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The Future of the French Language

Updated on January 14, 2018
Legend: Dark blue is maternal language, blue is official language, light blue is secondary language, and green is minority language.
Legend: Dark blue is maternal language, blue is official language, light blue is secondary language, and green is minority language. | Source

One of the amusing skits from the American show Futurama, placed 1,000 years in the future, was the discovery of a universal translator, which has the unfortunate drawback of only translating into an incomprehensible dead language - French. "Bonjour" says the machine, and "crazy gibberish" is the response from the user of the machine. All done in fun, but it raises a popular perception in the US; that the French language, either positively viewed as a symbol of sophistication and elegance, or negatively as a effete language of cheese-eating-surrender-monkeys, is one fated to the past and irrelevance.

One the face of it, this isn't an unreasonable assumption. French has been in decline for a long time, maybe even centuries. French used to be the universal language, proudly proclaiming itself that, spoken as the lingua franca of science, diplomacy, literature, education, and to some extent trade. From this commanding height of prestige and power, French has been, for perhaps centuries, in decline, yielding its position to the rise of vernacular languages across Europe as the ancien régime collapsed, and with the rise of German, and above all else English, providing a competing high language. It is easy to extrapolate from this and to assume that French belongs to a dead past, and one day it'll be a dead and buried relic. Perhaps it would continue as some sort of vernacular, an archaic remnant supplanted by English.

Which would probably be correct if just France spoke French, which in the popular conception is largely the case. The majority of French speakers however, are found outside of France, and the most important region of this officially French speaking zone is across the vast spaces of former Franco-Belgian colonies in Africa. As these regions explode in population and their economic importance increases, it is logical to assume that French will be able to harness this rise in importance. Mitterrand, then French Minister of the Interior in 1957, said "Without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century"; it is an expression that current French writers are well aware of, with the testament of a host of articles declaring that the fate of the French language will be written in Africa. But, this future is one which is not secure, and challenges confront it too. French might be able to harness the growth of these nations to restore its prominence; conversely, it might lose them and slide down the ranks to irrelevance as feared. So what is it?

L'avenir de la langue française s'écrit en afrique

The great, overwhelmingly, decisive hope which every one who favors French places hope in is its increase in Africa. French is spoken, officially, across much of sub-Saharan Africa, a place which has high population growth, as it completes its fertility transition. As these countries gain in population, the status of French would increase. By 2050, French-speaking Africa could reach some 847 million people, with UN estimates potentially estimating that up to 85% of the francophone population could find itself in Africa, as compared to only 12% in Europe.

This is not just speculation. The number of French speakers in Africa has increased, even while relative decline elsewhere has occurred. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the OIF (organization international of the francophonie), the number of French-speakers rose by 15%, and in some countries such as Senegal, this was nearly by 30%, between the years 2010 and 2014. So too, in expansive terms, French made some gains as well; Ghana added French on to its curriculum as a mandatory language in secondary school. Of course, this is only secondary education, but given that Ghana has one of the highest levels of development in West Africa, it represents a disproportionate gain of the French language's influence.

So too, there is another advantage that comes from French being an important language in Sub-Saharan Africa; not only is the population to expand, but Sub-Saharan Africa has generally very low GDP levels. There is, unless if something drastic happens, nowhere to go but up, and given their statuses as developing countries, this upwards path, while not necessarily extremely rapid, is probably going to be faster than any developed country which has to deal with mature growth. Thus, their relative position grows more than simple economic terms places. Furthermore, since French is principally transferred through the education system, as education standards rise across Francophone Africa, this makes French usage set to grow.

Challenges and Problems

The principal problem to all of the predictions about the growth of the French language across Africa is that only a fraction of the population of these countries speaks French. French is a high language, while most people on the ground, the average people, speak vernacular languages. This has important ramifications. Directly, it means that unless if the percentage of population speaking French rises - not inconceivable - then the amount of French speakers will be less than simple population numbers indicate. The projected population level of those countries which are officially French-speaking or with major French presences in Africa may be supposed to reach 847 million in 2050, but if 1/3 of the population speaks French as at present, then resultantly only 280 million French speakers will be present.

