With 321 million speakers worldwide, French is today the fifth most spoken language after Chinese, Spanish, English and Hindi. Interview with Alexandre Wolff, head of the Observatory of the French language, which publishes every four years, ahead of the Francophonie summit, a report on the “Francophone galaxy”.
RFI: We often tend to think that the use of the French language is losing ground. The last report The French language in the world seems to deny it?
Alexander Wolf: What is clear is 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 one particularity, it is that the progression is much faster on the African continent and in particular in sub-Saharan Africa. where there the progression is closer to 15%. The increase is therefore quite easy to explain. These are countries in which French is the official language but above all the language of instruction. And so, given the demographics of these countries and the increasing number of children going to school, the number of French speakers is increasing.
Is that why you say in the report that we are born less and less French-speaking, but that we are becoming more and more so?
It is clear that the progression of the French language and of the number of French speakers is due and will be due more and more in the future to the countries in which 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 who have different first languages. It allows them to communicate with each other, to have economic activities… It is much more present at work than in the home, but it is also present in the media, culture, administration. There is therefore a francophone environment which means that the French language, even if it is not the first language, is a language of daily use. This is also what we also highlight: of the 321 million French speakers, a little more than half are on the African continent. But if we observe those who use French every day, we exceed 60% of French speakers on the African continent.
So it’s not a language of the elites, as we often hear?
It is in fact better mastered by those who have studied longer or who have simply studied. It is indisputable. But in the polls conducted by the Kantar Institute every year, it is the usefulness of French that is put forward: “ 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 contributed very little to the spread of the French language “, a way to undermine the image of French as a “colonial language”…
It is a fact that French would not be in these territories without colonization. But what is true is that at the time of independence, all these countries freely chose their official language and their language of instruction. If we take Mali, Guinea or Senegal for example, at the end of the 1950s there was perhaps 2% or 3% of the French-speaking population. We went to 25%, 30% or even 35% of Francophones. The progression has been spectacular and it is thanks to the school.
Education is the great challenge to be met, particularly in the so-called countries of the South where there is not necessarily yet a total schooling of the population.
To develop the use of French and its vitality, we must therefore emphasize education. What are the obstacles that remain?
Education is the great challenge to be met, particularly in the so-called countries of the South where there is not necessarily yet a total schooling of the population. The schooling of girls and the resources allocated to education in general are a priority for La Francophonie.
But choosing French as the language of instruction in countries that already have national languages, isn’t that paradoxical?
For about ten years, the International Organization of La Francophonie has taken into account the fact of promoting the reception of children in one of its national languages. The School of National Languages program (ELAN-Afrique) consists of doing the first years of schooling in the national language, gradually moving to French. The idea being that with this multilingual education, the child will do better academically and master better both French and his national language.
You highlight the virtues of multilingualism…
All the so-called French-speaking countries are in fact countries where the people are multilingual, with the exception of a few territories which are very few. On the African continent, there are ultimately few countries where one language unites the entire population. Among the member countries of the International Organization of La Francophonie, we can cite Senegal with Wolof, Mali with Bambara, Rwanda with Kinyarwanda, Burundi with Kirundi, Madagascar with Malagasy. There, there has long been a policy of schooling in the national language, because it is obviously the most logical and the most 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 the others, the rationality, for the leaders who nevertheless carried the independence of their country, was to choose a language which made consensus and which could bring together speakers of various languages. In Cameroon, we speak more than 200 languages, in the Ivory Coast a hundred… So we had to find a teaching medium. The choice fell on French because there was a base present, even if it was still very weak.
French is the second most learned language in the world
What are the consequences of the fact that the center of gravity of French has moved towards Africa?
French, like all languages that live in contact with other languages, is influenced and enriched by local realities and languages. Variations emerge and spread. The French who are 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 come to express a diversity. We can consider that there is a French-language literature, but in reality, when we read a book by Alain Mabanckou or an author born in France, the language is not quite the same, and yet , we understand it. Moreover, there has been the emergence of a french dictionary which is online and which allows you to see all the richness of expressions whether you are on one continent or another.
Another striking finding emerges from the report: the fact that French is declining in Europe. How do you explain it?
Here we are in the field of French as a foreign language. First, what we can say is that French is still the second most learned language in the world. We estimate that there are just over 50 million learners of 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, given the context. But over the past four years, there has been a 10% drop in the workforce in Europe. The main reason is the language policies of countries which often restrict the learning of foreign languages to a single language. In this case, it is English that is somehow imposed. It is quite devastating and it is contrary to the commitments of European countries which have declared on several occasions that it is absolutely necessary for education systems to offer at least two foreign languages, or even three. Lack of means no doubt, lack of will…
Citizens must be able to read the decisions that directly affect them in their own language.
The Secretary General of the OIF, Louise Mushikiwabosaid she wanted to appeal for “ reverse the decline of French in international institutions “. Why is it important?
French has a rather unique position since it is the official language of practically all organizations. But in fact, its place has regressed considerably. We have become used to expressing ourselves directly in English, which is the most common denominator, even if sometimes it is at mediocre levels.
The struggle of Secretary General Louise Mushikiwabo is to say that multilateralism is a form of international democracy. It must be based on a good understanding and everyone’s ability to express themselves correctly. It takes a bit of money, it’s true. We need translations, interpretation, language training for civil servants and diplomats.
But we also need to be aware: we think it’s simpler and more economical to all speak English. It’s not true, because in the end you have to make linguistic revisions because those who express themselves in English do not always express themselves well, we do not always understand what the other means, what is when even annoying when you are in the process 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 have to be right and address your citizens in the languages they speak. That citizens can learn about what concerns them directly in their language.
On the Internet, French is the fourth most used language after English, Chinese and Spanish, even if it is overtaken by Hindi. What does studying the languages of the Web teach us?
First, thanks to researcher Daniel Pimienta, who worked on this issue, we break the myth of an 80% English-speaking internet. This is completely false and absurd since we can clearly see, in our practices, that when we search for content, cultural or otherwise, we do so in its own language. Today, English represents around 25% of the Internet, which is already a lot. But the Internet is not as unilingual as we would like to say. There are languages that progress more than others, such as Arabic, Mandarin or Hindi. The reason is demographic. French is maintained. Above all, it has reserves of progress since the majority of French speakers are today in Africa, which is the least connected continent. So as we reduce this digital divide, the number of French-speaking Internet users will increase and therefore the presence of French in this space as well.