With 321 million speakers worldwide, French is now the fifth most spoken language after Chinese, Spanish, English and Hindi. Interview with Alexandre Wolff, director of the Observatory of the French Language, which publishes a report on the “Francophone Galaxy” every four years in the run-up to the Francophonie Summit.
RFI: We often think that the use of French is losing ground. The last report The French language of the world seems to deny it?
Alexander Wolf: It is clear that the number of French speakers is growing. It is even progressing at a good pace – 7% or 21 million more speakers than four years ago – with a peculiarity that progress is much faster on the African continent and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa which is closer to 15%. The increase is therefore quite easy to explain. These are countries where French is the official language, but above all the language of instruction. Given the demographics of these countries and the increasing number of children attending school, the number of French speakers is increasing.
Is that why you say in the report that we are being born fewer and fewer French speakers, but are becoming more and more?
It is clear that the development of the French language and the number of French speakers in the future is and will be more and more due to the countries where it is not the first language, the mother tongue.
In many of these sub-Saharan African countries, French is the language of communication between speakers of different mother tongues. It allows them to communicate with each other, to carry out economic activities… It is much more present at work than at home, but it is also present in the media, culture and administration. So there is a francophone environment, which means that the French language, even if it is not the mother tongue, is a language of everyday use. We also emphasize that of the 321 million French speakers, just over half live on the African continent. But if we observe those who speak French every day, we exceed 60% of French speakers on the African continent.
So it’s not the language of the elites, as we often hear?
In fact, it is better mastered by those who have studied longer or who have simply studied. It’s undeniable. But in the surveys conducted each year by the Kantar Institute, the usefulness of French is highlighted: ” French, I need it to work, I need it to study, to go on the internet, to access national and international information. »
In the report you point out that ” the colonial period did very little to spread the French language ‘, a way of undermining French’s image as a ‘colonial language’…
It is a fact that without colonization the French would not be in these areas. But it is true that at the time of independence all these countries freely chose their official language and language of instruction. If we take Mali, Guinea or Senegal for example, in the late 1950s there might have been 2% or 3% of the French speaking population. We went to 25%, 30% or even 35% of the Francophones. The progress has been spectacular and thanks to the school.
Education is the great challenge that needs to be mastered, especially in the so-called countries of the South, where the population is not yet fully educated.
Therefore, in order to develop the use of French and its vitality, we must emphasize education. What obstacles remain?
Education is the great challenge that needs to be mastered, especially in the so-called countries of the South, where the population is not yet fully educated. Girls’ education and the resources dedicated to education in general are a priority for La Francophonie.
But isn’t it paradoxical to choose French as the language of instruction in countries that already have national languages?
For about ten years, the International Organization of Francophonie has taken into account the fact of encouraging the reception of children in one of their national languages. The School of National Languages (ELAN-Afrique) program consists of completing the first years of school in the national language and gradually moving to French. The idea is that with this multilingual education, the child will do better academically and have a better command of both French and their native language.
► also read : Richard Marcoux (researcher): “We are born fewer and fewer French speakers, but we are becoming more and more.”
They emphasize the virtues of multilingualism…
All so-called French-speaking countries are actually countries where the people are multilingual, with the exception of a few areas. After all, there are only a few countries on the African continent where one language unites the entire population. Among the member countries of the International Organization of Francophonie we can name Senegal with Wolof, Mali with Bambara, Rwanda with Kinyarwanda, Burundi with Kirundi, Madagascar with Madagascar. There has long been a policy of teaching in the local language because that is obviously the most logical and effective. Even if in some countries French (or English in Rwanda, for example) replaces the national language as the language of instruction from certain levels.
In all others, the rationale for the leaders, who nonetheless carried their country’s independence, was to choose a language that established consensus and could bring together speakers of different languages. In Cameroon we speak more than 200 languages, in Ivory Coast a hundred… So we had to find a teaching medium. French was chosen because the base was there, even if it was still very weak.
French is the second most studied language in the world
What are the consequences of the shift in the focus of French towards Africa?
French, like all languages that live in contact with other languages, is influenced and enriched by local realities and languages. Variations arise and spread. The French, in force in Africa or in other countries such as Quebec, where the observatory of the French language is located today, influence each other and express a diversity. We can assume that there is a French-language literature, but in reality when we read a book by Alain Mabanckou or a French-born author, the language is not quite the same, and yet we understand it. In addition, there was the emergence of a french dictionary which is online and which allows you to see all the wealth of expressions whether you are on one continent or another.
Another notable finding emerges from the report: the fact that French is in decline in Europe. how do you explain it
Here we are in the field of French as a foreign language. Firstly, we can say that French is still the second most studied language in the world. We estimate that there are just over 50 million learners learning French as a foreign language. In English-speaking countries, French is the first language learned, with the exception of the United States, where Spanish comes before French depending on the context. But over the past four years, the workforce in Europe has declined by 10%. The main reason is the language policies of the countries, which often limit the learning of foreign languages to a single language. In this case, it is English that is somehow imposed. This is quite devastating and goes against the commitments of European countries, which have repeatedly stated that it is absolutely necessary for education systems to offer at least two or even three foreign languages. Lack of means undoubtedly, lack of will…
Citizens must be able to read in their own language the decisions that directly affect them.
OIF Secretary General Louise Mushikiwabo said she wanted to ‘demand’ to reverse the decline of French in international institutions “. Why is it important?
French occupies a rather unique position as it is the official language of virtually all organizations. But in fact its place has receded considerably. We’ve got used to expressing ourselves directly in English, which is the most common denominator, even if it’s at a mediocre level at times.
Secretary-General Louise Mushikiwabo’s struggle is to say that multilateralism is a form of international democracy. It must be based on a good understanding and the ability of everyone to express themselves correctly. It costs a little money, that’s true. We need translation, interpreting, language training for civil servants and diplomats.
But we also have to be aware: we think it is easier and more economical if everyone speaks English. That’s not true, because in the end you have to make linguistic corrections, because whoever expresses himself in English doesn’t always express himself well, we don’t always understand what the other person means, which is annoying when you’re in the midst of international discussions . And many citizens are excluded from the public debate of these organizations. The generalization of English on a global scale is a myth. You must be right and address your citizens in the languages they speak. That the citizens can find out directly in their own language what is on their mind.
On the Internet, French is the fourth most used language after English, Chinese and Spanish, although it is overtaken by Hindi. What does studying the languages of the web teach us?
First, thanks to the researcher Daniel Pimienta who worked on this problem, we break the myth of an 80% English-speaking internet. This is totally wrong and absurd, since in our practice we can clearly see that when we search for cultural or other content, we do it in its own language. Today, English makes up around 25% of the internet, which is a lot. But the Internet isn’t as monolingual as we’d like to claim. There are languages that are making more progress than others, such as Arabic, Mandarin or Hindi. The reason is demographic. French is preserved. Above all, it has reserves of progress since the majority of French speakers now live in Africa, the least connected continent. Therefore, if we reduce this digital divide, the number of French-speaking Internet users will increase and, with it, the presence of French in this area.