French makes inroads in Africa

2010-03-19 15:01

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Paris - French is on the rise in Africa but the language of Moliere is still losing ground to English in global venues, the Francophonie group of countries warned ahead of a weekend gathering.

Envoys from across the French-speaking world will celebrate the 40th anniversary of their organisation in Paris on Saturday, taking stock of their shared language's standing on five continents.

French is the ninth most widely-spoken language in the world, according to the Observatory of the French Language set up by the Francophonie, which groups 70 countries where French is spoken.

It ranks behind Mandarin Chinese and English, and is Europe's fifth most spoken language, behind Spanish, Russian and Portuguese.

French also trails behind Arabic and is outpaced by two languages from India - Hindi and Bengali - which are more widely spoken in the world.

An increase in the number of French speakers, especially in Africa, seems to contradict the view that the language is in decline, officials say.

"The figures we'll be publishing in September to coincide with the next summit of the Francophonie, will reflect a net rise in French speakers since 2007", Alexandre Wolff of the French language observatory told AFP.

By 2050, there will 700 million francophones in the world, according to projections, although the total world population will also have increased.

Plurality of languages


Of the 200 million-odd French-speakers around the world, half live in Africa. A rise in literacy rates and a population boom are contributing to the language's expansion on the continent.

Of the Francophonie's 56 member-countries and 14 observer states, 26 are from Africa, with the notable exception of Algeria, which is not a member to protest France's preeminent role in the club.

As a second language taught in schools and not widely spoken at home, the French language's foothold in Africa remains precarious however, officials say.

"French is spoken as a mother tongue in France, Francophone Belgium, French-speaking regions of Switzerland, Luxembourg, Monaco and certain provinces of Canada, most notably Quebec," said Wolff.

The latest assessment however shows English continuing its advance as the lingua franca for international organisations, including the European Union.

"Less that a quarter of the working documents (from the EU) are written in French, compared with half just 20 years ago", said Wolff.

One of the main purposes of the Francophonie is to push for a plurality of languages to be used on a global level.

France remains the main financial backer of la Francophonie with Canada's French-speaking provinces also providing funds.

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