Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
A Brief Introduction: What Is The French Language?
French, like Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish, is a Romance language. Romance languages are descended from Vulgar (Common) Latin, which was the everyday language of the Romans. It was spread far and wide by Roman colonists, but following the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, many conquered lands became culturally and linguistically isolated.
Vulgar Latin diverged into many different local dialects, which eventually became the Romance languages we know today. French evolved from the Gallo-Romance dialects of northern France and replaced Latin as the state language of France in 1539, when François I made French the official language of administration.
Where In The World Is French Spoken?
French is the official language in 29 countries, which puts it in second place behind English. The 29 countries are, in alphabetical order: Belgium, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Chad, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, France, Haiti, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mali, Monaco, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Switzerland, Togo and Vanuatu.
French is also the procedural language for the EU, the only language used for deliberations at the Court of Justice for the EU, and one of the recognized working languages of the United Nations.
How Many People In The World Speak French?
The simple answer is “about 300 million,” but this obscures a more complicated profile of the language. Within the 300 million are not only native speakers, but also partial speakers and speakers of numerous French dialects and creoles. Through colonization and diaspora, French is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world, following Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic.
It’s an official language in countries across five different continents and is also the second most studied language in the world, after English: 120 million students are currently learning French. Atop the 220 million native speakers in the world, there are an estimated 72 million partial speakers, and these numbers are increasing. Owing to population growth in Africa, where approximately 50% of native French speakers live, the total number of French speakers could rise to as much as 700 million by 2050, according to demographers.
How Many People In Europe Speak French?
Unsurprisingly, France boasts the highest number of native French speakers, although its not the most populous country to have French as an official language: The Democratic Republic of Congo has a population of 77 million, compared to 62 million in France. So how can it be that they have fewer French speakers, you ask?
French is somewhat unusual in that it shares official status with other languages in many countries across the world. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was a Belgian colony, there are 28 million French speakers. French was chosen as the official language because of its perceived neutrality, acting as a lingua franca to facilitate communication between the indigenous ethnic groups, the majority of whom speak one of four national languages: Lingala, Kikongo, Tshiluba and Swahili.
Returning to Europe, just under half of the population in Belgium and approximately one in five Swiss nationals speak French as a native language. It’s also widely spoken in Luxembourg. If you add all these French speakers together, you come to around 80 million, which makes French the third most widely spoken mother tongue in Europe after Russian and German. The mathematicians among you will have already established that European French speakers constitute approximately 40% of the global total.
How Many People In North America Speak French?
Canada’s commitment to bilingualism is written into its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and both English and French are recognized as official languages. That said, the official status of both languages does differ from province to province. In Quebec, for example, French is the only official language. The province is home to 7 of the 10 million native French speakers in Canada. Nationwide, there are a further 2 million speakers of French as a second language, which means approximately 30% of the population of 36 million is conversant in French. Interestingly, Montreal is also the fourth largest Francophone city in the world.
And how many people speak French in the U.S.? Well, according to the Census Bureau, French is the fourth most widely spoken language in the country. It’s worth noting that this includes French in all its varieties: Haitian Creole, for example, is also considered under the same broad umbrella as Quebecois and Cajun.
Haitian immigration increased rapidly between 1980 and 2000, and there are now approximately half a million Haitian Creole speakers in the US. In the state of Louisiana, some 200,000 residents speak French at home as a first language, which equates to about 4% of the population. The country of Haiti itself, which is also located in North America, accounts for a further 10 million French speakers.
How Many People In Africa Speak French?
As we’ve mentioned above, Africa is home to more French speakers than any other continent. Although it is predominantly a second language for most speakers, there are some regions, such as Abidjan in Ivory Coast, where it has superseded local languages. In many instances, the French spoken in the 31 Francophone countries of Africa has diverged from standard French due to contact with indigenous African languages, resulting in the development of new vernacular forms of the language.
As in the Democratic Republic of Congo, French is often used as a lingua franca in countries with multiple local languages, and it’s also often employed as the language of administration and higher education. Thanks to massive population growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, combined with the continued expansion of education, French has become the fastest growing language in Africa.
What About The Rest Of The World?
We mentioned that French is spoken across five continents, but we’ve only mentioned three. Although the overwhelming majority of French speakers are in Europe, Africa and North America, there are also pockets of speakers in Asia, the Middle East, South America and Oceania.
French Guiana in South America borders northern Brazil and is technically a department of France. It’s home to about quarter of a million people, and is also part of the European Union, with the Euro as its currency. In Oceania, French is the official language of the Pacific island of Vanuatu, and it’s also spoken across French Polynesia, and in the French collectivities of New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna.
In Asia and the Middle East, the French language remains a trace of France’s colonial past in countries such as Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, which were formerly French Indochina, and in Lebanon and Syria. While its formal use has generally been on the decline in these countries, it remains widely studied and spoken among the elderly, elites and in many institutions of higher education.
Why Learn French?
The sheer number of Mandarin, English and Spanish speakers is the most common justification for studying these languages. With the forecast growth of the language over the next 30 years, the same justification can be used for French. Plus, who wouldn’t want to learn one of the most romantic languages around?