The French language is the fifth most spoken language in the world. More than 75 million people speak French as their first language and an impressive 200 million speak the "language of romance" as a second language. The French language shines in the field of language learning. It is the second (or third) most studied language in the world and has about 120 million active learners at the moment!
So a lot of people on this planet speak French. But you came here with one question in mind:
How many countries in the world speak French?
French is an official language in 29 countries. In 13 of these, French is the only official language and in the 16 others, it shares the status with one or multiple other languages. Yet, many countries have significant numbers of French speakers, but without French being an official language. So how do you count?
For a moment, let's ignore whether or not a country has politically decided to make French an official language and look at some numbers:
According to multiple national surveys, there are
- 13 countries with at least 50% of people who speak French
- 29 countries with at least 25% of people who speak French
- 48 countries with at least 10% of people who speak French
So how many French speakers does a country have to have in order for it to be a "French speaking country"?
There aren't really any clear definitions to what makes a "French speaking country". All countries in the world probably have at least one French speaker, so all countries are French speaking to a degree..
But if you want to travel somewhere and rely on French while there?
In this case, I'd probably pick one of the 29 countries where at least 25% of the population speaks French. That way, you won't have to look too long before finding someone in the streets who can help you with directions.
Where In The World Is French Spoken, Then?
To answer this, I'm going to focus on the 29 countries where at least 25% of the population speaks French.
Out of these, 7 countries in Europe have more than 25% of French speakers, totaling 40% of the world's French speakers
These are France (obviously), Monaco, Luxembourg, Belgium, Andorra, Switzerland and Portugal. With the exception of Portugal, which has about 25% French speakers, all of the other countries have over 65% of people who speak French, which means that you'll have no trouble getting by only with the French language.
18 of the 29 most francophone countries and 50% of the world's French speakers are in Africa.
These countries are Mauritus, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Seychelles, Tunisia, DR Congo, Djibouti, Cameroon, Togo, Morocco, Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic, Comoros, Senegal and Guinea. Mauritus ranks highest with 73% French speakers, whereas Guinea, on the lower end of the scale, has 25%.
2 of the 29 most French speaking countries and 8% of the world's French speakers are in the Americas.
Out of these two, Haiti has 42% French speakers and Canada has 29%
1 out of the 29 most French speaking countries, and 1% of the total amount of French speakers can be found in Asia
Or more precisely: The Middle-East. The country is Lebanon with 38% of its population being Francophone.
1 out of the 29 most French speaking countries and under 1% of the total amount of French speakers are located on the Australian continent, or Oceania
And that one country is the small country of Vanatu, where 32% of the country's population of 270.000 speak French.
How French Became An International Language
As you might have been able to gather from the above, the French language is present all around the world. But how did the French language end up covering the planet?
The answer to the question touches on one that we often hear repeated in history. The rise and fall of empires. The French language spoken in France can be traced back to an earlier empire, namely that of the Romans.
The Roman Empire conquered regions on three continents over 2,000 years ago and spread their culture and the Latin language by the sword. For centuries, vast territories in Europe, Africa and the Near East were dominated by the Romans and their Latin language.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, independent countries formed, and many kept speaking Latin, or Vulgar Latin which was the "everyday" version of the language. With the passing of centuries, this "Vulgar Latin" language turned into languages such as Romanian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French.
In the 16th century, the Kingdom of France began conquering foreign lands like their ancestors, the Romans had done before them. This brought the French and their language to "The New World", the Americas, as well as Africa, Asia and even the Australian continent. Many other European countries joined in, in this new colonial era, and French speaking Belgium also had important colonies, mainly in Africa.
This colonial rule was neither just nor pretty in any way, but it's one of the biggest reasons that languages such as French and English did spread around the globe. While many of the former French colonies have moved away from French culture and languages, like Vietnam and to some extent Algeria, the French language remains an important and a dominant language in the world today.
And What The Future Might Hold for the French Language
The story about how the Romans conquered a big part of the world, dominated it with their language and then saw their empire collapse reminds me of the French Colonial Empire.
After the fall of Rome, Vulgar Latin turned into several different dialects that in turn evolved into different languages.
I think that the same will happen to the old francophone colonies. In fact, in a way, it's already happening.
While some of France's old colonies are moving away from the French language, others are adapting it or borrowing from it to form creole languages that better suit their culture and their needs.
Others borrow words from French and integrate them into their own languages that are otherwise completely unrelated to French.
Haiti and the Seychelles, for example are countries with high percentages of French speakers. French is often used in education, official documents and so on. But the everyday languages are creole languages. These are languages that are somewhat based on French, but yet greatly changed.
Watch the below video to hear an example of Haitian Creole.
In Algeria, numerous French loan words are integrated into the local language. Sometimes they're hardly recognizable as French words anymore. But there's no other way to say "car" than "tomobile" (from the early 20th century french "automobile") and cauliflower is "chiflour" (from the French chou fleur).
In Algeria (as well as many other multi-lingual countries), you'll also often witness code-switching. Code-switching is a phenomenon where a person will mix two or more languages in only one sentence.
He or she may, for example, start out in Algerian Derja, then say 3-4 words in French and go back and finish the sentence in Algerian. This all happens in a very natural way, and is a very general thing that most multilinguals in Algeria do. Often, however, the French words will take an Algerian accent when spoken in an Algerian context or vice versa.
The fun part is, that once you're used to the culture of code-switching, you'll be likely to do it with all the languages you know. An Algerian who knows Algerian and French and who has learned English and German is likely to mix all four languages while speaking.
Canadian French is yet another example of French that's gradually changing into something else. Although not entirely isolated from France, the Canadian version of French has evolved beyond what you'd call a dialect. The pronunciation of Canadian French has a certain "American" sound to it, and vocabulary is often quite different. One could imagine that the Canadian French language could, with time, move further away from standard French and eventually become a language of its own.
To Sum Up: How Many Countries Speak French?
It's not easy to pinpoint how many countries are actually "French speaking". How do you define a French speaking country? There are 29 countries which consider French their official language, yet some of these countries have very few French speakers. On the other hand some big French-speaking countries haven't got French as an official language.
Then you can look at the percentage of French speakers in any given country and count those that are over 10, 25, or maybe 50%. But how big a percentage do we need to decide that the country is indeed a French speaking one?
Finally, some of the countries that do speak French, actually speak variants of French that are quite distinctly different from the French spoken in France. So when is French really French?