With English the language of the worldwide web as well as that of the world’s only superpower, the world’s 328,000,000 Anglophones may believe that their linguistic hegemony is assured.
But Mandarin Chinese and Spanish both have more native speakers, with an estimated 800,000,000 and 358,000,000 respectively, while Hindi, Arabic and Bengali come close behind.
French figures ninth on the list of most-spoken languages and OIF researchers believe that the number of French-speakers is actually growing. Their research shows a rise in the number of Francophones since 2007.
They estimate that there are 200 million French-speakers in the world and that nearly half on them live in Africa. With 96.2 million Africans speaking French at the moment, the OIF believes that rising rates of literacy and birth rates mean there could be 700 million Frenc-speakers in the world by 2050.
But the head of the OIF’s observatory of the French language, Alexandre Wolff, told the AFP news agency Friday that the growth is far from guaranteed. French is a second language for most of its speakers, so it will only continue to flourish if countries keep it on their school syllabuses.
“French is the mother tongue in a few countries: France, francophone Belgium, francophone Switzerland, Quebec and some Canadian provinces, Luxembourg and Monaco, ie 75 million people” says Wolff.
Wolff’s organisation will publish their research in full at the next Francophone summit in Switzerland next October.
Saturday sees the OIF’s 40th anniversary. To celebrate its current head, former Senegalese President Abdou Diouf, is meeting Paris’s Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoë on Friday and President Nicolas Sarkozy on the big day itself.
The organisation’s mission has always been slightly ambiguous. Officially it fights for the protection of the language, still keeping up a losing battle for international institutions to produce French versions of working documents.
But there have always been calls for it to be a French version of the Commonwealth, which originated in Britain’s association with its former colonies. To maintain this sphere of influence, the criteria for joining the OIF are anything but strict.
The organisation has 56 members, with 14 observers. Twenty-six of them are on the African continent, although former colony Algeria has refrained from joining. Albania, Armenia, Romania and Mozambique are members, while Austria, Hungary and Thailand all enjoy observer status.