Translation and Language Industry Observations

Summary: This blog post from GTS Translation discusses the potential of French to be a significant language in the future, highlighting its current status as the fifth most spoken language worldwide, its role in business, and its prevalence on the internet. It emphasizes the geographical distribution of Francophones, with a significant portion in Africa, and projects an increase in French speakers, particularly in Africa, due to demographic trends. The post also mentions French’s importance in international relations, education, trade, and online presence.

French is the fifth most spoken language in the world according to a report of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF). It is the third most used language of business, and is ranked as the second most studied as a foreign language. French is indeed a language of the future.

What is a Francophone? How many Francophones are there in the world? Where are they located and how do they use the French language? In which countries is French a language of instruction? In which countries is the French language learned the most? What is the future of the French language in the continent of Africa? How does French rank on the Internet? These and other topics will be covered in this post.

What is a Francophone?

According to the OIF, a Francophone is defined as person who:

  • Listens or can listen to radio or television broadcasts;
  • Can conduct a conversation in French;
  • Can read and write in French.

How many Francophones are there?

French is the fifth most spoken language ​​in the world after Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish and Arabic. It is the official language of 32 countries. This represents approximately 300 million Francophones in the world.

Geographical distribution of French (source: Wikipedia)

  • 44% in Northern and Western Europe
  • 34% in Sub-Saharan Africa and Indian Ocean
  • 13% in North Africa and the Middle East
  • 4% in North America
  • 2% in Latin America and the Caribbean
  • 2% in Central and Eastern Europe
  • 1% in Asia and Oceania

As we can see, the majority of the daily speakers of French are found on the African continent- almost 60% of the world’s Francophones are in Africa.

The report produced by the OIF to assess the number of Francophones in the world was based on censuses and quantitative surveys produced for 106 countries and territories.

Levels of Francophonie

How do Francophones make use of the French language? Francophonie covers varying levels of use, which varies from region to region. If 300 million people make daily use of the language of Molière, not all of them use it in the same way. The uses of French differ according to whether it is practiced in family, at school or at work. The OIF defined various levels of Francophonie: French-speaking areas include both countries whose speakers use French in their daily life and communications, but also those where French is an official language mainly used for professional, administrative or institutional procedures.

The French-speaking space distinguishes between three uses of the language:

  • French-speaking individuals at the mother tongue level, mostly monolingual. This includes Europe and Canada (Quebec).
  • Partially French-speaking , predominantly bilingual, even multilingual individuals. This concerns sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean, North Africa, the French overseas territories. French is used as a language of use or as a second language.
  • Occasional Francophones.

As a result, the OIF report determines as French-speaking all the inhabitants of countries whose official language is French. But is France the country with the most Francophones? Probably not. The Democratic Republic of the Congo may, with a population of over 100 million, be the largest Francophone country in the world. However, many of the locals prefer Lingala to French. Therefore, it is uncertain to what extent French is used in all of the Francophone countries.

Uses of French as an Official Language

French is a very prominent language in international relations: formerly the diplomatic language par excellence, it is one of the official languages ​​of several major organizations such as the UN, NATO, the International Olympic Committee and the International Red Cross.

The French Language in Education

French is a global language because it is taught in all countries of the world. As a foreign language, it is  studied by more than 50 million people. In addition, French is a language of instruction for more than 80 million people in 36 countries and territories, more than half of which are on the African continent.

73% of children of the in the world who are educated in French are located in countries of sub-Saharan Africa or the Indian Ocean, according to the OIF. Indeed, among the 29 countries of the French-speaking area where French is the official language, 21 are located in sub-Saharan Africa. In 13 of these countries, French is the main language of instruction. In the other five, it is combined with other languages. A formerly colonial language, French often only functions as a second language or as a foreign language.

The quality of French-speaking education is a central issue in Africa. From 50% to 82% of respondents to the OIF report believe that being French-speaking is essential both personally and professionally. The ability to express oneself in French is seen as an additional asset when looking for a job. In fact, learning French comes second after English in the language requirements of businesses.

French is the second most taught language in the world. Africa is where French is studied the most, with over 23 million students of the French language. Next comes Europe with 10.5 million learners. Note that in the English-speaking countries of Europe, French is the first foreign language studied. The German-speaking countries reserve second place for it. Finally, the Chinese are increasingly interested in French with a clear objective: to establish themselves economically in Africa. In recent years, the continent has been popular with Asian investors.

The French Language in international trade

What is the point of learning French? Molière’s language is indeed an asset in terms of a professional career, as France is the fifth largest trading power in the world. As a foreign language learned on all continents of the globe, French occupies a significant place in trade and economic relations.

It is a means of communication used by about thirty countries in their international communications. Mastery of the French language is increasingly a significant advantage for accessing certain markets. French is widely used in the banking sector, especially in Switzerland.

If we take the example of the entertainment sector, the international French-language media occupies a highly prominent position. The production of films, series, documentaries and such represents an increasingly active market. The major players in the sector have been seen to make sizeable investments in this area. Many international media are delivered in French (TV5 Monde Afrique, Arte, Canal +, BBC News Africa, Ici Radio-Canada, TFO, etc.). The challenge is to reach out to millions of Francophones.

Present in many countries, in education, media, commerce and administration, French offers a considerable advantage for French-speaking companies in their international exchanges. It is the third most widely used business language in the world, behind English and Mandarin. No less than 20% of world trade is carried out between French-speaking countries. However, the French language covers the most territories (for comparison, Mandarin Chinese is spoken only in China).

The French Language on the Internet

French is also very present on the internet, where it is the fourth language spoken on the social media. Indeed, in a bloated digital landscape, Francophones primarily use their language to communicate. French would even be the third in terms of traffic.

Francophonie in a few key figures

  • Nearly 300 million speakers
  • 5th most spoken language in the world
  • Second language learned as a foreign language after English
  • Third language of business in the world
  • Fourth language of the internet
  • 34% of Francophones live in countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean.
  • French is, along with English, the only language spoken on the 5 continents.

Forecast-the state of the French Language in 2050

English and Mandarin Chinese are the most widely spoken languages ​​in the world today. But what will be the place of French by 2050? The number of Francophones should triple within the next thirty years, and it may become the second or third most used language.

According to OIF estimates, there will be some 715 million speakers in 2050, or 8% of the world population (compared to 3% currently). 80 million people will practice French in Europe and 10 million will speak it in Canada. Africa will have nearly 250 million French speakers. This will represent 70% of Francophones in the world.

Unsurprisingly, Africa is destined to become the space with the most French speakers, according to the OIF. Its role is predominant: Africa will have more than 90% of young Francophones aged 15-29. A real springboard for the Francophonie, the demographic explosion of the continent (which would see its population double by 2050 according to the UN) is indeed a key to the increase in the number of Francophone speakers. Due to the growth of the African continent, the number of Francophones around the world could rise between 450 million and 750 million by 2070.

President Emmanuel Macron, in a speech delivered on the International Francophonie Day on March 20, 2019 stipulated that France is only part of the active Francophonie, aware of not carrying the destiny of French alone. He evoked the idea of ​​an open Francophonie, rich in its multilingualism.

With nearly 300 million speakers and constantly growing, French is one of the five most spoken languages ​​on the planet. French is the fourth language on the internet, and, with English, the only language present on 5 continents. The development of the African continent has every chance of propelling French to second place among the most spoken languages ​​in the world! During his speech on March 20, 2019 before the Académie Française, Emmanuel Macron declared that French has emancipated itself from France, it has become this world language, this archipelago language, proof of the desire to make French an international language.

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