Have you heard the term “lingua franca”? It designates a common language, one that is spoken by enough people that it is the accepted diplomatic language. These days, the lingua franca is English.
However, lingua franca actually means “French language”.
We hear a lot about the British Empire, but tend to forget that France had an impressive colonial empire as well. It centred more around Africa and some parts of South America and various Oceanic islands, but it was large enough that, for a time, French was the language of choice when meeting with someone from another nationality.
Let’s save the History for lesson for later, though, and take a look at the French language and how it can be learnt.
Here are some interesting facts about France and its official language.
As many people will know, French is a romantic language which derives from Latin, meaning that many of its words are recognisable across the various other romantic languages, namely European dialects. Despite English not sharing a great deal of these traits, you will still see some English words and expressions which are of French origin, making it relatively easy to pick up the language.
We bet you didn’t know you were already ‘au fait’ with the French language!
We have all heard of those popular French phrases too, commonly adopted in British conversations, like ‘déjà vu’, ‘je ne sais pas’, and ‘c’est la vie’.
Fortunately for learners, most French words ending with ‘-tion’ or ‘-sion’ are spelled almost exactly the same in English and generally have the same meaning.
If you learn French, you’ll have to understand the genders, verb conjugation and pronunciation of nasal sounds. Also, some vowels have accents and a few commonly used verbs are classed as ‘irregular’. In fact, almost every conjugation rule has an exception attached to it, when you delve deeper into it!
The most common verbs are:
If you learn French, you’ll have a head start in learning other languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or Catalan.
When we think of French-speakers, we think of the modern Hexagon, of Paris, of baguette and little cafés and stone-walled houses. But there are other places in Europe where French is an official language.
Belgium did not become its own country until 1839, when the Netherlands split into the current country of Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. This wasn’t long after the Netherlands had seceded from France in 1814 (it became a part of France after the French revolution.)
That whole area had spent most of its history oscillating between various powers, its population a mix speaking Dutch, French and German.
Belgium is split between a Dutch-speaking area in the North (Flanders) and a French-speaking area in the South (Wallonia). Both Dutch and French are official languages.
Belgian French is very similar to the language spoken in France, with a few variations. The most obvious is how they handle the numbers 80 and 90, calling them octante and nonante instead of quatre-vingts and quatre-vingt-dix. Belgium is famous as the home of Tintin creator Hergé and the creator of chips.
Wedged between Germany, France and Belgium, Luxembourg is one of several tiny sovereign nations in Europe, with a population of 576,249.
Luxembourg has a long history, with the first Count going back to 963 AD. At one time it commanded a fairly large territory; it was part of the Holy Roman Empire for some time, with several of the Emperors coming from there. It eventually became part of the Netherlands, changing hands along with Belgium. During the Belgian Rebellion of 1839, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg became an independent state.
Its official languages are French, German and Luxembourgish (a language closely related to German – some consider it a dialect, some a language in its own right). It is one of the three capitals of the European Union.
The Principality of Monaco is a second microstate to have French as one of its official languages. Situated along the French Riviera on the Mediterranean coast, its monarchy goes back to the 13th century. French is the main language spoken by its 38, 400 inhabitants next to Monégasque, the local language.
Of the remaining two microstates of Europe, Lichtenstein is primarily German-speaking but Andorra has a large percentage of French-speakers among its population, though its official language is Catalan. And then there is the Vatican.
The Vatican may not have a large French-speaking population, but French is one of its officia languages for diplomacy.
Switzerland has three official languages: French, Swiss German and Italian. Switzerland was a loose confederation of states within the Holy Roman Empire since the Middle Ages; it gained its independence in 1648.
Most inhabitants in Switzerland are bilingual, learning at least one of the other languages in school. French is mostly spoken in the West, with about 20% of the Swiss population being francophone.
The island of Sark is part of Guernsey. Some of its inhabitants still speak a variation of the French dialect spoken in Normandy. Photo credit: James.Stringer on VisualHunt.com
A little closer to home, the Channel island groups of Guernsey and Jersey have a fairly large French-speaking population. They are Crown dependencies just off the coast of Normandy and not an official part of the European Union. English is the official language, but a local dialect of Norman (the French spoken in Normandy), Sercquiais, is spoken on Sark.
Throughout French history, there were two waves of colonial expansion. The first established colonies in the Americas, of which very few survived the aftermath of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s monetary needs. The second wave did not start until after 1830 but soon became one of the largest in the world.
After wars in Vietnam and Algeria, most of the colonies were de-colonised fairly peacefully during the sixties. Many of them were on the continent of Africa, and an echo remains of the old colonial power where French remains an official language.
At the height of its colonial expansion, France occupied a good part of northern West Africa, reaching fairly deep into Central Africa. It all began with trading posts along the shore of what is now Senegal, starting 1624. Then, in the 19th century, the French began expanding their holdings, following the Senegal river and establishing trade in gum arabic, peanuts and slaves, though the French slave trade was never as extensive as the Portuguese or Dutch.
