As a French learner, you're in good company – after English, it's the second most studied language in the world. And recently, French climbed above Arabic to fifth place in the table of the world’s most spoken languages.
It is thought that around 300 million people worldwide can speak French, either as a native or non-native language. And of these, 120 million are found in Africa.
But how did this happen to a language born in Europe?
In this post, I’ll give you all the answers along with an introduction to some of the varieties of African French in this, my brief guide to French in Africa.
How Did French Become So Important In Africa?
The simple answer is that the French language in Africa is a legacy of colonial times.
In a period from around the mid-19th to the early 20th century, Africa was carved up by the European powers during the so-called Scramble for Africa. Africans themselves had little say in the matter.
France and, to a lesser extent, Belgium were two of the countries involved. And this saw the French language become established in their colonial possessions.
Later, in the decades after the Second World War, Africa was decolonised. But in many former colonies, French remained – and remains – an important means of communication.
African French: A Practical And Convenient Language To Know
Linguistically, Africa is a continent quite unlike any other on Earth, with myriad languages and dialects existing side by side in many areas.
Of course, Africans had been using various local languages to communicate with each other long before Europeans arrived on the scene. And they still do.
However, French has proved a convenient lingua franca for communication locally – as well as with people in other parts of Africa.
Furthermore, as a major international language, knowing French has other advantages.
Being able to speak French opens up a world of information, media, culture and education as well as offering enhanced business and professional opportunities, which is a major part of why people still speak French in large parts of Africa.
Demographics play a part too. Africa has a burgeoning population. And millions of young people there see speaking French as something that gives them access to a better future.
At the same time, France itself actively promotes the use of French in Africa as a way of projecting its soft power and maintaining close relations with its former colonies. And the influence of French culture is still strong.
So for all these reasons, it is hardly surprising that French is not only surviving but thriving throughout the African continent. But its status and distribution there are far from uniform.
The Status And Distribution Of African French
There are many ways to define a country as “French speaking”. But according to the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (International Organisation of La Francophonie), in 28 African countries, at least 10% of the population can speak French.
In total, over 20 African countries name French as an official or co-official language. And it functions as a de facto official language in several more – although, in many places, French is not the first language of the majority of the population.
French speakers are spread unevenly across the continent, with the majority of them residing in West and Central Africa – around 97 million French speakers are found there.
After this, the area with the most French speakers is North Africa, with around 33 million, followed by East Africa, where between five and six million people speak French.
In the Indian Ocean, in places like Réunion, Mauritius and the Seychelles, French is spoken alongside various French creoles by around 1.75 million people. And finally, a further half a million speakers live in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Where French is used for education, standard French is universally preferred. But throughout Africa, French can diverge significantly from the standard language – which is what we’re going to look at now.
African French In West and Central Africa
Important French-speaking countries include Senegal, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the last of which is now the most populous francophone country in the world.
Throughout this region, various forms of French exist. The variety spoken usually depends on the level of education of the speaker. But all differ to some extent from standard French.
The differences are due to several reasons, with the pronunciation and intonation as well as the grammar all influenced by local African languages.
In addition, many words from local languages – and also English – have been absorbed by French, all of which can make it challenging or even impossible to understand the local version for those used to hearing only standard French.
An interesting example of how the language has developed is the French spoken in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast.
Abidjan is a major French-speaking city, where between 75 and 99% of the population is thought to speak French. However, not just one but at least three distinct local forms of French have evolved there.
The first is the French of educated speakers. It most closely resembles standard French. Although sometimes the choice of words might seem strange or even quaint to a European French speaker.
Second, there is a more colloquial form of ‘street’ French with grammar and vocabulary that can be quite different from standard French.
And then there is a type of French slang, Nouchi, that is often barely recognisable as French at all.
Here’s an example of a sentence meaning “the girl stole my money” in all three versions (from Wikipedia):
- La fille m'a subtilisé mon argent
(In standard French, it might be more natural to use the word voler (to steal))
- Fille-là a prend mon l'argent
(Instead of cette fille a pris mon argent in standard French)
- La go a momo mon pia
(Momo is a local word for “steal”, pia is slang for “money” and go means “girl”, possibly derived from the English word)
Often, words first appear in Nouchi before making their way into the colloquial and even the formal forms.
