Despite appearances, the term ‘lingua franca’ does not refer to France, or even the French language. In fact 'lingua franca' is a Latin term which means ‘language of the Franks’ — that is, the language of the Europeans. The original lingua franca was spoken by people across a range of countries around the Mediterranean, and so the term has stayed on as a catch-all for any language spoken across more than one culture or community.
French is a modern day lingua franca, and boasts many more speakers than its Mediterranean namesake. Indeed, it is spoken in an official capacity on six continents and is one of the most useful languages for business and diplomacy. But how did it come to be so widely spoken? Why is French an official language of NATO, the EU and the WTO? And why are people from Cameroon and Tunisia to Tahiti and Canada brought up speaking a language that originated in Western Europe?
How French Spread Through Europe
What we call French today originated in Gaul, the Roman name for a region of Western France. Over the centuries, French evolved from Latin, in much the same way as did Spanish and Italian. But by the 17th century, French had largely replaced Latin as the language of diplomacy across much of Europe, owing to France’s economic and political prestige, and Latin’s status as a dead language. France’s territorial expansions throughout history, combined with the country’s continued status as a regional power, are just two reasons why the language is one of the three procedural languages of the EU (alongside English and German), as well as an official language in Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Monaco, and why it enjoys immense popularity as a second language in much of the rest of Europe.
One French, Two Empires
The proliferation of French beyond Europe, however, came as a result of France’s empire — or rather, empires. The First French Colonial Empire lasted from 1534 to 1814, and oversaw significant French expansion into the Americas and India. However, it was not until the Second French Colonial Empire (1830-1980) — after a brief hiatus during the Napoleonic Wars — that French power — and therefore the French language — spread across much of Northwest Africa and Madagascar. In nearly all these territories, French was introduced as a language of governance, and in many of them it is still an official or co-official language even after independence.
In Africa alone there are nearly 100 million French speakers, accounting for around 8% of the population of the continent. By 2050, this number is predicted to grow to more than 500 million.
A Language Without Borders
In many African countries, where multiple languages are spoken, French is conveniently placed to act as a useful, intermediary language. While French became the language of government during their time as colonies of France or Belgium, the language has stayed on as an official language so as not to give precedence to the language of any local cultural or ethnic group above others. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, while French is the nation's official language, Lingala, Swahili, Tshiluba and Kikongo ya leta are all also recognised languages spoken in different parts of the country. Unlike these local languages, the more international scope of French allows it to act as a linguistic bridge to the wider world.
That said, different parts of Africa have over time developed their own varieties of French. The French spoken in the Maghreb region, for example, is markedly different from the variety spoken in Madagscar. And then there is Français populaire africain, a dialect spoken in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa which, while originally considered by many to be a colloquial offshoot of traditional French, is increasingly becoming more accepted across the continent.
The (Relative) Simplicity of French
While French may not have as many native speakers as Mandarin, Arabic or Hindi/Urdu, many students find it easier to learn. This is particularly the case for students whose first language is a European language — about a quarter of the world's population.
Indeed, the Foreign Service Institute created a list of languages sorted by how easy they are to learn. French can be found in the first category, the easiest, while other major languages such as Mandarin and Arabic are in Category 5 — the hardest!
So while there are other languages that are useful for business, the ease with which you can learn French may well tip the balance for many students when it comes to making that decision.
A Language of Culture
French isn’t just useful for business, or for communicating with people across the world — many also choose to learn the language for its immense cultural significance.
From books to movies to music, France is renowned around the world for its influential culture, and it isn't unusual for people to study French for no other reason than to understand the lyrics to the songs they listen to, or to read Madame Bovary as it was originally written. As a result of this, French also carries a reputation for being somewhat 'refined', and among English-speakers, some choose to employ French words and phrases to lend their sentences an air of sophistication. While learning any language can make you look smart, this is doubly true with French!
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