What are the Main French Speaking Countries?

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Learn More About the French Speaking Countries

The French language has approximately 80 million native speakers, as well as 190 million secondary speakers, meaning that around 270 million people speak the language worldwide. It is an official language in 29 countries, with most of these being part of the community of French-speaking nations known as la francophonie. It is estimated that around 12 percent of the European Union’s population speaks French as a mother tongue, making it the fourth most widely-spoken European language. Furthermore, 20 percent of EU citizens report knowing how to speak French, making it the third most understood language in the continent. With that being said, the language’s reach extends far beyond Europe and, in actual fact, the largest share of the world’s French-speaking population reside in Africa. Moreover, French is recognised as an official language of several global institutions, including the United Nations, NATO and the World Trade Organization.

What are the Main French Speaking Countries?

French-speaking countries are often described as being ‘Francophone’ and with approximately 60 million native speakers, France is officially recognised as the largest Francophone nation in the world. It is also the country where the language originated and is the nation most commonly associated with French. Interestingly, when focusing purely on native speakers, Canada is the second-largest French speaking country, with around 7 million people speaking it as their mother tongue. Belgium and Switzerland complete the top four, with somewhere in the region of 4 million native speakers in the former and 2 million in the latter.

Yet, it is estimated that just over half of the global French-speaking population lives in Africa. Indeed, approximately 115 million African people live in Francophone countries and speak the language as either their first or second language, while many more live in non-Francophone African countries and have acquired the language. Many of the Francophone African nations have multiple official languages, with French often functioning as a second language. Therefore, none of the African nations rank especially highly when it comes to native speakers. However, when no distinction is made between native speakers and those who have French as a secondary language, some of these countries have enormous French-speaking populations. For example, it is estimated that Congo-Kinshasa is home to 33 million French speakers, while Algeria houses in excess of 11 million.

Overview of French Speaking Countries

French is a recognised official language in 29 countries and some of the most prominent of these are listed below, in order of the number of native speakers each country has. Most French-speaking countries are considered part of la francophonie and most were French colonies in the past. It is important to note that some of these countries, such as Canada, have more than one official language. As a result, French may not necessarily be the most common first language in each of them.

Countries where French is an official language:

  • France (60 million native speakers)
  • Canada (7 million native speakers)
  • Belgium (4 million native speakers)
  • Switzerland (2 million native speakers)
  • Congo-Kinshasa
  • Congo-Brazzaville
  • Côte d’Ivoire
  • Madagascar
  • Cameroon
  • Burkina Faso
  • Niger
  • Mali
  • Senegal
  • Haiti
  • Benin

In addition, France continues to have a political influence over several territories outside Europe, which are collectively known as Départements et territoires d’outre-mer, or DOM-TOM. Examples of French-speaking dependent territories include French Guiana, Guadeloupe and French Polynesia.

How French Spread Around the World

The French language emerged as an international language during the Middle Ages, thanks to the influence of the Kingdom of France. From around the 17th century, it displaced Latin as the lingua franca of educated Europe and became the main language of diplomacy and of the European courts during the 18th century. Most of the world’s French-speaking countries are former colonies of France. Indeed, French colonialism brought the language to a number of areas, including the Americas, during the 16th century and 17th century. The Quebec region of Canada, for instance, was a French colony from 1534 to 1760. However, a series of wars resulted in France losing much of its empire over the course of the 18th and early 19th century.

A second French colonial empire began to take shape during the 19th century, beginning with the conquest of Algeria. By the end of the 19th century, France had established control over the likes of Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, the Republic of the Congo and Mali, all of which continue to use French as an official language today. Many of the French colonies gained independence after the First World War, but France continued to have influence in Africa until the 1960s and many of the former French colonies continue to promote French as an official language.