PARIS — Molière would be happy. Fifty years from now, French will be spoken by 477 to 747 million people around the world, according to estimates from the annual report of The International Organization of La Francophonie (OFI), published this month. The forecast is a major jump from the 300 million French speakers today, thanks to the growing population of the African continent, who make up two-thirds of the planet's francophones.
French would thus remain behind English as the second truly global language in the world — spoken on four continents (North America, Europe, Africa, Oceania) — if one takes into account that Chinese is primarily spoken in one country, and that Spanish is practiced on two continents, and that many different languages are spoken within the Arabic federations. Today, French is the sole official language in 14 countries and co-official language in 17 other countries. Its status as the dominant language in education, public administration, media, or trade in some 50 countries provides a significant advantage to businesses within Francophone countries, since they have an advantage over their competitors faced with a language barrier.
Still, there are open questions about the influence and evolution of the French language, since "the francophone galaxy turns out to be complex," explains Alexandre Wolff of the OIF. Only 235 million people "live in French," which means that they use it daily or have been educated in French, either in France (the only country where it is the only daily language of the vast majority of francophone countries), or in another sub-national region that is purely francophone (Romandy Switzerland, Quebec, Wallonia, etc.), or in a country where French is the native language for a portion of the population alongside other aboriginal languages: Benin, Burkina Faso, Congo, Ivory Coast, French Guiana, Mali, Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Togo, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritius, Tunisia and Lebanon.
Some 65 million people grew up speaking French because it is one of the official languages of their country, or native language in a part of its compatriotes (Canada, Madagascar, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and dozens of African countries). "It is this articulation between the French language and other languages, which complete without exclusivity, which explains its dynamism on the global scale," says Wolff.
The importance of teaching French to non-francophone students should not be overlooked.
The explosion of francophones from the current 300 million to between 500-800 million in 2070 will come mostly from the tripling of the African population, notes Wolff, who also points out that French was dethroned by English in 2010 in Rwanda as the primary language of instruction.
The importance of teaching French to non-francophone students should not be overlooked. "We have no particular reason to be pessimistic," he said. Its status as a globalized language is a powerful argument for parents.
Predictions of the total number of French speakers must take into account geopolitics. Still, unless there are improbable colonial expansions of Russia, China, India, Brazil or Pakistan, French would keep — behind the untouchable English — its status as the only other "global" language.
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