There are a number of vernacular languages of France as well as recent imported foreign languages. French is the sole official language and is by far the most widely spoken, but several regional languages are also spoken to varying degrees. Owing to immigration, a number of non-indigenous tongues are now also spoken in parts of the country. The map to the right displays the historical areas in which regional languages have been spoken. Some of these languages have also been spoken in neighbouring countries.
See main article: Language policy in France. The official language of the French Republic is French (art. 2 of the French Constitution) and the French government is, by law, compelled to communicate primarily in French. The government, furthermore, mandates that commercial advertising be available in French (though it can also use other languages); see Toubon Law. The French government, however, does not mandate the usage of French in non-commercial publications by private individuals or corporations or in any other media.
The 1999 Report written for the government by Bernard Cerquiglini identified 75 languages that would qualify for recognition under the government's proposed ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. 24 of those languages are indigenous to the European territory of the state while all the others are from overseas areas of the French Republic (in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean and South America).
Although ratification was blocked by the Constitutional Council as contradicting the Fifth Republic's constitutional provision enshrining French as the language of the Republic, the government continues to recognise regional and minority languages to a limited extent (i.e. without granting them official status) and the Délégation générale à la langue française has acquired the additional function of observing and studying the languages of France and has had et aux langues de France added to its title. The category of languages of France (in French: langues de France) is thus administratively recognised even if this does not go as far as providing any official status.
The regional languages of France are sometimes called patois, but this term (roughly meaning "dialect") is often considered derogatory. Patois is used to refer to supposedly purely oral languages, but this does not, for instance, take into account that Occitan was already being written at a time when French was not and its literature has continued to thrive, with a Nobel Prize for Frédéric Mistral in 1904.
At the time of the French revolution in 1789 it is estimated that only half of the population of France spoke French, and by 1871 only a quarter spoke French.
The topic of the teaching of regional languages in public primary and secondary schools is controversial. Proponents of the measure state that it would be necessary for the preservation of those languages and to show respect to the local culture. Opponents contend that local languages are often non-standardised (thus making curricula difficult), of dubious practical usefulness (since most are spoken by a small number of people, without any sizable corpus of publications) and that the curriculum and funding of public schools are already too strained. The topic also leads to wider controversial questions of autonomy of the régions. Regarding other languages, English, Spanish, Italian and German are the most commonly studied foreign languages in French schools.
In April 2001, the Minister of Education, Jack Lang http://prouvenco.presso.free.fr/archi.educ.html#lang, admitted formally that for more than two centuries, the political powers of the French government had repressed regional languages, and announced that bilingual education would, for the first time, be recognised, and bilingual teachers recruited in French public schools.
Some of the languages of France are also cross-border languages (for example, Basque, Catalan, Picard, Norman, Franco-Provençal, Dutch, Occitan, Franc-Comtois and others), some of which enjoy a recognised or official status in the respective neighbouring state or territory (including French itself in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and in the Val-d'Aoste).
The languages of Metropolitan France include:
There are also several languages spoken in France's overseas areas (see Administrative divisions of France for details)
French Sign Language is also recognised as a language of France.
There are immigrant languages spoken in some parts of France.
At the 1999 census, INSEE sampled 380,000 adult people all across Metropolitan France, and asked them questions about their family situation. One of the questions was about the languages that their parents spoke with them before the age of 5. This is the first time serious statistics were computed about the proportion of mother tongues in France. The results were published in Enquête familiale, Insee, 1999.
Here is a list of the nine most prominent mother tongues in France based on Enquête familiale.
|Rank||Language||Mother tongue||Percentage of adult population|
(note that this figure is an underestimate because people under 18 years of age were not surveyed; see note #2 below the table)
(Alsatian, Lorraine Franconian, etc.)
(of whom Alsatian: 660,000;
standard German: 210,000;
Lorraine Franconian: 100,000)
(of whom Alsatian: 1.44%;
standard German: 0.46%;
Lorraine Franconian: 0.22%)
(especially Maghrebi Arabic)
(Languedocian, Gascon, Provençal, etc.)
(another 1,060,000 had some exposure)
(another 2.32% had some exposure, see notes)
(Picard, Gallo, Poitevin, Saintongeais, etc.)
(another 850,000 had some exposure)
(another 1.86% had some exposure, see notes)
|7||Italian, Corsican and Ligurian (Niçard)||540,000||1.19%|
(another 405,000 had some exposure)
(another 0.87% had some exposure, see notes)
|10||About 400 other languages|
(Polish, Berber languages, East Asian languages, Catalan, Franco-Provençal, Corsican, Basque, West Flemish, etc.)
as well as those who gave no response
(of whom English: 115,000)
(of whom English: 0.25% of total adult population)
(46,680,000 including those with two mother tongues who were counted twice)
(2% of people have both French and another language as their mother tongue, thus, they are counted twice)
If we add up people with mother tongue and people with some exposure to the language before the age of 5 (see note #3 below), then the five most important languages in metropolitan France are (note that the percentages add up to more than 100, because many people are now counted twice):
1- The data in the table are about mother tongues, and not about actual language practice. It states that 14% of the adult people living in France in 1999 were born and raised up to the age of 5 in families that spoke only (or predominantly) some other languages than French. It does not mean that 14% of adult people in France spoke some other languages than French in 1999.
2- Only adults (i.e. 18 years and older) were surveyed. This means that French people born between 1981 and 1999 are not included in the survey. The mother tongue of the younger generations is more predominantly French than is the case with the older generations, because as the Enquête familiale survey explains, regional and immigrant language transmission decreases dramatically with each new generation, as French replaces the regional and immigrant languages. In the Enquête familiale survey, only 35% of parents whose mother tongue was a regional or immigrant language reported they spoke that language to their children. Thus, the 86% figure of people with French as their mother tongue is an underestimate because the younger generations whose predominant mother tongue is French are not counted.
3- The concept of "mother tongue" may not give a complete idea of the phenomenon of minority languages in France. This is because there are many people who were born and raised in families in which parents spoke to them only (or predominantly) French, but in which some regional or immigration languages were also occasionally used. One example: while the data tell us that 610,000 adults in 1999 had one of the Occitan dialects as their mother tongue, the survey also found out that another 1,060,000 adults were born and raised in families in which one of the Occitan dialects was occasionally spoken. Some of these 1,060,000 people may speak Occitan as fluently as the 610,000 people who have it as a mother tongue, while some other (the majority, probably) have only a limited knowledge of Occitan. We cannot infer from this that 1,670,000 adults are speakers of Occitan, but it may be the case that the total number of people with some form of exposure to Occitan is higher than the 610,000 figure, though some of this number may have abandoned the language since then.