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Is the French language one of the future?

 MyFrenchLife™ - french language - Bike tripHave you ever wondered whether, in this day and age, learning French was a huge waste of time?

French is often touted as the most beautiful language in the world, and was one of the first official working languages of the UN (along with English).

As much as we love it though, it can be hard to argue that French is still a useful language. Of course, it is lovely to be able to watch films in French, or chat with the locals in the boulangerie without freezing up, but with Mandarin as the most-spoken language, and Spanish close behind, French just can’t seem to compete as a global language.

The decline of the French language

John McWhorter of New Republic recently wrote an article entitled ‘Let’s stop pretending that French is an important language’. These days, it feels like this is the prevailing opinion.

With French as one of the most taught foreign languages in schools, McWhorter argues that children should instead be focusing on Spanish, Chinese, and even Arabic – infinitely more useful languages in terms of communication, business, and geopolitics. French, he argues, might only allow you to ignore the subtitles on an arthouse film.

“When 2050 comes round, we’ll be the ones ahead of the game…”

But is the future of the French language really so bleak? Can such an influential language really be so insignificant? Should we be forgetting about faux amis, and focusing on memorising Chinese characters instead?

Globalisation

McWhorter’s opinion is not entirely undisputed, and it isn’t only Francophiles like us arguing that French is important. Forbes recently published an article suggesting that the language of the future could well be French.

Based on data obtained by investment bank Natixis, the article proposed the idea that by 2050, French could be the most spoken language in the world – ahead of current front-runners English, Spanish, and Mandarin.

This projection comes from the fact that French is a fast-growing language, currently spoken in one of the fastest-growing areas in the world; namely Sub-Saharan Africa.

MyFrenchLife™ - french language - chinese class

It is estimated that Africa will not only swell in terms of population, but in terms of business. By 2050, French may be the predominant language in an economic powerhouse.

The influence of this shift will allow the French language to regain its significance. As we explained in a recent article, while French used to be the world’s most reverential language, it lost much of its international credence with the rise of the Anglophone world.

If this recent projection is correct, it might not be long before we see the tables turn back in favour of French…

Is this prediction realistic?

Obviously, business projections are estimates, so do not always come true. We’ve also seen many articles arguing that Mandarin is the language of the future.

MyFrenchLife™ - french language - flagsThe argument backing the French language seems to be based solely on its presence in a large number of rapidly developing countries. In fact, although French is the official language in these countries, it is often not always locally spoken.

This means that the estimate, that by 2050, 8% of the world’s population will speak French, may not be entirely accurate, as it counts the entire population of all Francophone countries. In fact, many people residing in these countries do not speak French.

However, there is no denying that French is predominant in Sub-Saharan Africa, and so, when the businesses and economies of these countries do begin to take off, French will no doubt be the working language.

This influence will be enormous.

In the meantime…

Although French may not be the most useful language globally at the moment, we still maintain that learning it is an excellent idea. You reap an insurmountable number of personal, social, and academic benefits, as well as making your next trip to France even more enjoyable.

We’re sure you already know this, so when 2050 comes round, we’ll be the ones well ahead of the game…

What do you think the future holds for the French language? What are your predictions for the next big global language? Let us know in the comment box below!

Image Credits:
1. Spain_Bike trip_321 by Jason Jones, via Flickr. 
2. Chinese class by Claire mono, via Flickr.
3. UN HQ by United nations photos via Flickr.


Join the conversation

12 Comments




  1. Sahara Wilson
    5 years ago

    Interesting article, I’ve been chatting about this very topic with some of my French-speaking friends lately. I think the most useful thing about learning French for me has been learning a different way of thinking. With any language that is not your native tongue, you gain a broader perspective of the world around you and the interpersonal relationships between people of various nationalities. I also find that French has helped me enormously in my regard and use of the English language.
    As to the future of the French language, what you say about Northern African countries is very true – I was reading an article the other day discussing the amount of Chinese businessmen starting to learn French in order to conduct business in that part of the continent. According to the Alliance francaise, each year there’s about a 3-5% increase in French learners in their courses in China, Russia and all through Latin America, so surely French is still relevant as an international language?
    Having said that, it seems more and more that the future of the French language lies outside Hexagonale French – something which must horrify those at l’Academie francaise 😉


    • Judy MacMahon
      5 years ago

      Oh Sahara! how I agree with you. I didn’t realise how insatiably curious I was until I started learning the French language and now I realise that my curiosity is absolutely insatiable! I’m intrigued by the history and the culture behind the formation of the language. I can’t understand how some people learn the langauge (any language) in isolation. When I have more understanding of the context I am more likely to remember. Even many of the grammatical structures have an historic or culture context.
      As for the future of the French language – there are many topics here. The Chinese seem to have a ‘love affair’ with all things French (I’m generalising of course) And the fact that business people are adopting French is good for fueling the future of the language.
      When you look at how much French is spoken in third world countries, its interesting to consider if that growth is driven mainly by a higher birth rate in some of those countries.
      In amongst all of this I’d like to read about forecasts for the future of the French language from an economic perspective. Q: In the future will French be spoken by those with a higher or lower socio-economic standing?


      • Sahara Wilson
        5 years ago

        As to the economical side Judy, I think it will really depend on who you speak to. There are some militants of the French language who are so against English as the dominant global language that they promote only a very specific type of French – the French solely spoken in France, and variations are marginalised. Even today there is a perception in literature that francophone literature from ‘les anciens colonies’ is inferior to literature of France, or that in order to be ‘good enough’ you must be published by a French publishing house. This is blatantly wrong when you look at all the awards non-French francophone authors have received for some truly amazing works.
        So if we think of the French language in this narrow militant way, I would say that it would be higher socioeconomic classes that would be learning French: it becomes almost a form of snobishness.
        If however we think of French as a dialectical language, with many variations from country to country all of which can be classified under a broad banner of French language, then in the future I believe French will be spoken by many regardless of socioeconomic standing. As has been highlighted, the sheer number of people in French-speaking African nations will ensure the longevity of a French language, just not necessarily what has always been traditionally spoken in France.


  2. Michael Dorman
    5 years ago

    As an anglophone whose second language is French I often find myself in the midst of this linguistic controversy. Mandarin is not an international language, that is to say, a lingua franca. It is basically spoken in China and a couple of smaller locations like Singapore. Spanish is a useful language since so many countries in the Western Hemisphere are Spanish-speaking as are many U.S. and Canadian citizens who come from Latin America. It generally isn’t a lingua franca in that it isn’t being learned by people of other language groups so they can communicate with each other via Spanish. Because so many countries are Spanish-speaking it would be a useful language to learn. French, on the other hand, is still a lingua franca and probably the next most useful one in that regard after English as many countries use it as their language to communicate with the outside world or to link different language groups within a single nation. French isn’t going away. Finnish is only spoken in Finland and some adjacent areas of Sweden yet with a small population, it isn’t a threatened language. I would be cautious about the background of those who are furiously demoting French. What is their background? Do they have ulterior motives, e.g. anti-French anglophones who like to take a swipe at anything French? A recent study done in the U.S. indicates that 45% of English words have a French origin and learning French can be aided by this common link. Also as I have pointed out to people, a UN study found that unilingual English-speakers are not getting ahead as well or are not adapting to an increasing globalized world as well as the multilingual people who know 2 or more languages besides their native language. By all means learn several languages and encourage your children to do so and making French one of them allows communication to Europe, Canada, Africa, parts of the Caribbean and Oceania. French has had far-reaching influence as has French culture over the centuries. It doesn’t have to be and either/or but can be a both/and learning experience. French immersion schools in Canada are very popular among Canadian anglophones and in British Columbia in particular, their popularity is still growing.


    • Judy MacMahon
      5 years ago

      Bonjour Michael, thanks for contributing to this conversation! I agree with you about not needing to actually make a choice – both is better!


  3. Beth Holding
    5 years ago

    It will be really interesting to see whether the estimates about French becoming so important by 2050 actually eventuate. There seems to have been less focus on learning European languages in Australian schools recently, the preference being Asian languages, but maybe this will change that!


  4. Julia Greenhalf
    5 years ago

    “Why do you learn French?” is such a common question asked of us studying French and it really is worth taking the second to consider why you do it. Why do we bother, why do we put ourselves through struggles with idiomatic expressions and proverbs, or what propels us to move past throwing up our hands, depleted, when “because it is the way it is” is the answer to a complicated grammatical construction? For me I am fascinated to see just how far the language is going to take over – if at all – but for me the linguistic, cultural and ideological benefits have been invaluable.


    • Christina Guzman
      5 years ago

      Always!! They always ask that question! Usually i answer with ‘just because’ as the alternative is too complicated and long 😉
      But what fascinated me was how different it is! And the amount of times I found myself learning a new word in English because of French was incredible too! My vocabulary just expanded because I was learning French. Learning a language – whatever it may be – develops your brain in a completely different way and provides you with the ability to think differently and compassionately as you start to also consider the culture. You can’t separate the culture from the language. I found that to learn one is to learn the other.


      • Julia Greenhalf
        5 years ago

        Well said Christina! The way the brain processes languages is so fascinating!! 😀


  5. Esme Wakefield
    5 years ago

    Good article, including ideas which are current and are often thrown up to language graduates in general. A mon avis, as long as people are still learning French, it is an important language.

    As to why I learn French and study French area studies: because I love it! If there wasn’t an emotion tied to I doubt I would have ever got this far…


  6. Ellen Burns
    5 years ago

    This is definitely something that I’ve thought about a lot. I studied both Mandarin Chinese and French in high school and found myself thinking about this when I was deciding to drop Chinese. Chinese is useful for the sheer size of the Chinese-speaking population, but was it personally relevant and resonant with me? No.

    I’ve used my French language skills in France, Belgium, and Canada, as a tourist/traveller, family member, guest, and employee. Which languages you will find useful depends on where you live and what circles you move in. I have been very grateful to have some French in my repertoire (hmm, wonder where English got that word from?) and, as some one who travels mainly in Europe and North America, believe that the French language will be more relevant to my life than Chinese could ever be.


  7. romain hermelin
    5 years ago

    Africa will be the continent of the 21 st century, the future of French is not in Europe but over there : In Africa. French wants to speak english but Africans wants be speak french as the implementation of french school a century ago had been so well organised and financed by the french that the language is imprinted on the continent