from Latin, is currently the fifth most spoken language in the world. according to the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF), there are approximately 300 million French speakers, 235 million of whom speak it daily (2018 data), a figure which shows considerable growth, given that there were “only” 175 million speakers in 2005! With 38 French-speaking countries, French has never been so widely spoken in the world. Apart from Europe, the French language is also widely used in Africa, Canada, and some Asian countries, not to mention South America and Oceania. Here’s an overview of the francophonie in the world today!

Where in the world is French spoken?

The French-speaking world refers to populations that regularly use the French language as their primary mode of communication. In addition to the 80-90 million people who speak French as their native language, there are more than 200 million people who speak it as a secondary language.

The proportion of French speakers varies widely depending on the country. While according to OIF figures the rate is 97% in France, with a majority of the only population only speaking French, it is 67% in Switzerland, 30% in Canada, and 6% in Rwanda. It should be noted that the geographical spread of the French language makes speaking it an asset because it is the language of international exchange in those areas; indeed, French is found on all 5 continents, both as a mother tongue and as a secondary language. 

With only a quarter of French speakers living in France, France is not the center of the French-speaking world! With some 300 million speakers, French is the fifth most widely used language in the world after Mandarin, English, Spanish and Arabic. French is also the fourth most used language on the Internet after English. 

Here is the list of the 29 countries in which French is an official language:

  • France
  • Canada
  • Madagascar
  • Cameroon
  • Ivory Coast
  • Burkina Faso
  • Niger
  • Senegal
  • Mali
  • Rwanda
  • Belgium
  • Guinea
  • Chad
  • Haiti
  • Burundi
  • Benin
  • Switzerland
  • Togo
  • Central African Republic
  • Republic of Congo (RC)
  • Congo (DRC)
  • Gabon
  • Comoros
  • Equatorial Guinea
  • Djibouti
  • Luxembourg
  • Vanuatu
  • Seychelles
  • Monaco

Where is French spoken in Europe?

Europe is home to 24 official languages, in addition to some 60 regional languages. With 12% of the population consisting of French speakers, French ranks 4th among the European languages. 

German comes first, with 16% of EU inhabitants speaking it regularly (1*), followed by English with 65 million speakers (13%). Thus, Europe is the continent where the English language is the most used, especially in the Northern countries. Then comes Italian, with 63 million Europeans speaking it regularly, and French with 60 million. A word about European microstates: more than half of Monaco’s inhabitants use French, followed by Monegasque and Italian. As for the Principality of Andorra, it has Catalan as its official language, but French still plays an important role. 

Europe includes 3 countries whose population is more than 70% French-speaking: France, Belgium (71%), and Luxembourg (88%). The neighboring countries also host many French speakers, such as Portugal and Switzerland, each with a population of approximately 23% that speak French, the Netherlands (21%), Italy (15%), and Germany (14%). At the other end of the scale, Estonia, Latvia, and the Czech Republic very few French speakers, between 1 and 2% of the population. In these countries, more people choose to learn or are raised speaking Russian, which remains an important language even in European countries close to the former Soviet Union. 

More Francophones on the African continent than in Europe

The French language is, therefore, an international language, whose heart is now… on the African continent! By the way, this is one of the fun facts from my previous article: 10 Fun Facts About France That are Mindblowing. Indeed, it is in Kinshasa (the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo) that we find the largest number of French speakers. The DRC has around 42.5 million French speakers. More than 48% of French speakers are in Africa, compared to 45% in Europe. Nearly half of African countries are French-speaking, which represents more than 30% of the African population. In summary, 1 African out of 9 masters the French language. 

Following the French and Belgian colonial era, the French-speaking people of Africa today represent the center of the Francophonie. If we think in terms of percentages, it is currently Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville that use the language of Molière the most, adapted with many local peculiarities. The countries with the fewest French speakers are Rwanda (6%) and Burundi (8%). 

In terms of trends, the OIF estimates that the number of Francophones in 2050 will be 715 million, 85% of whom will be on the African continent. However, these figures depend on the evolution of schooling and the place accorded to the French language in education.

Where in North America French is spoken?

The Francophonie in America is a cultural heritage. Two hundred years ago, America was largely French: Louisiana belonged to France, and at that time the territory covered one-third of the United States. Then Bonaparte decided to sell this land to the Americans, offering them the freedom to expand their nation. Today, French is a minority language in the United States, where it ranks 4th behind Spanish, English, and Portuguese. 

There are currently some 2 million people who speak French daily in the United States. French speakers are mainly settled in Louisiana, around New Orleans, as well as in New England. There is also the province of Quebec in Canada and its 6.5 million French speakers. Canada remains the most Francophone in North America. Let’s not forget Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, a French territory with a population of French origin that is also to many Quebecers. Finally, in the Caribbean, we find Haiti with 10 million inhabitants and two official languages: Haitian Creole and French. We can add French territories such as Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, and St. Barthélemy. I invite you to read my article where I mention all the French territories in the world: 10 Names for France That You Probably Did Not Know

On the South American side, there is French Guiana, the only French-speaking territory in South America, a French department that has nearly 40,000 Francophones, or 15% of its population. 

Francophones in the Middle East

In this part of the world, there are 400,000 students enrolled in French-language Catholic schools. Used more as a language of instruction than for everyday life, French is often taught alongside other languages and is frequently found in higher education.

In Lebanon, the French language is considered prestigious for reasons related to the history of both countries. Today, about 20% of Lebanese use French every day. In some areas, however, recurrent conflicts make it difficult to monitor stable learning and collect statistical data. In any case, French remains a factor of rapprochement between religions, as French-speaking schools bring together Christians and Muslims for the teaching of the language (2*)

A place for the French language in the Asia-Pacific region?

