French language explained

French (français,) is a Romance language spoken around the world by around 80 million people as first language, by 190 million as second language, and by about another 200 million people as an acquired tongue, with significant speakers in 54 countries. Most native speakers of the language live in France,[1] where the language originated. Most of the rest live in Québec (Canada), Belgium, Switzerland, Francophone Africa, Luxembourg, and Monaco.

French is a descendant of the Latin language of the Roman Empire, as are national languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Catalan and Romanian and minority languages ranging from Occitan to Neapolitan and many more. Its development was also influenced by the native Celtic languages of Roman Gaul and by the Germanic language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders.

It is an official language in 29 countries, most of which form what is called, in French, La Francophonie, the community of French-speaking nations. It is an official language of all United Nations agencies and a large number of international organizations. According to the European Union, 129 million (26% of the 497,198,740) people in 27 member states speak French, of which 65 million (12%) are native speakers and 69 million (14%) claim to speak it as a second language, which makes it the third most spoken second language in the Union, after English and German. In addition, prior to the ascension of English in the early 20th century, French served as the preeminent language of diplomacy among European and colonial powers as well as a lingua franca among the educated classes of Europe.

Geographic distribution


Legal status in France

See also: Toubon Law and Languages of France.

Per the Constitution of France, French has been the official language since 1992[2] (although previous legal texts have made it official since 1539, see ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts). France mandates the use of French in official government publications, public education outside of specific cases (though these dispositions are often ignored) and legal contracts; advertisements must bear a translation of foreign words.

In addition to French, there are also a variety of regional languages and dialects. France has signed the European Charter for Regional Languages, but has not ratified it since that would go against the 1958 Constitution.


See also: Demographics of Switzerland and Swiss French. French is one of the four official languages of Switzerland (along with German, Italian, and Romansh) and is spoken in the part of Switzerland called Romandie. French is the native language of about 20% of the Swiss population.


See also: Languages of Belgium and Belgian French.

In Belgium, French is the official language of Wallonia (excluding the East Cantons, which are German-speaking) and one of the two official languages —along with Dutch— of the Brussels-Capital Region where it is spoken by the majority of the population, though often not as their primary language.[3] French and German are not official languages nor recognised minority languages in the Flemish Region, although along borders with the Walloon and Brussels-Capital regions, there are a dozen municipalities with language facilities for French-speakers. A mirror situation exists for the Walloon Region with respect to the Dutch and German languages. In total, native French-speakers make up about 40% of the country's population, while the remaining 60% speak Dutch. Of the latter, 59% claim to speak French as a second language.[4] French is thus known by an estimated 75% of all Belgians, either as a mother tongue, as second, or as third language.[5]

Monaco and Andorra

See also: Languages of Monaco and Languages of Andorra.

Although Monégasque is the national language of the Principality of Monaco, French is the only official language, and French nationals make up some 47% of the population.

Catalan is the only official language of Andorra; however, French is commonly used due to the proximity to France. French nationals make up 7% of the population.


See also: Languages of Italy.

French is also an official language, along with Italian, in the province of Aosta Valley, Italy. In addition, a number of Franco-Provençal dialects are spoken in the province, although they do not have official recognition.


See also: Languages of Luxembourg and Multilingualism in Luxembourg. French is one of three official languages of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, alongside German and Luxembourgish, the natively-spoken language of Luxembourg. Luxembourg's education system is trilingual: the first years of primary school are in Luxembourgish, before changing to German; while in secondary school, the language of instruction changes to French.[6]

The Channel Islands

See also: Languages of Jersey and Languages of Guernsey.

French is an official language in Jersey and Guernsey, the two bailiwicks collectively referred to as the Channel Islands, although they are separate entities. Both use French to some degree, mostly in an administrative capacity. Jersey Legal French is the standardized variety used in Jersey. However, Norman is the historical vernacular langue d'Oïl of the islands.



See also: Canadian French, French language in Canada, Spoken languages of Canada and Official bilingualism in Canada.

French is the second most common language in Canada, after English, and both are official languages at the federal level. French is the sole official language in the province of Quebec, being the mother tongue for some 7 million people. New Brunswick, where about a third of the population is francophone, is also officially bilingual. Portions of Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba have sizeable French minorities, but its prescription as an official language in those jurisdictions and the level of francophone services varies.


French is an official language of Haiti, although it is mostly spoken by the upper class, while Haitian Creole (a French-based creole language) is more widely spoken as a mother tongue.

