Every four years, the Organization Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) celebrates Francophonie Day on March 20th by publishing a series of new data produced by the French Language Observatory. The most recent edition of his report, French in the worldwhich has just been published by Gallimard, reports 321 million French speakers in the world, or 21 million more than four years ago.
It was after the Quebec summit in 2008 that the Francophonie decided it needed to provide serious demographic data to better guide its actions. Prior to this, French-speakers were more likely to subscribe to fanciful numbers: the statistics consisted of estimates made by embassy attachés without any particular methodology, and this came out as pure nonsense.
In 2009, we created the Observatory de la Francophone and asked the Demographic and Statistical Observatory de la Francophonie (ODSEF), a research group at Laval University led by Professor Richard Marcou, to carefully compile data from national censuses. and official surveys such as the Eurostat surveys. And it is safe to say that the Francophonie can now celebrate its successes and consider its weaknesses.
Lots of francophones
The success confirms French as the fifth most spoken language in the world (after English, Mandarin, Hindi and Spanish) – a native speaker is a person who can understand the newsletter and carry on a conversation in French. And a 7% rise in four years, from 300 million to 321 million, shows that the French are not living on their own incomes and that their demographics are generally healthy. Admittedly, the situation is not the same everywhere, but few places experience setbacks.
If the number of French speakers in the world is growing, it is mainly due to Africa, where 19 of the 21 million new native speakers live. Thus, 51% of all French speakers are Africans. And this growth is especially noticeable in sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of francophones in its territory increased by 15% in four years – this is twice as much as the growth observed in the international francophonie as a whole.
Europe remains in a good position with 42% French speakers: 136 million Europeans speak French. This means that outside the natural zone in France, Belgium and Switzerland, 50 million Germans, Dutch, Irish, English, Italians and Spaniards speak French, not counting significant concentrations in Romania, Austria, Sweden, Poland and other places.
There are some excellent works in America where French is spoken by 19.2 million people, or 6% of the French-speaking countries of the world. In the United States, the figure of 2.3 million speakers is certainly an underestimate because, as Richard Marku explained to me, ODSEF has developed good calculation methods that allow it to make conservative estimates, even very cautious ones, for countries that do not provide reliable data.
Two shortcomings to be corrected
On the other hand, in terms of shortcomings, this new study first finds a sudden 9.8% drop in French language teaching in Europe.
In general, the French language ranks second in the world in terms of the number of learners of it – 144 million people. Among them, 51 million learn French as a foreign language, three times more than Spanish.
Learning French as a foreign language is stable in North Africa, but growth is 12.7% in Sub-Saharan Africa/Indian Ocean, 16.3% in Asia and Oceania, and 31.7% in the Americas, thanks in part to a large demand in Costa Rica and Chile, the authors explain. But what is worrying is the sudden drop in Europe.
From 2012 to 2018, reliable data from Eurostat showed that French is taking its place in education systems in Europe. This sudden drop has not yet led to a decrease in the number of speakers, which remains stable at 136 million, but it will have consequences if this phenomenon is confirmed in future studies.
In general, English is almost everywhere the first foreign language learned in Europe. Despite competition from German, Spanish, Italian and Russian, French persists in European countries that require proficiency in two foreign languages to earn the equivalent of a college degree. Shoes pinch in many countries that do not apply this European directive.
At the launch of a new edition French in the worldOn Thursday, March 17, OIF General Secretary Louise Mousikiwabo vowed to use data from the Observatory of the French Language to put pressure on OIF member countries that are not making much of an effort to encourage the teaching of French. Two longtime member states, Bulgaria and Greece, fared much worse than Romania and Armenia. And many observer countries, such as Poland or Hungary, could do more. “We have 19 OIF member countries that are also part of the European Union,” she said, “and we will insist that their educational policies be consistent. »
Another major issue identified by the study is the slowdown in Africa. This is not a recession or a loss of momentum, as we are still seeing the strongest growth in the last four years on this continent, but the once-exponential growth rates are on the decline.
For nearly 60 years, the French language in Africa has developed under the influence of two powerful drivers: demographics and education. Indeed, after independence in 1960, most of the former French and Belgian colonies adopted French as the official language of administration or education. As a result of investment in education, Mali’s population has quadrupled from 1960 to the present, but the number of Malians who can read and write French has increased 33 times, and so does almost every French-speaking country on the continent. .
However, over a period of about 10 years, growth has become more linear as education systems in many countries have peaked. The proportion of French speakers in each country seems to have stabilized and is now following population growth.
This situation, which has been known for 10 years, explains why the OIF, as well as the Francophone University Agency, are paying more attention to education systems, from primary to university, throughout the African continent, in particular to ensure the recruitment and training of teachers, but also to guarantee the renewal of programs post-secondary education.
The situation is not hopeless
For my part, I remain an optimist. It must be admitted that these problems must be solved or localized, but the French-speaking authorities are working on them and the research of the Observatory of the French Language make a significant contribution to this by confronting political leaders with the consequences of their decisions. But we must also insist on the fact that French has several great advantages.
As shown in french language in the world, French is becoming more popular in some African countries as it becomes essential at work and as parents speak it more and more with their children at home. As Africa urbanizes, urban populations in 15 African countries now predominantly speak French: 90% in the Congo, as well as 89% in Tunisia, 87% in Cameroon, 86% in Gabon, 84% in Algeria and 82% in Morocco, with the Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic at 78% and Côte d’Ivoire not far behind at 73%. Even in Rwanda, which has generated much controversy since it adopted English as its official language in 2003, 65% of city dwellers speak French, which compares favorably with Senegal’s 57%.
In addition, the French-speaking economic zone is experiencing strong economic growth, in fact the strongest on the continent. Three francophone countries (Morocco, Mauritius and Côte d’Ivoire) have reached a critical mass that allows them to invest in other francophone countries. In West Africa and Equatorial Africa, francophone countries have organized themselves into economic, monetary and legal zones that facilitate trade. Some English-speaking countries, especially Nigeria, have adopted a policy of teaching French as a second language.
Taken together, they indicate that the French language is far from being endangered and that the finest chapters of its history are undoubtedly yet to be written.