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.


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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