Learn more about the history, geography, and grammar of the French language, as well as how and why you should learn it.
According to the Observatoire de la langue française, French is spoken by 97% of people in France, a country whose population is mostly monolingual. French is also an official language in 28 other countries around the world, from Canada to Vanuatu. However, both in France and worldwide, it coexists with other local languages, dialects, and créoles.
According to the Observatoire de la langue française, around 300 million people around the world speak French. For roughly 78 million people, French is their mother tongue, while the rest speak it as a second or third language. Indeed, French is, surprisingly, the second most common foreign language (pdf) after English, and is taught in schools around the world.
Of course, French is spoken not only in France, but by francophone communities in just about every corner of the globe. People in many regions and countries including Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, Haiti, North America, French Guiana, and other French overseas territories speak French as a first or second language.
It’s worth bearing in mind that 60% of francophone speakers live in Africa and the Middle East, while only 28% live in France. All of this makes French the sixth most spoken language in the world after Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic.
Some countries with the largest percentage of French speakers outside of France include Mauritius (73%), Gabon (66%), Seychelles (53%), and the DRC (51%). According to the Observatoire de la Francophonie, French is the third language of business around the world, and the second in Europe.
French is part of the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is a Romance language, deriving, like Italian, Spanish, Romanian and Portuguese, from Vulgar Latin. In the 5th century BC, people spoke three languages on the territory now covered by France: Greek, Ligurian, and Gaulish. In 50 BC, the Romans invaded France with their own language, Latin, also descended from an Indo-European language spoken some 8,000 years ago.
The French language uses the Latin alphabet, but unlike English, it can have accents on certain letters (é, è, ê, ô, ç, ù, û). In fact, as an English speaker, you will find yourself learning ten new sounds. For foreign learners, the trickiest are undoubtedly the guttural ‘r’ and the four nasal vowels, with spellings that include ‘un’, ‘en’, ‘an’, ‘ain’, ‘em’, ‘ein’ and ‘on’. Portuguese and Breton are the only other European languages with such use of nasal vowels.
On the whole, the subtle difference between the French nasal vowels is difficult to distinguish if you haven’t grown up francophone, yet it often produces a difference in meaning. For example, the words main (hand), ment (lies), and mon (my) have quite different spelling, but they all sound quite similar: the sound ‘m’ followed by a different nasal vowel.
Similarly, while the French sound ‘ou’ is very much like a ‘u’ sound in Italian or Spanish (“oo”), the ‘u’ in French is more acute, pronounced more to the front of the mouth. It’s hard for foreign speakers to get this variation right, but many words have different meanings depending on which ‘u’ sound you use, for example, tu (you) and tout (everything), or vu (seen) and vous (plural you) – note that the final consonants are silent.
Written by Una Dimitrijevic