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Cheer up French speakers, you’re not alone

Text by FRANCE 24 , Marianne NIOSI

Latest update : 2008-10-28

Jean-Benoît Nadeau, co-author of the “The Story of French,” is optimistic. The French language is lively and dynamic and has an efficient network of organisations working to promote it.

Watch our Face-Off programme: 'Quebec, is the dream still alive?'


Where is the French language flourishing? Read our four reports from around the world:


'French is a hit despite political tensions'


'A francophile nation eyeing the US'


'A look at the world's largest French-speaking country'


'The French language in Shiite hands'



France 24: The meaning of "Francophonie" [French-speaking world] isn’t clear for everybody…


Jean-Benoît Nadeau : The word “Francophonie” has different meanings in different countries. The French think a “Francophone” is a person who speaks the language, but who is not a French national. The Quebecois on the other hand have an ethno-cultural definition of “francophone,” who is a person whose mother tongue is French. That’s why Nancy Huston (a Canadian-born author who writes primarily in French and translates her own works into English) is a “Francophone” in France and an “Anglophone” in Quebec.


The Francophone institutions are quite varied and include the International Organisation of the Francophonie (OIF), but also other organisations such as the University Agency for the Francophonie (AUF), TV5 Monde, the Parliamentary Association for the Francophonie and many others. The OIF is considered to be the leading institution, but the other institutions are very autonomous.


These institutions are very efficient. Their programmes work very well and include a network of more than 200 rural libraries, a youth Internet portal, a scheme to promote French within the European Union, not to mentions the actions led by some 192 universities in 81 member countries of the AUF.


France 24: Is French the world’s second most important language, after English?


J.-B. Nadeau : In terms of numbers of speakers, English is the most spoken language in the world and French arrives in eighth position. Languages such as Portuguese and Urdu don’t have many speakers outside the country where they are the official language. However, French, much like English, has a lot of second-language speakers, at least 100 million, against 80 or 100 million who speak it as a first language.


In Israel, 15% of the population speaks French. In Japan, 200,000 people take French classes. Throughout the world, the number of speakers has tripled over the last 60 years, like the world population.


In all the former French and Belgian colonies, more and more people speak French. You can’t get a driving license in Senegal if you don’t speak the language. Those who want to climb the social ladder have to learn French.


France 24: Most people don’t share that vision of the French language.


J.-B. Nadeau : It’s not because education needs improving in former colonies that the French language is on the decline. French is less spoken in only four countries: Vietnam, Laos, Syria and Cambodia. These countries are an exception and their populations represent only 10% of the French-speaking world.


It’s not because Rwanda chose English as its official second language that the French language is no longer very important.


Besides, speakers have a very purist view of the “Francophonie” which does not help. For these purists, a “Francophone” is a person who speaks French “well.” That greatly limits our imagination. If we treated the French language like English - in that anyone who could cobble a couple of sentences together would be called an English-speaker - the number of French speakers would jump to 100 million.


In fact, the lack of ambition of French speakers poses the greatest threat to the language today. It’s true that French is no longer the lingua franca that it was 150 years old, but politicians, especially in France, have all the cards in their hands to successfully promote the language.


The story of French, by Jean-Benoît Nadeau et Julie Barlow, Knopf Canada, 2006

Date created : 2008-10-18