A map of Africa with the percentage of the population speaking French.  Lightest blue = 0-10% french Very light blue = 11-20% french Light blue = 21-30% french Blue = 31-40% french Dark blue = 41-50% french Darkest blue = 50% frech
A map of Africa with the percentage of the population speaking French. Lightest blue = 0-10% french Very light blue = 11-20% french Light blue = 21-30% french Blue = 31-40% french Dark blue = 41-50% french Darkest blue = 50% frech | Source

There is also another element which carries itself from French not being the vernacular; the danger that French could be dropped as a high language in favor of competitors. French is learned through the education system, so by simply dropping it and favoring another language, it would be relatively easy to change it - compare this to the immense difficulty with trying to change the language that people speak at home. In most of Francophone Africa, French is used as the high language of administration, with vernaculars relegated to spoken speech. In Senegal for example (which was mentioned as having a very large growth of the number of French speakers), the country with which I have the greatest familiarity - and which has an extremely strong and flourishing vernacular in the form of Wolof - positively everything is written in French. The only thing that Wolof makes an appearance in is some street graffiti (where French is used too), and a small display in advertisements. However, actual conversation on the street is overwhelmingly in Wolof. Given that everybody speaks Wolof, and only some French, it would seem simple to simply change from using French to Wolof. This carries various problems of course, in particular since it then cuts off Senegal (or any other country in Africa which switches to the vernacular) from communication with the wider world, at least to some extent.

Hence arrives the second option, switching to another high language, one not French. Here, the obvious option is the most important international language of all, English. Indeed, just such a thing happened in Rwanda, which has over twenty years phased out French and replaced it with English. Rwanda is a precedent which other countries could follow, and while none have, Gabon for example increased English language education when it felt snubbed by the French president - although it didn't make it another official language so far as I know, which had been a claim put forth in some newspapers. English countries exist next to their French counterparts, most notably Nigeria, so English influence in the region can't be discounted. Arabic also carries its threats to French, in North Africa and the Sahel, but I know much less about its competition against French.

Does this mean that French is doomed to collapse? Not necessarily, but there is much more to France's status in Africa than simply the population growth of states which officially have French as their language.

Personal Prediction

So hence with two positions laid out, what do I think?

To an extent, I have to admit that I'm biased. French is my foreign language, and I look favorably upon it. But I do try to examine it rationally, and I think that while predictions of French becoming more spoken than English by 2050 - at the very least, the English-speaking countries in Africa are growing as well - I don't think that French will vanish from Africa, and conversely that it will continue to expand and grow. So far as I know, this has happened now, and the French language has kept expanding in Africa, even if I don't know if this matches or exceeds population growth rates.

I think that one of the advantages that French has to maintain itself, ironically comes from the fact that it is a minority language in Africa, spoken by the bureaucracy and the administration. For these groups, French serves as a prestige and a status which serves to separate them from the rest of the population. Now it would be easy to compare this back to Europe, where these were replaced by the rise of European vernacular languages, but the French colonies in Africa don't belong to the European tradition of nationalisms, but instead to the colonial traditions. Here, it has proven tremendously difficult to remove an established high language, provided that the basic underpinnings of the state are not destroyed. Most former European colonies continue to speak the language of the colonizer, with only a few which were unstable or only colonized briefly not doing so. French isn't likely to be dropped as an official language any time soon. The result is that it'll stay as being educated and used, and by that virtue and the expansion of African population and economy, it'll continue to expand. And French expands in Africa, by the very virtue of its expansion it becomes steadily more useful to learn it, à la the situation in Ghana.

My resultant opinion is that French will probably grow more important, not as much as its biggest partisans exalt, but certainly more than the pessimists who think it inevitably prone to collapse. The principal concern with French, is whether it can keep and expand its share of the population in Africa that speaks French, as a result of its education system. I think it will, if imperfectly. Imperfectly; perhaps that best describes the growth of French. The Langue de Molière as the French sometimes call their tongue (as opposed to the Langue de Shakespeare) is a hardy thing.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas

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