French overseas territories

French is also the official language in France's overseas territories of French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Barthélemy, St. Martin and Saint-Pierre and Miquelon

The United States

See also: French in the United States, Cajun French and Louisiana Creole French.

Although it has no official recognition on a federal level, French is the third[7] [8] most-spoken language in the United States, after English and Spanish, and the second most-spoken in the states of Louisiana, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Louisiana is home to two distinct dialects, Cajun French and Creole French. According to the 2000 US Census, there are over 194,000 people in Louisiana who speak French at home, the most of any state if excluding French Creoles.[8]


See main article: African French and Maghreb French.

A majority of the world's French-speaking population lives in Africa. According to the 2007 report by the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, an estimated 115 million African people spread across 31 francophone African countries can speak French either as a first or second language.

French is mostly a second language in Africa, but in some areas it has become a first language, such as in the region of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire[9] and in Libreville, Gabon.[10] It is not possible to speak of a single form of African French, but rather of diverse forms of African French which have developed due to the contact with many indigenous African languages.[11]

In the territories of the Indian Ocean, the French language is often spoken alongside French-derived creole languages, the major exception being Madagascar. There, a Malayo-Polynesian language (Malagasy) is spoken alongside French. The French language has also met with competition from English, since English has been the official language in Mauritius and the Seychelles for a while and has recently become an official language of Madagascar.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region where the French language is most likely to expand, due to the expansion of education. It is also where the language has evolved the most in recent years.[12] [13] Some vernacular forms of French in Africa can be difficult to understand for French speakers from other countries[14], but written forms of the language are very closely related to those of the rest of the French-speaking world.

French is an official language in many African countries, most of them former French or Belgian colonies:

In addition, French is an administrative language and commonly used, though not on an official basis, in Mauritius and in the Maghreb states:

In Algeria, various reforms have been implemented in recent decades to improve the status of Arabic relative to French, especially in education.

While the predominant European language in Egypt is English, French is considered to be a more sophisticated language by some elements of the Egyptian upper and upper-middle classes; for this reason, a typical educated Egyptian will learn French in addition to English at some point in his or her education. The perception of sophistication may be related to the use of French as the royal court language of Egypt during the nineteenth century. Egypt participates in La Francophonie.

French is also the official language of Mayotte and Réunion, two overseas territories of France located in the Indian Ocean, as well as an administrative and educational language in Mauritius, along with English.



French was the official language in Lebanon, along with Arabic, until 1941, when the country declared independence from France. French is still considered an official language by the Lebanese people and is used on bank notes (along with Arabic) and on official buildings. French is widely used by the Lebanese, especially for administrative purposes, and is taught in many schools as a primary language along with Arabic.

Southeast Asia

French is an administrative language in Laos and Cambodia, although its influence has waned in recent years.[15] In colonial Vietnam, the elites spoke French, and many who worked for the French spoke a French creole known as "Tây Bồi" (now extinct). The language was also spoken by the elite in the leased territory Guangzhouwan in southern China.

In Myanmar, French is gaining popularity amongst university students and the tourism sector, as the country slowly opens up. French is not offered at the basic education level, but the University of Foreign Languages in Yangon offers a B.A. in French, and Alliance Française has active centres in Yangon and Mandalay. The Francophone community is estimated to number from 25,000 to 50,000+.

In Singapore, the top 10% of Primary School Leaving Examination graduates may choose to opt for French as a second or third language in secondary school, however, French is not an official language in Singapore, and is little spoken among locals.


French has de-jure official status in the Indian Union Territory of Pondicherry, along with the regional languages Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Some students of Tamil Nadu opt for French as their second or third language (usually behind English and Tamil).

French is commonly taught as a third language in secondary schools in most cities of Maharashtra, including Mumbai, as part of the preparation for secondary school (X-SSC) and higher secondary school (XII-HSC) certificate examinations. Certain high-profile schools affiliated with the CBSE in the NCR offer French as an option as early as grade 4. In grade 9, students are asked to drop either French or Hindi, which is their native language.


French is a second official language of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, along with France's territories of French Polynesia, Wallis & Futuna and New Caledonia.


See main article: Dialects of the French language.


See main article: History of French.


See main article: French phonology.

Although there are many French regional accents, only one version of the language is normally chosen as a model for foreign learners, which has no commonly-used special name.

French pronunciation follows strict rules based on spelling, but French spelling is often based more on history than phonology. The rules for pronunciation vary between dialects, but the standard rules are:


See main article: French orthography.

