The European language landscape: a tour of the French language

When it comes to linguistic diversity, Europe may appear to be a poor performer at first glance. In terms of indigenous languages, it accounts for only 3% of the world’s spoken languages, a percentage that pales in comparison to 30% for Africa or Asia.

Yet four European languages are in the top 10 of the most widely spoken mother tongues around the world: Spanish, English, Portuguese and French. To these four, we could even add a fifth: Russian. As for the most widely learned languages, Europe again does well with English, French, Spanish, Italian and German in descending order.

While there is a strategic interest in learning most of these languages, necessity is far from being the only guarantee of their sustainability: they have many other assets that justify their expansion worldwide.

Centuries of abundant intellectual activity have associated the language of Molière with a certain elitism that is still very much alive in the minds of our neighbours. Synonymous with elegance and excellence, France was one of the most popular destinations for the Grand Tour (an ancestor of the Erasmus programme) of the noble youth in the 17th and 18th centuries. At the same time, in privileged social circles, reading French was seen as the ultimate refinement. This linguistic prestige does not seem to have diminished, as French is still the second most studied foreign language in the European Union. 

But learning French is also a matter of the heart. Its often scandalous history (e.g. during the sexual liberation of the 1970s), its sensual accent and the enduring success of the impassioned works of Victor Hugo, Chateaubriand and Lamartine have earned it the reputation of being the most romantic language in the world. And considering that 90.5% of non-French speakers say they are willing to learn a language for love, there can be no doubt that French has a promising future providing that love still exists going forward. 

The strong interest in French despite the meteoric rise of a different global language is also linked to France’s colonial past. The phenomenon is particularly evident in Africa, where a domination that some saw as “civilizing” was exercised for almost 400 years. Today, French is still the official language of many African states, and 59% of people who speak French on a daily basis reside on the African continent. Given the current population explosion, linguists predict that this percentage will increase dramatically in the coming years.

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