For example, enjailler (to like) (which may derive from the English word “enjoy”) began as Nouchi slang. However, in 2013, the Ivorian president used it when he addressed his Senegalese counterpart by saying, Président, nous sommes enjaillés de toi.
Sometimes these words even find their way into the French spoken in other African countries, making Abidjan French an important and influential form of the language.
In fact, a version of French spoken throughout sub-Saharan Africa known as Français populaire africain (Popular African French) is essentially a type of Ivorian French that has since spread to much of the rest of the continent.
Just as the Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s most populous officially francophone country, so the capital Kinshasa is the world’s largest francophone city, having recently overtaken Paris.
In Kinshasa, the local lingua franca is Lingala. But French is the common language of business, administration, education and much of the press.
The DRC was a former Belgian colony. So the French spoken there has slightly different influences from the French spoken elsewhere in much of Africa.
An example of this is the expression casser le Bic. In Belgium – but not in France – le Bic refers to a ballpoint pen. So this expression, literally meaning “to break the Bic”, means “to stop going to school”.
Local languages like Lingala, one of the four national languages, also influence the vocabulary. You can see this in the expression merci mingi, meaning “thank you very much”. The first word is the French for “thank you” while the second is Lingala for “very much”.
Sometimes the language used can take on new meanings that a speaker of standard French might not be able to guess.
In Kinshasa, ça ne dérange pas is the equivalent of de rien (you’re welcome). But in standard French, it means something like “it doesn’t bother (me)”. This might sound strange to a speaker of standard French as a response to “thank you”.
Finally, a slightly amusing one is avoir un deuxième bureau. In standard French, it means “to have a second office” – but in Kinshasa, it’s a euphemism for having a mistress!
Cameroon is among the most linguistically diverse countries on the planet. And it is there that something known as ‘Camfranglais’ has appeared.
It is based on French syntax and grammar. But is influenced by vocabulary from English as well as many local languages. It has diverged so far from French that it is now sometimes considered a separate language.
Here are just a couple of example sentences (from Wikipedia):
|Tu go où?
|Tu vas où?
|Where are you going?
|On va all back au mboa
|Nous allons tous rentrer au pays
|We will all go home
|Il fimba à mon cousin
|Il resemble à mon cousin
|He looks like my cousin
Camfranglais is especially popular among young Cameroonians and functions as a sort of code since if you don’t know the meaning of an expression, it’s hard to guess. This version of French is also common in pop music, which has helped it spread.
French In North Africa – Maghreb French
Quite different from the French spoken in sub-Saharan Africa is the French of North Africa, also known as Maghreb French.
Although it has no official status there, French is widely spoken in the French former colonies of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – especially among more educated speakers, who are often bilingual in French and Arabic.
Arabic is the major influence on Maghreb French, along with local languages like Berber.
This is apparent in the pronunciation as well as in certain loanwords. For example, wesh? is a loan from Algerian Arabic that means something like “what’s up?”. Another common one is kiffer (to like) from the Maghreb Arabic word kif, which has a similar meaning.
Maghreb French is generally easier to understand than some of the sub-Saharan varieties. And French is likely to be at least as useful as English for travel in much of North Africa.
Who Does French Belong To?
There being more French speakers in Africa than Europe raises a question about who ‘owns’ the language.
While the Académie française in France presides over official changes to the language, those speaking ‘street’ French in Abidjan, Kinshasa or Rabat are unlikely to pay much attention to their rulings.
French no longer ‘belongs’ to Europeans. And speakers in Africa, as well as Canada and other parts of the world, are just as entitled to claim ownership of the language.
Interestingly, words from African French are now making their way back to France with immigrants and foreign students from Africa. You can just as easily hear expressions like wesh or je kiffe on the streets of Paris. Go for “girl” is also common in French rap.
So while standard French is still considered the formal model for the language, other versions have evolved in Africa and are now being accepted as valid and worthy versions of French in their own right.
African French: A Living Language Taking Its Own Path
What we’ve seen here is only a brief look at how French has developed since arriving in Africa in the 19th century.
If you’re learning French, the standard version of the language should still be your goal, since with that, you will be understood in just about every French-speaking country.
At the same time, it’s important to be aware that other quite different versions exist in Africa, where it’s a living, changing, independent language that is taking its own path and developing into colourful and vibrant new forms with distinctive local flavours.