Every four years, the International Organization for La Francophonie (OIF) celebrates Francophonie Day, March 20, by publishing a pile of new characters produced by the French Language Observatory. The latest edition of the report, The French language in the worldjust published by Gallimard, reports 321 million French speakers worldwide, or 21 million more than four years ago.
It was after the Quebec City Summit in 2008 that La Francophonie decided that it was necessary to produce serious demographic data in order to better control its actions. Until that date, French-speakers were rather subscribers to imaginative figures: the statistics consisted of estimates made by embassy attachés without any particular method, and some nonsense came out of it.
In 2009, we both set up the Observatory for the French Language and asked the Demographic and Statistical Observatory for the Francophone Space (ODSEF), a research group from Laval University led by Professor Richard Marcoux, to perform a rigorous compilation based on data from national censuses and official surveys. eg. Eurostats. And it is with certainty that Francophonie can now celebrate its successes and consider its weaknesses.
Full of French speakers
In terms of successes, French’s place is confirmed in a fifth place among languages in the world according to the number of speakers (after English, Mandarin, Hindi and Spanish) – a speaker is someone who is able to understand a news bulletin and have a conversation in French. And the growth of 7% in four years, from 300 to 321 million, shows that the French do not live on their income and that their demographics are generally healthy. The situation is admittedly not the same everywhere, but in a few places you experience setbacks.
If the number of French speakers is increasing in the world, it is primarily thanks to Africa, where 19 of the 21 million new speakers listed live. Thus, 51% of all French-speaking Africans. And the growth can be seen especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of francophones in its territory has increased by 15% in four years – that is twice as much as the increase in international francophones as a whole.
Europe remains in a good position with 42% of French speakers: 136 million Europeans speak French. This means that outside the natural area of France, Belgium and Switzerland, 50 million Germans, Dutch, Irish, British, Italians and Spaniards speak French, not including significant pockets in Romania, Austria, Sweden, Poland and elsewhere.
America has some beautiful pieces with 19.2 million French speakers, or 6% of the world’s francophone. In the United States, the figure of 2.3 million speakers is certainly an underestimation, as ODSEF, as Richard Marcoux explained to me, has developed good calculation methods that make it possible to make conservative estimates. , even very cautious, for countries that do not provide reliable data.
Two weaknesses to address
In terms of weaknesses, however, this new study only reveals a sudden drop of 9.8% in French teaching in Europe.
Overall, French ranks second in the world in the number of students with 144 million. Among them, 51 million learn French as a foreign language – three times more than for Spanish.
The learning of French as a foreign language is stable in North Africa, but the growth is 12.7% in sub-Saharan Africa / Indian Ocean, 16.3% in Asia and Oceania and 31.7% on the American continent – especially thanks to high demand in Costa Rica and Chile, the authors explain. But what worries me is the sudden decline in Europe.
From 2012 to 2018, Eurostat data, which are solid, showed that French held its place in education systems in Europe. This sudden drop has not yet resulted in a drop in the number of speakers, which remains stable at 136 million people, but it will have consequences if the 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 is maintained in European countries, which require knowledge of two foreign languages in order to obtain the equivalent of the diploma. The shoe is squeezing in the many countries that do not apply this European directive.
At the unveiling of this new edition of The French language in the world, on Thursday 17 March, the Secretary-General of the OIF, Louise Mushikiwabo, promised to use the figures from the French Language Observatory to put pressure on the OIF member countries, which do not make much effort to encourage the teaching of French. Two long-standing Member States, Bulgaria and Greece, are doing significantly worse than Romania and Armenia. And many observer countries, such as Poland or Hungary, could do more. “We have 19 OIF member states that are also part of the EU,” she said, and we will insist that their education policies are consistent. “
The other important problem revealed by the study is the slowdown in growth in Africa. We are not talking about a decline or a loss of momentum, as it is equally on this continent that we have seen the strongest increase over the last four years, but the once exponential growth rate tends to slow down.
For about 60 years, French in Africa has grown under the propulsion of two powerful engines: demography and education. In fact, 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 has seen its population quadruple between 1960 and now, but the number of Malians who can read and write French has increased 33. And so it is for almost all French-speaking countries on the continent. .
But in about 10 years, growth has become more linear as education systems have reached their maximum in many countries. The proportion of French speakers in each country appears to have stabilized and is now following population growth.
This situation, which has been known for 10 years, explains why the OIF, but also the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie, is paying more attention to education systems, from primary to university, across the African continent, especially to ensure the recruitment and training of teachers , but also to guarantee the renewal of continuing education.
The situation is not hopeless
For my part, I remain optimistic. Although these problems need to be solved or limited, the French-speaking authorities are working on them and the studies of the French-language Observatory make a strong contribution to this by putting political leaders ahead of the consequences of their decisions. But we must also insist that French has several major advantages.
As shown in The French language in the world, French is becoming stronger in more African countries as it becomes necessary at work, and as parents speak it more and more with their children at home. As Africa is urbanized, the urban urban population of 15 African countries is now predominantly French-speaking: 90% in Congo, but also 89% in Tunisia, 87% in Cameroon, 86% in Gabon, 84% in Algeria and 82% in Morocco, with The Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic of 78% and Côte d’Ivoire not far behind with 73%. Even in Rwanda, which has been much debated since choosing English as its official language in 2003, 65% of urban dwellers are French-speaking, comparable to Senegal (57%).
In addition, the francophone economic zone is experiencing strong economic growth, in fact the strongest on the continent. Three French-speaking countries (Morocco, Mauritius and Côte d’Ivoire) have reached critical masses, allowing them to invest in other French-speaking countries. In West Africa and Equatorial Africa, French-speaking countries have organized themselves into economic, monetary, and legal zones that promote trade. Some English-speaking countries, particularly Nigeria, have adopted policies for teaching French as a second language.
Taken together, all of these pieces indicate that French is far from threatened and that the most beautiful chapters of its history undoubtedly need to be written.