Dwarfed by the 1.5 billion people that speak English, the world’s 274 million French speakers have an uncertain future. French remains one of the official languages of the UN, NATO and the International Olympic Committee, but its usage is in decline. French institutions had hoped that rapid population growth in French-speaking Africa would change the language’s fortunes, with a 2014 study by a French investment bank suggesting that it could be the most-spoken language of the world by 2050. However, as several sub-Saharan countries such as Rwanda have successfully adopted English so as to increase their economic competitiveness, it is clear the Gallic noises made by Macron in Burkina Faso this week may have been premature.
French was the language of international diplomacy; those groomed for lives that would traverse the global elite had to master French politesse. Foreign monarchs such as the tsars of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia were actually more comfortable speaking French than Russian or German, which often meant official court business was conducted in French. However, the digital age has rapidly impacted France’s global reach as opposed to pushing it further. What is known as the “network effect” is central to explaining how a language becomes more useful and ergo more widely spoken. When an increasing number of people speak a language, it is then more worthwhile to speak it to communicate more efficiently with a larger group of people. And, with more than half of online content being in English, the network effect is that more people worldwide are incentivized to learn the language.
The English language discarded the awkward accenting of certain letters centuries ago. However, the French attachment to such accents has slowed its usage online. The Academie Francaise, established in the 17th century to protect French from the influence of Italianisms, now highlights global English as the greatest threat. It insists French speakers use words like “courrier electronique” and “un moteur de recherche” instead of “email” and “search engine,” acting as an institutional barrier to France improving its accessibility to the online global economy.
The isolation of French-speaking communities has also been noted as a reason for the decline of the language. Communities in Guadeloupe, Vietnam and Quebec find themselves surrounded by territories that use English for business parlance. The result is that they sometimes abandon French for more useful regional languages. In Vietnam, students have protested against learning French, arguing English to be the most useful in improving their career prospects. Similar trends have been avoided by German, Russian and Arabic-speaking peoples, who are based in numerous adjacent countries, allowing for their languages to remain relevant.
Britain may be leaving the EU but English remains the most-spoken language in the bloc, meaning Macron’s high hopes of a new era may be misplaced.
Zaid M. Belbagi
The number of native English speakers is a fraction of the global total and, for that reason, the UK’s departure from the EU won’t help greatly in increasing the usage of French. English is the second language of union officials and the language’s importance is stronger than ever, especially in markets that the EU hopes to cooperate with.
Mario Monti, the former Italian prime minister and European Commissioner, recently stressed that English should become the main official language of the EU once the UK leaves. English is spoken by 41 percent of Europeans, while 19 percent speak French. Within this context, the periodic efforts of the archaic Academie Francaise may not be enough to frustrate English language growth. As the British Council continues to deploy a budget 25 times that of La Francophonie in an effort to advance English, Macron has lots more to do in his efforts to increase global usage of French.
With Germany unable to form a government and the French president at the helm of an impressive new political party, it is tempting to consider a future of French leadership of the EU. However, the French economy lags behind that of Germany and, in a union where there are more languages than member states, how French can force itself into the mainstream remains unclear.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid