Is French a Global Language?

Jun 2, 2015 by

francophone_countriesAn article by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in Forbes challenged John McWhorter’s view that French is no longer an important global language (see McWhorter’s “Let’s Stop Pretending That French Is an Important Language” in The New Republic). In his usual witty manner, McWhorter notes that

“the idea that American-born children need to learn French has become more reflex than action, like classical music played at the wedding of people who live to modern pop. French in educated America is now a class marker, originating from that distant day when French was Europe’s international language.”

Gobry counters this position by arguing that French “just might be the language of the future”. The main argument comes from his observation that, as with English, Spanish, and Portuguese, the majority of French speakers today live not in France but in the former French colonies, particularly in Africa. This is not true, however: according to the Ethnologue, the majority of native speakers of French (60,000,000 out of about 76,000,000) live in France. The numbers of native French speakers in African countries are much smaller: 80,000 in Morocco, about 37,000 each in Gabon and Mauritius, 28,000 in Congo, 20,000 in Senegal, 17,500 in Côte d’Ivoire, 16,700 in Benin, 11,000 in Tunisia, 10,000 in Algeria, 9,000 each in Mali and Central African Republic, 6,000 in Niger, 3,000 each in Chad and Togo, and 2,300 in Rwanda. These numbers, even with projected population growth, do not add up to Gobry’s projection of 750 million speakers of French by 2050. This figure comes from a study done by investment bank Natixis, which claims that that by the middle of the century, French will be spoken by 8% of the world’s population, the largest group of any language, even ahead of Mandarin.

In order to get closer to this projection, one needs to count also the second-language users of French, who constitute a much larger group in Africa. The Ethnologue lists 12,700,000 second-language speakers of French in Côte d’Ivoire, 6,080,000 in Democratic Republic of the Congo, 6,360,000 in Tunisia 4,150,000 in Morocco, 2,950,000 in Cameroon, 2,000,000 in Togo, 1,940,000 in Chad, 1,150,000 in Senegal, 1,260,000 in Niger, 1,200,000 in Congo, 1,120,000 in Gabon, 1,110,000 in Mali, and less than 4,000,000 together in Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Benin, Rwanda, Burundi, Mauritania, and Mauritius. Together with the native speakers of French these figures add up to about 150 million altogether, still a far cry from Gobry’s projection.

As Gobry points out, the problematic projection may be due to the study’s methodology, which “is somewhat questionable, since it counts as French-speakers all the inhabitants of countries where French is an official language, which probably won’t be the case”. Indeed, French has a much lower penetration rate than other colonial languages, particularly English. A much higher proportion of the population in former British colonies in Africa speak English than the corresponding number of French speakers in former French and Belgian colonies. Interestingly, former British and French colonies also differ in the status of indigenous languages. In my book Languages of the World: An Introduction, I describe this post-colonial situation as follows (pp. 121-122):

“The French typically imposed their colonial language on the locals: it was taught in all primary schools from first grade up. But the British set up schools where local languages were the medium of instruction through primary school; only people who continued into secondary education learned English. As a result, in the former British colonies local tongues developed into full-fledged languages to be used in various domains: newspapers are published in local languages and some of them — such as Swahili — even have their own literature. In the former French colonies, the situation is very different: not only is it hard to find newspapers or books in the local languages, but many of them do not even have writing at all.”

Another interesting take on the global reach of French (today, rather than projected) is found in a recent study published in PNAS Online (Ronen et al. 2015). The following discussion is based on the visualization of the information flow based on book translations; Wikipedia and Twitter results are less “bushy” and mostly show the same patterns. See also the team’s website. This study found that although English plays a central role in the transmission of information, several other languages—particularly, French, German, and Russian—serve the same function at a different scale. As one would expect, French ties several other Romance languages (Corsican, Picard, Occitan, Walloon, and others), Berber languages (such as Tamashek, Tamazight, Kabyle), and many Niger-Congo languages spoken in francophone Africa (including Bambara, Wolof, and Lingala) to the global information flow network. Similarly, Russian ties in numerous Uralic (e.g. Udmurt, Khanty, and Nenets), Turkic (e.g. Gagauz, Karachay-Balkar, Crimean Tatar, and Chuvash), and Caucasian languages (Chechen, Dargwa, Avar, Ingush, and others) spoken in the territory of the Russian Federation and more generally the former Soviet Union. (Other links are rather unexpected, however: for example, Malagasy and Amharic appear interrelated in the information flow chart and both are connected to the Russian “hub”.) A number of other languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Yiddish, and Polish, find themselves deeply interconnected to many other languages.

One surprising finding of this study that is worth noting is the lack of correlation between the number of speakers and the role of a given language in information networks. For example, some languages with large numbers of speakers, such as Mandarin (labeled “Chinese”), Hindi, and Arabic, are relatively isolated in these networks. Conversely, some languages with smaller populations play more significant “hub” role in the information flow that would be predicted purely from their numbers. Thus, Dutch is a disproportionately significant hub compared to Arabic, which has about 20 times as many speakers. These discrepancies between population size and significance in the global context arise from the fact that some languages are spoken by richer and more online-connected populations. Earlier research (see my earlier post and a post by Martin W. Lewis) has already pointed out the disproportionate representation of certain languages online, particularly in Wikipedia: for example, Swedish, with its population of approximately 10 million, has 5.6 times as many Wikipedia articles as “Chinese”, whose population figures exceed 1 billion (data accessed on April 30, 2015). Curiously, even many languages considered endangered (e.g. according to the UNESCO list of endangered languages) are overrepresented in Wikipedia: from the merely “vulnerable” Belarusian and Basque to the “definitely” or “severely endangered” Newar (in Nepal) and Breton. Esperanto, with its over 214,000 Wiki articles, places 32nd—not a bad result for a language with only about 1,000 native speakers.

