I’ve always loved the sound of the French language and I’m certainly not alone in this. French is considered one of the contenders for the title of world’s most romantic language, in part because of the beauty of its sound.
Yet the language itself varies significantly from country to country. As such, I thought it was worth taking a deep dive into all things francophone, from countries where French is an official language to the different dialects used around the world.
Are you ready to join me? D’accord.
French speakers are spread across the globe. In total there are 29 independent nations where French is an official or de facto language. 20 of those nations are in Africa – a hangover from France’s role in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the 1880s and 1890s.
Where is French spoken other than in Africa (and France, obviously)? Canada, Monaco, Haiti and numerous other sovereign states and territories speak French as an official or co-official language. A range of European countries, meanwhile, have significant populations who speak French as a second language, as well as native speakers. Germany, Italy and Belgium are three such examples.
Indeed, some 77.2 million people speak French as their first language – just over 1% of the total global population. That makes French the 15th most spoken language on the planet, when ranked by number of native speakers. When ranked by total speakers, that number swells to 300 million, making French the fifth most spoken language on Earth.
Where in the world is French spoken? Let’s explore. Note that the figures below are an overview of the overall Fench speaking world, so include both native speakers and those who speak French as a second language.
Clearly, I should start with France when talking about French speaking countries. Over 97% of France’s population speaks French – nearly 64 million people. That means France tops the list of countries that speak French by over 20 million speakers.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to the world’s second largest population of French speakers, at over 42.5 million people. That’s almost exactly 50% of DR Congo’s population.
Over 10 million people in Canada speak French as a first or second language. That’s just under 30% of the country’s total population.
Just over 75% of Belgium’s population can speak French – around 8.6 million people.
French is a co-official language in Cameroon, alongside English. Some 40% of the Cameroonian population speaks French – just over 10 million people.
French is the sole official language in Côte d'Ivoire, though Dioula also serves as a lingua franca there. Despite French’s status as the country’s only official language, just 33% of the Côte d'Ivoire population speaks it, either natively or as a second tongue.
Switzerland is home to four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. It’s spoken by 67% of the population, which equates to over 5.7 million people.
Another of the major countries that speak French is Madagascar, which is home to over 5.2 million francophones. That’s roughly 20% of the country’s population.
Countries where French is spoken aren’t limited to those where it’s an official language. In fact, some of the biggest French speaking countries in the world (in terms of speaker numbers) are those where French isn’t an official language at all. Let me walk you through a few examples.
One of the main French speaking countries in Africa, Algeria is home to over 27 million French speakers. That’s over 62% of the country’s total population, despite Arabic replacing French as the country’s official language in 1963, following the country gaining independence the year before.
Morocco is another of the big French speaking African countries, with over 35% of the population speaking it as their first or second tongue. That means Morocco ranks fourth in the list of French speaking countries.
Many Germans speak French as a second language, with over 12 million French speakers living in Germany at present.
Italy is home to around 11.5 million French speakers – that’s just under 20% of the country’s total population.
Another francophone country is Tunisia, where over 52% of the population speak French either natively or as a second language. That equates to a little over six million people.
The Caribbean country of Haiti is home to over 4.6 million French speakers, accounting for around 42% of its total population.
On the sun-kissed island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, just over 72% of local residents speak French either natively or as their second language. That equates to just over 900,000 people.
Places where French is spoken are dotted around the globe. Due to the geographical spread of the language and its evolution over the course of hundreds of years, distinctive regional variations and dialects have developed. African French differs from European French, for example, which in turn differs from Canadian French.
Indeed, African French itself incorporates a huge range of dialects. Including second language speakers, the continent is home to around 141 million speakers, spread across the 34 territories and countries in Africa that speak French.
If you want to find out more about the differences between languages and dialects, you can click the link below. Right now, I want to explore some of the dialects of key francophone countries. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but it at least gives some indication of the rich variety that exists between different French speaking places.
Le français neutre is the standard variety of French that is spoken in France. It is this Standard French that is usually taught in schools around the world, so if you learnt French as part of your education, it’s probably le français neutre that you speak. And if you’re currently considering learning French, it will likely be this version that you’re taught. (By the way, if you’re considering learning a language but haven’t decided which one yet, our handy guide below should help – just click the link to access it.)