Here is a list of West African countries where French is still an official language or is at least spoken by a large segment of the population:
But francophone Africa is not limited to the West. A small group of countries in East Africa and some of the islands situated in the Indian Ocean (of which Madagascar is the largest) are French-speaking. Here is the list of countries in East Africa that speak French:
Of the islands in the Indian Ocean, just off the African continent mainland, the following remain primarily French-speaking:
French is still spoken on Madagascar, even though it has been independent since 1960. Photo credit: David Darricau on VisualHunt
Many North African countries remain strongly francophone, and French may be an administrative (though not an official) language – for example in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. Lebanon is also strongly francophone.
France once had extensive territories in the Americas, which it lost at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. Their occupiers left traces in these regions in the form of the French language, still spoken there today.
Haiti is a sovereign nation in the Caribbean on the western end of the island of Hispaniola (the rest of the island is occupied by the Dominican Republic.) Though first claimed by Spain, many French settled on the western end of the island. In 1625 their land was ceded to the French who imported African slaves to work on sugar plantations there. Haiti was on of the first of the French colonies to gain independence, as Charles X recognised Haiti as a sovereign nation in 1825 (though it was not the end of their worries). Haiti is one of the founding members of the United Nations.
Its two official languages are French and Haitian Creole.
Parts of Canada was claimed by France in 1534 by explorer Jacques Cartier. This colony was never as lucrative as some of the others, and the territory of New France was ceded to the British in 1763 after the Seven Year’s War. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 gave the newly-created (and renamed) colony of Québec a number of administrative liberties and a certain autonomy. This created tensions in the 13 colonies to the south that was one of the factors in the American bid for independence.
French is an official language throughout the Québec province. Photo credit: simplethrill on Visualhunt
Canada became independent from Britain in several steps, but through all of that Québec retained its cultural identity and Québécois, the French dialect spoken there, is a recognised official language. There are also fairly large francophone communities in New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba.
After the sale of the Louisiana Territory to the freshly-minted United States in 1803, a large swathe of land west of the Mississippi changed hands. The area is now English-speaking, but there are still some pockets where a form of French is spoken, called either Louisana French or Creole French. You can hear it spoken on YouTube, for example in this video. Like many Creole languages, verb forms tend towards the composite forms (and some special conjugations), and greater use of the words “quoi” and “que”.
Click here to learn 10 fun facts about France.
Most of the French-speaking islands in the Pacific are still a part of France. However, Vanuatu, a Melanesian archipelago claimed by the French in 1880, became independent a hundred years later. French is still an official language next to English and Bislama, a pidgin language particular to Vanuatu (there is not one native language in Vanuatu, but over a hundred, which is why a pidgin is the official language.)
Though France never got the foothold in India that the British Empire managed to establish, it did control several regions of India for a time, formerly known as Pondichéry, Karikal, Mahé and Yanaon. In 1962 all four districts officially became a part of India as the union territory of Puducherry. The same happened for a second region called Chantannagar. French is an official language in these regions.
In addition, many regions around the world still have French as their mother tongue because they are still an official part of France. France named them the DOM-TOM. This stands for Départements d’Outre-Mer – Territoires d’Outre-Mer (Overseas départements – overseas territories). While the DOM have exactly the same status as the départements (administrative districts) on the Continent, the TOM have a somewhat inferior status with no voting rights except in local elections. In 2007, the COM (Overseas Collectivities) were created to replace the antiquated TOM status. The COMs are represented in the French Parliament but are not an integral part of France, retaining a certain autonomy. For example, of the COMS only St. Martin is part of the European Union, and only the Atlantic COMS use the Euro.
The following regions abroad are considered French départements:
In 2003, the last of the TOMs became COMs (St- Pierre-et-Miquelon, French Polynesia, Wallis-and-Fortuna and Mayotte), with the exception of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, comprising uninhabited islands in the Southern Indian Ocean and around Madagascar, as well as the French claim to Antarctica, the Terre Adélie. None have a permanent population, but most of the researchers etc. to visit them speak French; they are administered by a Préfet.
The Collectivités D’Outre-Mer each have a slightly different status. They are semi-independent, but all still have French as one of their official languages. They are:
Clipperton Island is the most isolated place on the planet, and currently uninhabited. But when someone does visit, he or she speaks French. Photo credit: EVS-Islands on VisualHunt
Then there is the Île Clipperton, a small island about a thousand kilometres west of the coast of Mexico. It is considered the most isolated place on the planet. This atoll is administered directly by the Overseas Minister. It was once exploited for phosphate and guano, but both are now exhausted and the atoll is uninhabited.