All in all, French may yet prove to be an important global language, but not necessarily due to the sheer number of speakers.

Source:

Ronen, Shahar; Bruno Gonçalves, Kevin Z. Hu, Alessandro Vespignani, Steven Pinker, and César A. Hidalgo (2015) Links that speak: The global language network and its association with global fame. PNAS Online 111(52).


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  • Uri

    Great article. Be careful with the Wikipedia article count comparisons, though: some Wikipedias, notably the Swedish one, consist primarily of machine-generated or machine-translated articles. This artificially inflates the article count at the expense of quality. http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/List_of_Wikipedias attempts to take this into account by also including a ‘depth’ measure. The Swedish Wikipedia has a ‘depth’ of just 11, significantly less than Chinese (147), Russian (122), French (205), Arabic (209) or English (886).

  • Uri

    Also, it’s worth noting that Chinese Wikipedia isn’t the sole, or even largest, online collaborative encyclopedia in Chinese: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baidu_Baike, which self-censors in accordance with PRC law, is significantly larger.

  • Paul

    Good evening Dr Pereltsvaig,

    As a French, I’d like to add some info about this interesting article of yours, especially concerning the number of speakers. It is indeed not relevant to assume every man, woman and child speaks French in a country just because it is the official language of it. French in Eastern Africa is especially spoken in big cities, the further you go away from them, the more you should expect people to merely understand basic French and answer back in their traditional dialects or languages. This is also true for Maghreb: most people in Tunis will clearly speak French, however, in remote villages down South, near the desert, the probability to be understood and talked to in French drops.

    Now, as it remains the official language in many African countries, French is thus the official administrative language, educational language and sometimes scientific language. So, yes, essentially it is more like a lingua franca. However, it is clear that the penetration rate of French as a vehicular language will diminish in a very globalized world dominated by the American “soft power” and anglo-saxon culture (the “power” of English is as economical as cultural). The first reason of this is that the French language itself absorbs many English words! i.e. in the new technologies-related lexicon. The newest entries in French dictionaries are slang words or English ones (like “selfie”).

    I also find no correlation between how important is a language in online interactions and how important it is in real-life interactions. Mandarin is a powerful lingua franca in China, however, despite the bunch of Wiki articles in Esperanto, honestly, who do we see using Esperanto as a real-life vehicular language?

    Nevertheless, Gobry seeing French as the “language of the future” is IMO far more deluded than McWhorter’s straight-to-the-point option to pick up Chinese for economical reasons. That’s a way to see it. Another way is learning a language because you find it interesting, because it sounds nice or because you like the culture associated with it. The first way is always a bet: Will tomorrow be a multipolar world? Will China be THE future superpower, whereas its economy heavily depends on the West? Will its culture gain influence? Those issues are far from being settled.

    Best regards! and sorry for my English mistakes.

    • Your English is fine, Paul! Thank you for sharing those comments, very interesting, and I agree with most of it. As for Esperanto, I am planning a series of posts on it and its global success (or lack thereof), so stay tuned!

  • ganadharmabhasa

    Quebec, Canada is still a major stronghold of the French language outside of Europe. Speaking English there is still very discouraged.

    • That’s true. Yet 8 million residents of Quebec do not change the overall numbers that much.

      • jemblue

        But in regard to the question mentioned above, of whether or not Americans should study the language, the people of Quebec are important. Canada is the largest trading partner of the United States and everything sold there must be labeled/provided instructions in both English and French, so there is a practical benefit for many Americans to know French.

        • But producing bilingual labels/instructions can be so easily delegated. After all, companies now market worldwide without most people in them speaking any of the languages in question…

  • Arash

    I Iran before 1953 French was popular. From 1953 until now English is most popular language in Iran. But from 1979 until now on of the big problem of Iranians are missing native speakers in Iran. So learning English is painful for us. In recent years some growing interest have been seen to learning French and German. Austrian embassy in Tehran explain why this happen.

    http://www.bmeia.gv.at/kf-teheran/das-kulturforum/ueber-uns/

    Goethe-Institutes opens new building and develop their business! In Iran

    http://www.dsit.org.ir/?cmd=page&pid=1250&lang=de

    in case of French there is same growing interest.

    There is a sooooo big market in Iran for learning Modern highly developed European languages from Native teachers. Hurry!

  • Igor Fazlyev

    Well judging by the Global Languages Network diagram linked to in the article French still remains the second most important language in the world at least in terms of ‘eigenvector centrality’, which my understanding is describes how connected and important for international communicaiton a language is. However, if you look at the rankings, English has an eigenvector centrality of almost 0.9 while French, with its second highest ranking, has a ranking of just about 0.3. I mean it’s a huge gap.