Questions From Our Readers
Dear Julie and Jean-Benoît,
You made a good point on stressing the difference between the number of native speakers inside every country and the relevance of a language as an international communication vehicle on the international level. For sure, second-largest speaking communities in many countries, or the role of a language as the first foreign language being learnt, is a most relevant issue to be taken into account.
Nevertheless I would like to see some dynamic aspects treated in this discussion. In fact, what we are experiencing since the sixties / seventies is a sharpened decline of French in many countries not only as the first-learnt foreign language (in the English-speaking and in the Romanic ones), but also as the second-learnt foreign language (replaced rapidly by Spanish). With such a trend, I’m afraid the scenario you describe regarding French-speaking communities may not last long, at least in Europe. What could be done against it?
Actually, French has almost not declined anywhere. What you see is more competition. I have examined the statistics of Spanish teaching as a second language very closely, and it is very concentrated in three countries: Brazil (10 million learners), USA (6 million learners) and France (2.1 million). These three countries represent nearly three quarters of the 23 million people who learn Spanish elsewhere. The next tier on the list are Germany and Italy with 452,000 and 303,000 respectively, after those there is a sharp decline.
Even in the United States, the teaching of French has not declined in absolute numbers for 30 years and is rather stable. What has been new is the relative rise of Spanish, but this is characteristic of only the USA aside from Brazil. (More info on Spanish is found in our latest book, The Story of Spanish).
It is true, however, that the teaching of French has declined in Latin American countries, there is no doubt about that, but it is doing well elsewhere. And the popularity of the Alliance française in Latin America suggests that there is a big difference between the interest in French and the second language instruction the government chooses to offer.
Most of the world’s views on the decline of French has to do with good old triumphalism on the part of the Anglo-American media and also the false idea that languages are a zero-sum game, that is that French goes down because Spanish or English goes up. This is not necessarily the case. For instance, it is not because Gabon and Senegal are introducing English teaching in their programs that French automatically declines. English is learned in addition to French. Same reasoning applies to Nigeria, which introduced French as a second-language 15 years ago and is teaching it to 2 million kids. This doesn’t mark the end of English in Nigeria.
Another reason why so many believe French is declining is because the French themselves are convinced of it and have been down on their own language for 30 years, (most particularly in higher learning and high diplomacy sectors), but the story of French demonstrates that French has been detached from France for over 1000 years, which is exceptional when compared to other European languages.
This is not to say that French doesn’t have its problems as an international language, but the idea that it is in decline is taken too often for granted.