French, a language shared by 220 million people : No. 5, February 2012

French, a language shared by 220 million people

OIF - JPEG A worldwide success, Spielberg’s film Tintin recounts the adventures of a French-speaking strip cartoon character. Like him, millions of French speakers across the world continue to speak and learn French, a decidedly vibrant and modern language.

The number of French speakers has tripled in the last 60 years. It is often thought that the French language is in decline, but the opposite is true. In fact, according to the French language watchdog the Observatoire de la langue française, there are now around 220 million French speakers across the world, placing France in 8th position among international languages. English dominates in the ranking of official state languages, since it is the official language in 63 countries; it is followed by French, official language in 36 states.

There is no war of languages. You can learn and speak English at the same time as French. Languages do not exclude one another and the number of French speakers is constantly growing. A quarter of the world’s language teachers teach French to some 100 million pupils. On top of this we have the work of the Alliances Françaises and Francophone and Francophile associations. Within the European Union, after English, French is the first language chosen in primary and secondary education. That makes it the second most studied language in the 27 Member States, 14 of whom are members of the International Organisation of La Francophonie. In Africa and even in South-East Asia, contrary to preconceptions, French is not receding. Indeed Nigeria, which is set to become the third most densely populated country in the world within 50 years, has made the teaching of French as a second language compulsory.

A useful language

French speakers tend to champion French by putting forward the fact that it is a “beautiful language” which opens up a world of undeniable and specific cultural riches. They are not wrong. The French television channel TV5 is the most widely available international TV channel after MTV and CNN. In the United States, French is the original language of 30% of translated books and of half of the foreign films broadcast. But aside from cultural reasons, one of the weightiest arguments for a pupil to decide to learn French is that it is useful and even necessary, and not only within international or European institutions.

Speaking French is an advantage in economic development. Jean-Benoît Nadeau, author of the book Le français, quelle histoire ! (The Story of French), reminds us that the world’s second-largest retail chain after Wal-Mart is France’s Carrefour, present in 34 countries compared with its American competitor’s 15. Let us remember too that the largest civil nuclear company, Areva, is based in Paris, as is Alstom, one of the world leaders in rail transport infrastructure and electricity production and transmission.

French has its globalisation to thank for this healthy state of affairs. Two thirds of the language’s speakers across the world do not have French as their mother tongue. Like English, French is a world language learned and used by speakers who are already multilingual. The Académie Française, a centuries-old institution and guardian of the proper use of the language, has among its 35 Immortels, as the members are known, four Academicians of foreign origin. Assia Djebar is Algerian, the mother of Hélène Carrère d’Encausse was Russian, François Cheng was born Chinese and Hector Bianciotti grew up in Argentina. An undisputed sign of this dynamism in the arts is that one in five winners of the Prix Goncourt since 1987 writes in French without necessarily having French as his or her mother tongue. This is the case of Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun, Lebanese Amin Maalouf, Russian Andrei Makine and American Jonathan Littel.

Established in 1970, the OIF (International Organisation of La Francophonie) has 56 member countries and 19 observer countries and is one of the nerve centres for the dissemination of French. In parallel with the OIF, several dozen multilateral organisations and a few thousand francophone associations are extremely active. This network is also what gives French its strength: French is a vehicle for thought and for innovation among associations of researchers, diplomats, scientists and businessmen.

A rich language

Although the spread of the French language first started outside of its country of origin, in North America, it was then propagated through France’s and Belgium’s former colonies. In certain countries where different communities speak different languages, French has become a unifying means of communication. In some instances, French has taken a more roundabout route in its spread, such as for instance following the path of the French-speaking Lebanese diaspora across the world.

Out of this historical heritage neologisms emerge, enriching the vocabulary of French. In Ivory Coast, people use the word “dégrigriser” to describe the removal of a spell from someone. In Senegal, a “homo” does not mean a homosexual but a namesake, a useful word in a country where many people have the same name. From North Africa, words such as “backchich” (bribe) or “fissa” (quick) have come into everyday French. As has “tchatcher” (to chat) or “kiffer” (to enjoy). The French of Quebec is particularly lively and militant; it encourages the use of French words when the residents of France themselves make do with an English term. For instance, in Montreal they say “traversier” when in Paris it would be “ferry”.

But in a global world, the time when Francophone countries kept their eyes glued on Paris or Brussels has passed. Interconnections, made easier by the vehicle of a shared language, are now made directly between countries. This immense network is evolving under the impetus of the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie (Association of Universities of La Francophonie) which acts as an umbrella organisation for 750 institutions in 80 countries, among them Canada, Algeria, Vietnam and France. The links between French speakers are more lively, modern and effective than ever.

Pascale Bernard

publie le 24/02/2012

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