France, as you can tell from the name alone, is where the French language has its home. Yet if you’re looking for the continent with the most French speakers, you have to go south of Europe to Africa. While learning French often means learning the standard language spoken in France, that’s far from the only variety out there.
First and foremost, we need to debunk the term “African French.” There are over 34 different countries and territories in Africa where French is either the first or second language spoken, and most have a distinct variety of the language. Therefore, it would incorrect to make a generalizations for all African languages. However, this also applies to the generalizations made by the term “European French,” as French exists in many nations outside of Europe. That being said, for the sake of simplicity we will be using the two generic terms to identify basic differences between these two principal varieties of French.
The French colonized Africa in the early 19th century and with it came French as the colonial language. Over time, some indigenous African languages began to become intertwined with French and produced African French. Africa gained independence from France in the 1960s, however it also became the continent with the most French speakers in the world with a whopping 167 million speakers. In fact, French is the official language in 28 countries, and 21 of those are in Africa. In comparison, European French is spoken natively by 71 million people and has a handful of varieties across Europe.
What is African French?
African French varieties were born out of the meshing of the native African languages and the European French that spread through Africa. There are between 1,000 to 2,000 languages in Africa, in fact almost one third of the world’s languages are in Africa. Today, the influence of Africa’s indigenous languages on French has grown exponentially. Through social media and music, Africa’s urban youth are transforming French with the incorporation of African slang and other new linguistic elements. Also known as Français populaire africain, FPA, is an African French variety in urban areas of French-speaking Africa that recently emerged as a second language among the upper class.
Given the sheer number of African French varieties, linguists have had trouble describing the nature of African French as it differs by variety, social class, occupation and more. For some, it is described as a case of code switching between the two languages, while others call it “creolization” to describe the mixing between the two languages. While you can break down French a number of different ways in Africa, here are the five broad regions (with population numbers from 2018).
- West and Central Africa: a variety with approximately 97 million first and second language speakers.
- Maghrebis and Berbers: a variety in Northwest Africa with about 33 million first and second language speakers.
- Djibouti: a variety in the Horn of Africa with around half a million first and second language speakers.
- Creoles: a variety in the Indian Ocean with approximately 1.75 million first and second language speakers.
- Eastern Africa: a variety with about 5.6 million first and second language speakers.
African French vs European French
On a basic level, African French differs from European or Standard French in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary. Given the vast number of varieties of African French, however, no two varieties can be compared generically to European French. To give an example of how these two Frenchs can differ, we’ll zoom in on one example and show how common phrases can be very different. This variety comes from the country of Benin, in West Africa.
Chap, chap! The official language of Benin is French, but how different is it to the French spoken in France? 🇫🇷🇧🇯 Do you know any other examples? #benin #africa #learnfrench #learningfrench #frenchlesson #frenchlessons #frenchteacher #frenchclass #frenchstudy #visitfrance #visitparis #travelfrance #francetrip #eurotrip #frenchculture #paris #france #bilingual #polyglot #multilingual #babbel #cotonou #portonovo♬ original sound – Babbel
|Are you hungry?
|Est-ce que tu as faim?
|Je m’en vais
|Je demande la route
|Le deuxième bureau*
|Une go / Une petite
|Quoi de neuf?
|On dit quoi?
|To go to school
|Aller à l’école
|Faire les bancs
|Enjoy your meal
*Lit: the second office