The French language is one of the most widespread in the world. While it’s still highly associated with France — the country where it was first formed — most French speakers live in other countries. Getting a grasp on how many people speak French and where it’s spoken will carry you to pretty much every continent in the world.
A Brief History Of The French Language
French, like Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish, is a Romance language. Romance languages are descended from Vulgar 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 28 countries, which makes it the second-most used official language behind English. The 28 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, Monaco, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Switzerland, Togo and Vanuatu.
French is also the procedural language for the European Union, 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” — Ethnologue puts the number at 309 million to be exact — 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 seventh most widely spoken language in the world, following English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic and Bengali.
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 81 million native speakers in the world, there are an estimated 229 million non-native and partial speakers, and these numbers are increasing. Owing to population growth in Africa, where approximately 50 percent 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 it’s 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?
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 40 million French speakers. French was chosen as the official language because of its perceived neutrality — though no language is “neutral,” especially when it comes from a colonizing country — 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, about 9.6 million Belgians and 5.9 million Swiss nationals speak French. It’s also widely spoken in Luxembourg (590,800 speakers). If you add all these French speakers together, you come to around 81 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 percent 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 million French speakers. Nationwide, there are nearly 4 million speakers of French as a second language, which means approximately 23 percent of the population of 38 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 United States? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, French is the fourth most widely spoken language in the country, with about 2.2 million combined native and non-native speakers. 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 United States. In the state of Louisiana, some 200,000 residents speak French at home as a first language, which equates to about 4 percent 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?
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 after contact with indigenous African languages, resulting in the development of new vernacular forms and dialects 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. Because of 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 over a quarter of a million people, and is also part of the European Union, with the Euro as its currency. There are 219,000 French speakers in French Guiana, though over half aren’t native speakers.
In Oceania, French is the official language of the Pacific island of Vanuatu, where it’s spoken by about 89,000 people. It’s also spoken across French Polynesia (278,000 speakers), and in the French collectivity of New Caledonia (288,000 speakers), as well as Wallis and Futuna (9,000 speakers).
In Asia and the Middle East, the French language remains a trace of France’s colonial past in countries such as Laos (204,000 speakers), Vietnam (699,000 speakers) and Cambodia (463,000 speakers), which formerly made up French Indochina. There is also a sizable Francophone population in nearby Lebanon (2.5 million speakers) and Syria (10,000 speakers). 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?
This article was originally published on July 15, 2017. It has been updated with more recent data and information.
Illustrations by Victoria Fernandez.