Writing system

See main article: French alphabet.

French is written using the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, plus five diacritics (the circumflex accent, acute accent, grave accent, diaeresis, and cedilla) and the two ligatures (œ) and (æ).

French spelling, like English spelling, tends to preserve obsolete pronunciation rules. This is mainly due to extreme phonetic changes since the Old French period, without a corresponding change in spelling. Moreover, some conscious changes were made to restore Latin orthography:

As a result, it is difficult to predict the spelling on the basis of the sound alone. Final consonants are generally silent, except when the following word begins with a vowel. For example, all of these words end in a vowel sound: pied, aller, les, French: finit, beaux. The same words followed by a vowel, however, may sound the consonants, as they do in these examples: beaux-arts, les amis, pied-à-terre.

On the other hand, a given spelling will almost always lead to a predictable sound, and the Académie française works hard to enforce and update this correspondence. In particular, a given vowel combination or diacritic predictably leads to one phoneme.

The diacritics have phonetic, semantic, and etymological significance.

There are two ligatures, which have various origins:

French writing, as with any language, is affected by the spoken language. In Old French, the plural for animal was animals. Common speakers pronounced a u before a word ending in l as the plural. This resulted in animauls. As the French language evolved this vanished and the form animaux (aux pronounced) was admitted. The same is true for cheval pluralized as chevaux and many others. Also castel pl. castels became château pl. châteaux.


See main article: French grammar.

French grammar shares several notable features with most other Romance languages, including:

French word order is Subject Verb Object, except when the object is a pronoun, in which case the word order is Subject Object Verb. Some rare archaisms allow for different word orders.


The majority of French words derive from Vulgar Latin or were constructed from Latin or Greek roots. There are often pairs of words, one form being "popular" (noun) and the other one "savant" (adjective), both originating from Latin. Example:

In some examples there is a common word from Vulgar Latin and a more savant word borrowed directly from Medieval Latin or even Ancient Greek.

The French words which have developed from Latin are usually less recognisable than Italian words of Latin origin because as French evolved from Vulgar Latin, the unstressed final syllable of many words was dropped or elided into the following word.

It is estimated that 12% (4,200) of common French words found in a typical dictionary such as the Petit Larousse or Micro-Robert Plus (35,000 words) are of foreign origin. About 25% (1,054) of these foreign words come from English and are fairly recent borrowings. The others are some 707 words from Italian, 550 from ancient Germanic languages, 481 from ancient Gallo-Romance languages, 215 from Arabic, 164 from German, 160 from Celtic languages, 159 from Spanish, 153 from Dutch, 112 from Persian and Sanskrit, 101 from Native American languages, 89 from other Asian languages, 56 from other Afro-Asiatic languages, 55 from Slavic languages and Baltic languages, 10 for Basque and 144 — about three percent — from other languages.[17]


The French counting system is partially vigesimal: twenty (French: vingt) is used as a base number in the names of numbers from 60–99. The French word for eighty, for example, is French: quatre-vingts, which literally means "four twenties", and French: soixante-quinze (literally "sixty-fifteen") means 75. This reform arose after the French Revolution to unify the different counting system (mostly vigesimal near the coast, due to Celtic (via Breton) and Viking influence). This system is comparable to the archaic English use of score, as in "fourscore and seven" (87), or "threescore and ten" (70).

Belgian French and Swiss French are different in this respect. In Belgium and Switzerland 70 and 90 are French: septante and French: nonante. In Switzerland, depending on the local dialect, 80 can be French: quatre-vingts (Geneva, Neuchâtel, Jura) or French: huitante (Vaud, Valais, Fribourg). Octante had been used in Switzerland in the past, but is now considered archaic.[18] In Belgium, however, quatre-vingts is universally used.

It should also be noted that French uses a period or a space to separate thousands where English uses a comma. The comma is used in French numbers as a decimal point: 2,5 = deux virgule cinq.

