The month of record

French language in the world: 62% of speakers in Africa

The world’s French-speaking population has grown by 21 million new daily speakers over the past four years, reaching 321 million by 2022. 62% of users are in Africa with a profile dominated by young people, according to the latest report from the recent report report of the Observatoire de la langue française.

By Ulrich Viany, in Cotonou

Graph from 2022 report of the Observatoire de la langue française

French is gaining ground around the world. The 2022 report of the Observatoire de la langue française, entitled “La langue française dans le monde,” shows this new progression, which once again contradicts the popular belief that this language is regressing.

Indeed, over the past four years, “an additional 21 million people speak French, an increase of 7 percent since 2018,” noted the report, which is published every four years shortly before the Francophonie summit. With this increase, the number of total speakers stands at “321 million” worldwide in 2022, and “the French language remains in the group of the worlds’ five most spoken languages, after English, Chinese, Hindi and Spanish.” And as a foreign language, French is the second most learned language in the world by more than 50 million people, according to the document.

62 % of speakers are in Africa 

As in the past, Africa plays a significant role in the development of the French language in the world. 47.4% of daily speakers reside in Sub-Saharan Africa-Indian Ocean and 14.6% in Maghreb and the Middle East, accounting for 62% of French speakers on the continent, the 2022 report from the Observatoire de la langue française.

“While the number of daily speakers of French increased by 8% between 2018 and 2022, it jumped by more than 15% in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa-Indian Ocean,” the survey specifies. It recognizes that the future of French is being played out on the continent.

“By gaining 2.5 percentage points compared to 2018, the African continent confirms both its central place in the daily Francophonie and the dynamics that distinguish it from other spaces. This African dynamic is mainly due to the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, which alone account for more than 80% of Francophone growth in this area. In these countries, with a few exceptions, the growth rates are much higher than in other countries,” says the document.

Everywhere in the countries, the number of French speakers is increasing but at different speeds. Among the African countries where there has been an increase of at least 10%, and at a faster rate than the local population, are Benin, Burundi, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo. Among these, there are some that show the best rates of progress like Niger +18% and DRC +15%. For several of the countries, the increases are much higher than between 2014 and 2018, the report points out. They vary between +7 points and +13 points while for others, it is significantly less strong than between 2014 and 2018 by being between -5 and -16 points.

Progression driven by African youth

Graph from 2022 report of the Observatoire de la langue française

If the French language has been able to jump by more than 15% on the continent, it is thanks to African youth. The survey found that the majority of French speakers in sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb are in the 15 to 24 age group. “…These young people are relatively more likely to master the French language than their elders… This is naturally a guarantee for the future of French, which we had already noted in other surveys that showed a greater use of French by the younger generations,” the report says.

African youth use the French language, among other things, at work, at home, in the search for a job, in academic studies, to get information and to do research on the Internet. At work, for example, French is present everywhere and in every situation. “It is even in first position (main language) in the cities of Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Congo, Gabon (where it is even the only language cited) and the DRC,” the survey notes. It also adds that in all other countries, with the exception of Burkina Faso (where Mooré and Dioula are ahead of French) and Rwanda (after Kinyarwanda and English), French is the second most common language used at work in the cities.

To maintain this progression of French and its vitality on the continent, Alexandre Wolff, head of the Observatoire de la langue française, stresses that the way forward is through education. In an interview with Radio France International (RFI), he states that “education is the major challenge to be met, especially in the so-called southern countries where the population is not necessarily fully schooled yet.” He added that the schooling of girls and the resources earmarked to education in general are a priority of the Francophonie.

The survey shows that if the rate of increase continues, there will be up to 750 million French speakers in the world in 2070, with 90% of young French speakers under the age of 30 on the African continent.

What does the document say about the presence of French on the Internet?

French is also gaining ground on the web. It is the fourth most used language (3.50%) after English (25%), Chinese (15%) and Spanish (7%). It is tied in fourth by Hindi. The survey states that in the long term, the predicted demographic growth for Africa will indirectly favor the presence of French on the Internet. But this is provided that connectivity on the continent evolves at the pace of its demographics, and is strengthened. “Above all, there is a leeway for progression since the majority of French speakers today are in Africa, which is the least connected continent. Therefore, as we close this digital divide, the number of French-speaking Internet users will increase and so will the presence of French in this space,” said Alexandre Wolff. But the report warns that if this digital divide continues to be so marked in Francophone Africa, the presence of French on the Internet could be impaired in the short term.

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