This vast region of the world stands out in particular for its linguistic and cultural diversity, where the French language still manages to make a place for itself. Its learning is thus promoted in several countries, despite the reduced presence of Francophones and the geographical distance from French speaking nations. 

Here too, English is at the top of the list of foreign languages spoken, ahead of French, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. In this part of the world, where only 1% of the population is French-speaking, the use of French remains personal in nature; that said, the Frenc-speaking world continues to be supported in the region supported by  4 countries associated with the OIF: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Vanuatu. The French language also circulates within densely populated countries like China and India, as well as Japan, where the number of learners always shows a certain interest in French. 

In Oceania, the presence of the French language dates back to the 18th century, when French navigators discovered the islands in the region. French is the official language in French Polynesia (95% French-speaking), Wallis and Futuna, and New Caledonia, all three of which are part of the French Republic. 

Out of the millions of km2 that make up Oceania, some 430,000 people speak French, less than 1% of the total French-speaking population of the world. However, the geographical particularities and insularity of this continent complicate exchanges and cooperation between French speakers complex. 

Learning French today, undeniable assets at all levels

Mastering the French language opens many doors, especially for those interested in a position in international organizations. Indeed, French is one of the official languages of the European Union, but also of the UN, UNESCO, NATO, as well as the International Red Cross and the International Olympic Committee. There are many job opportunities related to the French language, especially in the diplomatic community. 

With 88 countries belonging to the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), the Francophone network shows a real influence throughout the world. Mastering both English and French allow access to employment in various sectors, such as aeronautics, the automotive industry, luxury goods, etc… Some countries, such as Canada, offer real career opportunities because bilingual English/French profiles are in high demand.

In addition to the professional aspect, French also provides access to a whole range of cultural works, from literature to cinema, including texts by great French writers, poets, and singers, to be appreciated in their original version. French courses are a real opening to the world of fashion, gastronomy, and the arts! French is the only language, along with English, to be spoken on all 7 continents. It is a widely taught foreign language and ranks 5th among the most widely spoken languages in the world. 

An update on the teaching of French around the world

Today taught to more than 132 million people according to the OFI in 2018 (3*), the French language continues to gain ground with 8% more students at the international level between 2014 and 2018. No less than 72% of learners are located in the Indian Ocean, Africa, and the Middle East. Furthermore, French is the main language of education in Benin, Congo, Gabon, and many other African countries. Many regional disparities remain, with Africa leading the way in the development of the French language. 

Knowing French is also an advantage when learning other languages, especially Latin languages such as Spanish or Italian. The French language is also positioned as a second language of international information in the media, in addition to its privileged place in international organizations. Since its creation some fifty years ago, the institutional Francophonie has given rise to numerous projects, summits, and meetings, both in the linguistic and educational fields. There are thus 300,000 young people in more than 100 countries who benefit from French schooling thanks to the French education system abroad. 

The OIF, a support structure for the French-speaking world

La Francophonie represents all individuals who share the use of the French language; if it is not the most widely spoken language in the world, it is, on the other hand, the most widespread and the most inculcated after English. 

The International Organization of La Francophonie is an influential organization, bringing together 88 States to date. The objective of the OIF is to promote educational, cultural, political, and economic solidarity between all its member countries, based on the common language. 

Created in 1970, the OIF’s main mission was to promote the French language throughout the world, and to promote linguistic and cultural diversity. With a focus on peace, human rights, education, and cooperation, the OIF today assists the most disadvantaged French-speaking countries in order to foster their long-term growth and development. 

A powerful worldwide teaching network with the French Alliances and French Institutes 

The French-speaking world can count on a network of 96 French institutes and 834 French Alliances throughout the world. You will find one or both of these institutions in the majority of the world’s capitals. They have more than 500,000 students in all courses! These organizations are under the authority of the French State and have several goals, including offering French courses, in France and around the world, to everyone. Another goal is to make French culture and Francophone cultures better known, in all dimensions (like French Iceberg). Finally, the French Alliances and French Institutes aim to promote cultural diversity by highlighting all cultures.

The evolution of the French-speaking world in a nutshell

The French-speaking world is today a determining factor in the worldwide evolution of French, mainly in Africa and the Mediterranean countries. According to the OIF, the number of French-speakers is expected to grow from nearly 300 million today to more than 715 million in 2050. In these countries with high population growth, however, these estimates will only be true if the French language is widely passed on to the new generations.

French is proving to be a true language of exchange, with Francophiles from the four corners of the world investing in its evolution. Today, the French-speaking world is doing well, with the number of French speakers increasing by 10% between 2014 and 2018 over the past several years. 

French can be difficult for learners, one of the main difficulties of French is the “disconnection” between the written and spoken word. It is very often the case that a letter is not pronounced in a word. One example among many is the city of Paris where the “s” is not pronounced in French. Though it can be difficult at the beginning, after a bit of practice and familiarization with the nuances of the language you’ll find yourself making substantial progress in no time. So, what are you waiting for? Give learning French a go! 

After this article, I can recommend you to read an interesting article: The Most Googled Questions About France by Americans.

Proofread by William Morton.

Citations:

(1*) http://observatoire.francophonie.org/qui-apprend-le-francais-dans-le-monde/le-francais-langue-etrangere/europe-tableaux-regionaux/#:~:text=Le%20fran%C3%A7ais%20est%20langue%20premi%C3%A8re,(contre%2096%2C2%25%20pour

(2*) http://observatoire.francophonie.org/qui-apprend-le-francais-dans-le-monde/

(3*) https://www.liberation.fr/debats/2018/04/11/la-francophonie-au-moyen-orient-un-enjeu-de-civilisation_1642451