French is one of the most popular and fastest-growing languages in the world. Outside of Europe, you can also hear the language on nearly every continent, including Africa, North America, South America and even the Caribbean. It is the official language in 29 countries, the procedural language for the European Union (EU), and the only language used for deliberations at the Court of Justice for the EU.
The official number of people who speak French is around 300 million, which includes native speakers, those who speak French as a second language, and numerous French dialects.
Where is French spoken?
- Burkina Faso
- Ivory Coast
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Equatorial Guinea
How French Became the Official Language of France
While millions of people speak French around the world, you’ll find many differences among the various countries. To understand why, you need to be familiar with the history of the language. French as we know it was once the exclusive language of the elites in Paris, where only three million of the 25 million French people spoke Parisian French as their native tongue. Most other regions of France had their own languages and dialects, making communication almost impossible. It wasn’t until after the French Revolution of 1789 did French kings decide to implement French as the official language. French soon spread to neighboring European countries, including Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg.
French Dialects in Europe
European French can be broken up into two main dialects:
1. Langue d’o ï l is spoken in the northern and central regions, including Belgium. One of the langue d’o ï l dialects was françien, which was spoken in Île de France (Parisian region). This became the standard French that is taught today.
2. Langue d’oc is spoken mostly in the southern regions, including Switzerland.
French Travels to North America
At the beginning of the 16th century, French traveled across the Atlantic to Eastern Canada. Of course, France once owned land in the United States that comprised 827,000 square miles west of the Mississippi River which was sold as part of the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million. You’ll still find a population of French and Creole speakers in Louisiana to this day in this region. French is also spoken in the Caribbean island of Haiti, which uses a mix of French and Haitian Creole.
The Differences Between Canadian French and European French
French is spoken by about 7.3 million Canadians today, with nearly 85% of them living in Québec. However, there are differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar between the language spoken in Canada and Europe. The original French settlers arrived in Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries. Time and distance meant there was a natural isolation between the two countries. Changes in the language that occurred in Europe after that time didn’t always travel across the Atlantic. As a result, Canadian French has many older pronunciations and a noticeably different accent. In many cases, the feminine and masculine variants are switched. In Quèbec, they say une job versus un job in France. Canadian French also tends to be more informal, using “tu” in the place of the more formal “vous”. The order of words in a sentence may also be different.
Regional French Dialects in Africa
You’ll find the highest numbers of French speakers in Africa. In fact, an estimated 80% of Francophones will reside on the continent by the year 2050. There are many differences in French pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar from region to region as the speakers borrow heavily from the their own native African cultures.
Many countries in northern Africa also borrow heavily from Arabic, which has influenced the vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar of French spoken in those regions. Many Arabic words are often used in French sentences and vice-versa. In central Africa, primarily the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is another type of French that was brought over by Belgium. While French is the official language in Congo, it coexists with some 242 other local languages.
Translating French for Audiences Around the World
Translating a document to or from French for audiences across the globe is not always a simple matter. It takes professionals who understand the unique differences and regional influences that make up the French language in each country. At ALTA, our network of native-speaking French linguists can help communicate your message and services, while keeping the integrity of your brand intact no matter where it’s seen. We provide French translations for a wide array of industries and projects, including business, healthcare, legal, marketing, advertising, human resources, and technical fields.
About Author Kristin Wallace
Kristin Wallace is a USA Today Bestselling fiction author and advertising copywriter who is addicted to learning and writing about language, culture and art around the world. She lives and works in sunny Miami, Florida.