Francophone summit

by Terence MacNamee

The summit meeting of the Francophonie, the association of French-speaking countries, will be held shortly in Dakar. The organisation has just released its report on the state of the French-speaking world, which makes interesting reading. It seems that the number of French speakers across the world grew by 25 percent since 2010, from 220 million in 2010 to 274 million in 2014. French is the fifth most widely spoken language in the world. It is, significantly, the second most learned language in the world. (English is the first, as is not hard to guess.)

This marked increase in the number of speakers in the world is apparently due to population growth in black Africa. It means that soon the language may have most of its speakers in Africa. One wonders what this is going to mean for the language. The French language is clearly France’s most successful export, and the country’s government would like to profit from it economically. Yet France has always defined itself as a nation. The adjective “nationalistic” could be applied to France much more than Britain. This is so first of all because Britain is not just England, but also because Britain, as part of its empire-building, went about exporting large sections of its population and establishing replicas of itself elsewhere. So the English language inevitably became decentralized. If the British were now to say that the English language belongs to them, the Americans would soon remind them that they have no monopoly on the language at all.

Having your language become a world language is a mixed blessing. It is very nice that all these other people are speaking your language, so you can talk to them in it. On the other hand, it no longer belongs to you. You have lost the monopoly. Other people can do what they like with the language, and you can’t complain or call them to order.

English speakers, especially British speakers of English from the heartlands of English, have had to accept this in return for world status, though they can’t help feeling uneasy about it if they think about it at all. French speakers from the French heartlands, who believe that the language uniquely expresses French values, are likely to find it even harder to accept that French is becoming an African language and is going to express the ideas and aspirations of people who share little with France except a colonial past.