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Why French is Still a Great Language to Learn

Whenever I tell someone that I`m focusing on studying French these days, there`s about an 80% chance that they`ll reply with “Why don`t you learn Spanish instead?”  While it`s true that Spanish has become an important language and it has more native speakers than French (Spanish has around 400 million while French has around 75 millionand Spanish is spoken in a lot of countries, French is still an important global language and studying it is a worthwhile pursuit.

France is Awesome

Victor HugoYes, some people especially Brits will always take the piss out of France, but at the end of the day we all see France as a country that has contributed a lot to the world (for now I`ll just conveniently leave out gripes of former colonies, ok? :)).  France has always been, and still is today, a great contributor to world culture. French art, French literature, French film, and French music have made a big impact not only throughout Europe but globally. Learning French gives you direct access to an amazing (and massive) body of work in its original language, which is a hugely satisfying thing.

Of course there is also French food, French architecture, and French history, which attract 83 million tourists to France every year. France is the country visited by the biggest number of tourists in the world, and for good reason.

France culture collage

French is an important global lingua franca

The French language may only have 75 million native speakers, but it has around 220 million proficient speakers in total.

So where are the rest of them?

Well, French is spoken in some other European countries: Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Monaco. And it is spoken in Canada (mainly in Quebec province).

But the majority of French speakers live in Africa.

francophone africa map

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

French is not usually spoken as a native language in Africa, but it is a lingua franca between people from different cultural and linguistic groups. Africa is very linguistically diverse, even within each specific area, so the people often use a lingua franca to communicate outside of their own community. In some areas they use an African language like Swahili, but in many areas French is the lingua franca and in many cases an official language.

In fact, French is the sole official language of 13 African countries, and it is one of the official languages in 9 other African countries. For anyone interested in Africa, particularly Arab North Africa and West/Central Africa, learning French would be hugely rewarding. Standard French is spoken in Africa (albeit with various accents), so learning standard Parisian French will help you wherever you go. Unless you`re planning to stay in one specific African country for a long time and want to learn a native language there, then using French as a lingua franca is something to consider.

French is also spoken in French Giana in South America, and a number of other territories of France in the Caribbean. It is also spoken in New Caledonia and French Polynesia in the Oceania region.

French is an official language of a total of 33 countries, as well as 11 overseas territories and 5 overseas regions of France (which are technically part of France proper, but overseas). Some of those overseas territories look like pretty nice places to visit, too! I think it`s time I go on vacation and make use of my French skills!

French overseas territory

French is a Romance language

No, I don`t mean that French is a language of love (though some might argue that`s true). I mean that French of part of the Romance family of languages that developed from Latin (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian are the biggest ones).

Romance languages map

That means that by learning French, you are giving yourself a good base from which to learn any other Romance language.

None of them are close enough to be considered the same language and they`re not usually mutually comprehensible, but the amount of study required to learn a second Romance language will be quite reduced. Gaining oral fluency would be the main challenge, but the grammar and vocabulary would come quite naturally (with some study of course). You could probably learn to read a second Romance language very quickly.

There are many cognates (equivalent vocabulary) between French and other Romance languages:

  • Italian vocabulary is 89% cognate with French
  • Spanish and Portuguese are both 75% cognate with French

The words don`t normally look exactly the same, but you can see the similarities in each word. Since Italian and French are the most similar, let`s have a look at how they compare :

  • French:  Pour la première fois en cinq ans
  • Italian:   Per la prima volta in cinque anni

The above both mean “For the first time in 5 years”.  Each word looks and sounds a little different, but side by side you can see the similarities. Once you get used to the different phonetic and spelling conventions of the other language, then you`ll have a huge head start on the language.

Of course, starting with Spanish you would also have the same benefit of gaining access to the Romance languages.

It`s worth noting that a lot of English vocabulary (around 30% of it) comes from French, and a lot of the words still look exactly the same. That means that if you already speak English well, you have a big head start on French vocabulary and reading skills.

Summing up

While Spanish is growing in importance and is a hugely useful language if you live in the Western hemisphere, French is still a global language of huge importance, especially in the Eastern hemisphere. For anyone interested like me with an interest in the Arab World, then French is a useful language for visiting the Maghreb (Morocco and Algeria). For anyone interested in West Africa, then French is a no-brainer. And for anyone interested in Europe, French is widely spoken there both as a native language and second language across Europe. And of course, being able to enjoy the fruits of French culture in their original language is a huge benefit in and of itself.

Lounging in the French West Indies wouldn`t be bad, either! 🙂

  • Jean-François

    Not for nothing but I love it how Haiti is left off of this list. People tend to forget that there is more speakers of French there then the entire French Caribbean territories combined due to the fact that even a mere few percentages of an 11M+ population would easily do so. It is also the only independent Francophone nation in the western hemisphere, Quebec is not a even country, although I would support their independence. If you want to hear the “français classique,” it is still alive in Haiti, which I can’t really say for Louisiana as much (as their Créole is too diminishing) or any other French territory in the New World. Come to PAP, Pétion-Ville, Jacmel, and Kenscoff. I just LOVE the constant neglect Monsieur Paul Jorgensen. To exclude Saint-Domingue/Haiti is cutting down the most lucrative time in French history which culture has stayed alive in certain parts of the country for hundreds of years, but we all know why they and people alike would like to forget. We don’t speak any African languages. Our tongue is entirely Francophone and not “borrowed.” Other than that blemish I “was” enjoying the article.

    About me: Native speaker of French, Creole and learnt Spanish and English and attended the best schools in Haiti. Went to study in Miami for a few semesters after the earthquake, and they foolishly thought that I would need “low classes;” they were surprised when myself and others needed advanced placements in all their classes and spoke fluent unaccented English and was best in my class. After that year, I moved back to Haiti. I’ve been to Quebec but some things they say sound a bit weird and as a Catholic I do not like the fact that they swear using religious words but I like how they are trying hard to keep their French and unique history alive.

    Cheers!

  • Thomas

    French is also spoken in some Asian countries, Lebanon, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.