Tuesday, March 20, 2018

What is Your Language’s International Appeal? Thoughts on French on International Francophonie Day 2018

By Tanairy Delgado

A photo looking down a long hallway with a glass wall to the left and a blue wall with a large entrance door to the right. In front of the glass wall is a long row of red, green, blue, and yellow flags hanging from short flagpoles resting on the floor.
Flags of francophone countries
(Wikimedia Source)
(Organisation internationale de la francophonie)
Ask a random pedestrian on the street what comes to mind when you say the word France. Most likely they will come up with the Eiffel Tower in Paris and that answer would not be surprising. Although the newest statistics by the World Tourism Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, have not yet been published for 2017, the first regional results released in January indicate strong growth in Europe. France again is expected to be the most visited country in the world, with more than 80 million tourists last year. With so many people flocking to France from all parts of the world, it is worth remembering that speaking French can provide more than one enjoyable and eye-opening trip around the world.

French can be used in France, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Monaco and various countries in and many other parts of the world. Speaking French in a state where French is one of the official state languages will provide as many opportunities and exposure to speaking the language as English in the United States. Native speakers of English, let’s be honest: it would also be difficult to speak contemporary English, and even understand British and American culture, without taking the long history of influence from French into consideration.

The other reason why learning French is a good idea is what I will call here ‘international appeal’. French is widespread around the world. The Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie is a network made up of 630 French language universities and over 350 French faculties worldwide, for a total of 120,000 professors and researchers (Fatunde 2012). In India, for instance, where universities are motivated by economic gain (Fatunde 2012), individuals who study French desire to be translators and bilingual secretaries for Francophone companies operating in India.  Professor Raufu Adebisi of Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, for instance, claims that the appeal of the French language in India is comparably high to its appeal anywhere else in African, including Nigeria, his home country. In fact, he claimed that most Anglophone countries in the southern hemisphere need bilingual employees to work for French companies as well (Fatunde 2012).

This map is titled L'Organisation internationale de la francophonie. It portrays member nations in orange, associate nations in green, and observer nations in blue. There are 55 member nations, mostly in Africa but also including countries in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia as well as Canada and France itself. Cyprus and Ghana are the only two associate members. The 13 observer nations are mostly focused in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, with Mozambique the lone observer nation in Africa.
(Image Source) (Current members and status
In Africa, French is also associated with migration. In her article, "The smuggling of La Francophonie", Vigouroux (2008) explains that a new Francophone identity has emerged in South Africa in which speaking French is considered an asset acquired under specific sociopolitical and historical conditions. In that context, speaking French leads to social advancement and a way to improve life, rather than just acquiring an abstract identity.

How did French become so widespread, one might ask? And that is a long story that the French themselves like to tell…

It is well-known that the official state language of France did not start out as a widely-shared local language. During the French Revolution, at the end of the 18th century for instance, 75% of French citizens did not speak French as a mother tongue (Fatal 2010). In fact, before the 19th century, French was utilized more in the Netherlands and Germany as a vehicular language of scientific communication than in some areas of France (Fatal 2010). Fast forward a century or so and the global spread of the French language has surpassed all but two other international vehicular languages in the world: English and Spanish. While this spread can be attributed to colonization and war, one important fact is that over twenty percent of Francophone speakers, including students and teachers, reside outside of francophone countries. As an official language, French is only second to English. Thus the international appeal of the French language is enormous and despite major setbacks has not faded since its emergence in the late 17th century.

The number of French speakers has tripled since 1945 and this growth has not stifled ever since (Fatal 2010). The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie estimated that the number of French speakers will rise to over 700 million by 2050 (FMFAID 2017), a growth fueled by economic and cultural expansion. France and other French-speaking countries play an active role in the world economy, accounting for some 20% of world trade in goods (FMFAID 2017).

Being a francophone is an advantage on the job market, as well. French companies exist all over the world with headquarters in North America, Africa, and Europe. France’s economy alone is the fifth largest economy in the world (FMFAID 2017). Additionally, the French language is an official language of the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, and countless other international organizations giving it control over global governance. France is a key economic partner for any country that seeks economic and political success.

This infographic shows a blue earth icon on a pale grey background, with a black satellite icon above it and to the right. Blue text gives statistics on France 24's worldwide expansion: "In 8 years, tripled worldwide distribution from 80 to 280 million TV households. 19 satellites ensure global coverage. Broadcast in 178 countries worldwide."
Information on news organization France 24 (Image Source)
French is also present in global communication. If you want, you can watch the French-language TV5 Monde for just a few dollars per months, here in the United States. The media channels TV5Monde, France 24, and RFI have a combined total audience of around 140 million people viewing and listening to these channels daily (FMFAID 2017). While television and radio are stars in the communication sector, the internet in French is the shining star. French is the third most widely used language on the Internet (FMFAID 2017). This means that people are using French as a lingua franca for digital communication, in addition to all other conventional types of communication. The ability to use French to receive alternative views of the world, is just another advantage of the language’s non-negligible global role.

In today’s world, French culture is known for its gastronomy, high fashion, and arts. Many of the greatest literary works, from authors like Victor Hugo and Molière, have been written in French. Since French culture is highly influential, it is no wonder that the language can be appealing to learn. I think it is safe to assume that the international appeal of French will not fade anytime soon. Not in English, for sure! Everyone with any English language ability knows that some phrases can simply not be translated directly to English, so we use them in French. Just like that! Déjà vu? Yes! Un je ne sais quoi that we cannot forget…

Happy International Francophonie Day 2018

Sources cited:

Fatal, H. (2010, June 6). 20 Surprising Fact About French Language. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from http://www.antimoon.com/forum/t16740.html.

Fatunde, T. (2012, August 5). The expansion of the French language lies in Africa - University World News. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20120801162231952.

French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, 2017. The status of French in the world. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/french-foreign-policy/francophony/the-status-of-french-in-the-world/.

French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development. (2017). 10 good reasons for learning French. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/french-foreign-policy/francophony/promoting-french-around-the-world-7721/article/10-good-reasons-for-learning.

“International tourism on track for a record year”, UNWTO World Tourism Barometer

Vigouroux, C. B. (2008). "The smuggling of La Francophonie": Francophone Africans in Anglophone Cape Town (South Africa). Language In Society, 37(3), 415-434. doi:10.1017/S0047404508080561.


When she wrote this text in 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ at the University of Illinois in spring 2017, Tanairy Delgado was a senior in Global Studies. She was planning on working for an international nonprofit organization after graduation and interested in applying to Law School in the future.


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