Cardinal numbers in French from 1 to 20 are as follows:


The "Canadian" audio samples here are not necessarily from speakers of Québec French, which has distinct regional pronunciations of certain words.references needed

EnglishFrenchIPA pronunciation (Canadian accent)IPA pronunciation (French accent)
YesOui, except when responding to a negatively posed question, in which case Si is used preferentially over Oui (like German "doch")
Hello!Bonjour! (formal) or Salut (informal)
Good evening!Bonsoir!
Good night!Bonne nuit!
Goodbye!Au revoir!
Have a nice day!Bonne journée!
PleaseS'il vous plaît (formal) or S'il te plaît (informal)
Thank youMerci
You're welcomeDe rien ("it is nothing") or Je vous en prie (formal) or Je t'en prie (informal)
I'm sorryPardon or Je suis désolé (if male) / Je suis désolée (if female) / Je m'excuse / /
Who?Qui ?
What?Quoi ? (←informal

Notes and References

  1. Web site: French: A language of France. 2008-08-29. Gordon, Raymond G., Jr.. 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. SIL International. 51,000,000 in France. Population total all countries: 64,858,311.
  2. Loi constitutionnelle 1992 — French: C'est à la loi constitutionnelle du 25 juin 1992, rédigée dans le cadre de l'intégration européenne, que l'on doit la première déclaration de principe sur le français, langue de la République.
  3. Belgium's new linguistic challenge. Van Parijs, Philippe, Professor of economic and social ethics at the UCLouvain, Visiting Professor at Harvard University and the KULeuven. KVS Express (supplement to newspaper De Morgen) March–April 2006. Article from original source (pdf 4.9 MB) pages 34–36 republished by the Belgian Federal Government Service (ministry) of Economy — Directorate-general Statistics Belgium. pdf 0.7 MB. 2007-05-05. — The linguistic situation in Belgium (and in particular various estimations of the population speaking French and Dutch in Brussels) is discussed in detail.
  4. Victor Ginsburgh, Shlomo Weber. La dynamique des langues en Belgique. Regards économiques, Publication préparée par les économistes de l'Université Catholique de Louvain. June. 2006. Numéro 42. French: Les enquêtes montrent que la Flandre est bien plus multilingue, ce qui est sans doute un fait bien connu, mais la différence est considérable : alors que 59 % et 53 % des Flamands connaissent le français ou l'anglais respectivement, seulement 19 % et 17 % des Wallons connaissent le néerlandais ou l'anglais. … 95 pour cent des Bruxellois déclarent parler le français, alors que ce pourcentage tombe à 59 pour cent pour le néerlandais. Quant à l’anglais, il est connu par une proportion importante de la population à Bruxelles (41 pour cent). pdf. 7 May. 2007.
  5. 40%+60%*59%=75.4%
  6. text
  7. National Virtual Translation Center
  8. U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Summary File 3
  9. Le français à Abidjan : Pour une approche syntaxique du non-standard by Katja Ploog, CNRS Editions, Paris, 2002
  10. "De plus, le français est également devenu la langue maternelle de plus de 30 % des Librevillois et il est de plus en plus perçu comme une langue gabonaise."
  11. "En Afrique, il est impossible de parler d'une forme unique du français mais..."
  12. "Le français, langue en évolutionDans beaucoup de pays Francophones, surtout sur le continent africain, une proportion importante de la population ne parle pas couramment le français (même s'il est souvent la langue officielle du pays). Ce qui signifie qu'au fur et à mesure que les nouvelles générations vont à l'école, le nombre de Francophones augmente: on estime qu'en 2015, ceux-ci seront deux fois plus nombreux qu'aujourd'hui."
  13. c) Le sabir franco-africain: French: "C'est la variété du français la plus fluctuante. Le sabir franco-africain est instable et hétérogène sous toutes ses formes. Il existe des énoncés où les mots sont français mais leur ordre reste celui de la langue africaine. En somme, autant les langues africaines sont envahies par les structures et les mots français, autant la langue française se métamorphose en Afrique, donnant naissance à plusieurs variétés."
  14. République centrafricaine: French: Il existe une autre variété de français, beaucoup plus répandu et plus permissive: le français local. C'est un français très influencé par les langues centrafricaines, surtout par le sango. Cette variété est parlée par les classes non instruites, qui n'ont pu terminer leur scolarité. Ils utilisent ce qu'ils connaissent du français avec des emprunts massifs aux langues locales. Cette variété peut causer des problèmes de compréhension avec les Francophones des autres pays, car les interférences linguistiques, d'ordre lexical et sémantique, sont très importantes. (One example of a variety of African French that is difficult to understand for European French speakers).
  15. French Declines in Indochina, as English Booms
  16. La ligature æ
  17. Walter & Walter 1998
  18. Web site: Septante, octante, huitante, nonante. . See also the English Wikipedia article on Welsh language, especially the section "Counting system" and its note on the influence of Celtic in the French counting system.