The Académie français is the gatekeeper of this standard version of the language and is responsible for any lexical and grammatical decisions that relate to its development and evolution.
Read more: 15 Best Languages to Learn in 2020
Pronunciation can differ notably from Standard French, particularly in relation to the letter R, as well as the letters D, T, L and N. Intonation is also different.
The French used in African francophone countries also uses some words that don’t exist in Standard French. In addition to this local vocabulary, some words are the same as those used in Standard French but have different meanings. ‘Présentement’ means ‘at the moment’ in France, but to French speakers in many African countries, in means ‘as a matter of fact.’
Five main varieties of French are spoken across the francophone countries in Africa. Of course, within these broad variations, specific local dialects also exist. Even within individual cities, there can be significant variation when it comes to the French language. Consider the difference between someone speaking the Queen’s English and someone speaking Cockney Rhyming Slang in London and you’ll see my point.
The most widely spoken of these regional variations is the French spoken in West and Central Africa, which has around 97 million speakers in total.
Maghreb French is spoken mainly by Maghrebis and Berbers in Northwest Africa. This variation of the language has around 33 million speakers, including first and second language speakers.
Used across Djibouti and the Horn of Africa, this variation of French has around half a million speakers in total.
In Réunion, Mauritius and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, around 1.75 million Creoles speak their own distinctive variation of French, which is itself different to the French-based creole languages spoken in the same area.
Over in Madagascar, Comoros, Mayotte, some 5.6 million individuals speak the fifth major variety of African French.
Canada is one of the world’s major French speaking countries. The majority of its French speakers live in and around Quebec, where French is used by the government, in the education sector and in the media, though other variations do exist (Acadian French, for example).
There are some notable grammatical differences between Canadian French and Standard French. The use of the informal ‘tu’ pronoun is far more common in Canada, for example, though ‘vous’ is still appropriate to a business setting. Canadian French also includes a number of shortened prepositions and different subject and object pronouns (such as ‘on’ instead of ‘nous’).
The Canadian version of French also has far more words of aboriginal descent that other variations of French around the world, as well as a greater number of Anglicisms. There are also differences around the pronunciation of the letters D and T, as well as some vowels.
As with African French, there are also differences in meaning. If you’re ‘plein(e)’ in Canada, you’ve eaten your fill, but in France the word means you’re pregnant.
Most of Belgium’s French speakers live in Wallonia, in the southern part of the country. Yet while they share a border with France, there are some important differences in language terms. A baguette in Belgium is a pain français; the number 70 is septante instead of soixante-dix; and déjeuner means breakfast, instead of lunch. These are just three of many, many examples, but I feel they make the point – if you want to speak French in Belgium, you’ll need to learn the local lingo.
Leaning about the different French speaking countries in North America, Africa, Europe and beyond reveals some fascinating insights into how the French language has evolved over time, when combined with different local influences.
So, why is understanding these different varieties of French so important? Firstly, because doing so means you can speak the correct version of French for the country or territory that you’re in. But this isn’t the only reason…
Learning about the different varieties of French and how they have developed is a fascinating way to explore different countries’ histories and cultures, as well as wider societal considerations. In French African countries, for example, it’s a way of understanding the spread and impact of colonialism. In Canada, meanwhile, linguistic identity is incredibly important.
All French speaking countries have their own linguistic quirks. Understanding these francophone regions in detail can reveal an array of insights that help us to learn about the world around us.
Of course, it’s also good to avoid embarrassing mistakes – such as stating you’re pregnant when really you’ve just eaten all of your supper.
As I stated above, my list of francophone countries is far from exhaustive, but hopefully it’s provided you with an indication of:
• How widespread the use of French is around the world
• Countries that speak French as an official language
• French speaking countries where the language isn’t official but use is nevertheless widespread
• The benefits of learning about the different variations of French
Of course, if you don’t have time to learn the particular variation of French that you need, remember that Tomedes is here to help. Our French translation services provide you with access to the variation and dialect that you need. Why not contact us today to find out more?