To join the large group of French speakers, consider having a private tutor to help you learn French. Searching for French lessons London produces the most results on Superprof but there is a lot more choice if you’re willing to take French lessons online.
According to experts in the French language, no fewer than 900 French schools or colleges (called ‘lycées français‘) are spread out around the world, teaching the language to approximately 350k students, not necessarily limited to French-speaking countries.
The Duolingo language teaching website and app suggests that, according to its stats, English is still in the lead when it comes to worldwide language learning but French and Spanish are close behind.
They confirm that “French is one of the top two languages in 58% of all countries, and Spanish — in 46% of the countries. But in terms of the overall number of users, Spanish wins: it is studied by 17% of all Duolingo users, compared to only 11% for French. French also has a bit of an unfair advantage in that it’s available on Duolingo from two more languages than Spanish is.”
Information collected also shows that many Duolingo users for French are in Africa: in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Here, French is studied by over half of Duolingo users as opposed to other languages.
Naturally, you’d think that France would be the best place to learn French. However, we are sorry to say that this just isn’t the case!
With French being the 18th most widely spoken language in the world and the official language of 29 different countries across three separate continents, you have some serious options to consider when it comes to choosing where to learn French abroad. What’s more, you don’t even have to go anywhere if you don’t want to!
Take a look at the top countries to learn French in, first, and then discover how you can learn French from the comfort of your own home too.
While it is commonly overlooked as a student destination, Belgium is a great place for students seeking somewhere affordable to stay in education in Europe. It’s quite small and has three official languages, so expect a wide variety of culture and to come across many different personalities during your stay.
Belgium is a founding member of the EU and it is home to many international organizations, like NATO so it definitely has significance in terms of international languages. Plus, it is geographically located in the centre of Europe, making travelling to and from its cities very easy.
The most popular location to study French in Belgium is definitely Brussels, the capital of Belgium. It has over 12 universities and several private language schools. If you fancy somewhere less obvious, then Liege is also quite popular and boasts seven colleges.
Haiti is a top location for those wishing to study French and benefit from a beach destination. It’s located in the middle of the Caribbean and Haitian French is surprisingly quite similar to standard French (except a subtle creole-based tone).
The majority of students head to Port-au-Prince, home to about a million people and seven universities, to learn French.
Switzerland is one of the more popular alternatives to France for students, where French is one of four official languages, yet some areas can be quite expensive to live in. There are very few differences between standard French and Swiss French.
Located in the middle of Europe and surrounded by lakes and mountains, Switzerland is perfect for adventurers, particularly skiers.
Geneva is probably the most frequented city in Switzerland by students, with over a dozen different universities and several language schools. The tourism trade from the nearby Alps also means that this city sees a huge range of people travelling through, making it a very multicultural city.
Alternatively, Fribourg is less busy than Geneva, located on the La Sarine River and home to one of the top universities in the country.
French language options extend as far as Africa, so don’t forget to consider places like Senegal.
Senegal is not only a great place to learn French, but it’s also unique. With French as its official language, it is often regarded as one place to learn French abroad for cheap.
There are many language school options in Senegal, and students can choose from four-week French immersion classes to full semesters at university.
The capital and largest city in Senegal, Dakar is the go-to for many language students. A quieter but still exciting option, St. Louis is the fifth largest city in Senegal with 175,000 people.
If you don’t have the money to set yourself up to travel abroad, or you prefer to stay in your home country to complete your education, then you don’t have to leave the UK at all. You don’t even have to leave the house if you really don’t want to!!
By consulting a tutoring site, you can find a tutor based in your hometown who can visit you in your home (or vice-versa) or you can opt for a tutor who can provide their services via email, telephone and video call.
A one-on-one tutor will better be able to both challenge and motivate you, rather than joining a class. Unfortunately, however, a private language coach will be more expensive, even though you know it will come with immense benefits.
When looking for a private tutor, you should look for a native French speaker. It’s fine to choose an English speaker who is fluent in French, but if you do go down this path then be sure to pick someone who has experienced learning French like a native, perhaps attending French school from a young age so that the French language is natural to them.
The obvious choice, since you’re here on our blog, is to try one of our Superprof tutors for French lessons near you. You can even get free French lessons – or one, at least, as most of the Superprof coaches offer their first lesson for free to ensure that you are happy with the coaching and are comfortable with the student-tutor relationship.
If by some chance you cannot find a suitable candidate on Superprof, there are other possibilities.
You might want to advertise at your local university for native speakers studying in the UK. Students are often in need of money and might be willing to help you study French. The advantage is that students can still remember the grammar lessons they learned at school, but remember that their accuracy may not be as good as someone who is a professional teacher or a natuve speaker.
If you have already been learning French as a second language for a while and are mostly eager to improve your fluency, you might want to look for students as a language partner, instead, or even sign up to find a pen pal. Practice makes perfect so there is a lot to be said about having regular contact with a French speaker.