On Africa's lips: The survival of the French language

On Africa's lips: The survival of the French language

During the 19th and 20th centuries, France had the second largest colonial empire after the British, and at its peak covered almost a tenth of the total surface area of the world. Even today French is an official language in 29 countries worldwide, with the majority situated in Africa, and an administrative language in a further nine.

French in Africa

The influence of French in Africa, although today largely synonymous with the West coast, has roots in North, Central, and Eastern parts too. It is estimated that there are currently 115 million French speakers on the African continent, a figure representing the majority of the world’s French speaking population, and with current population growth figures and projections, this is predicted to grow to 700 million by the year 2050.

With a long history and vast spread across the continent, African French has evolved and developed into a number of distinct dialects. The majority of African countries already have multiple languages, and in combination with the colonial French influence, they have formed a number of hybrids. It should also be noted that the colonial language also varied dependent on the specific colonising country, with the Belgian French influence in DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) differing from French in say Benin or Cote d’Ivoire.

Merci minga: French in DRC

The largest population of French speakers on the African continent are based in DRC, with Kinshasa being the second largest Francophone city in the world, after Paris. In Kinshasa alone there are approximately 8 million French speakers, with an estimated 24 million spread across the 11th largest country in the world. Although Lingala is spoken throughout much of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, French remains the official language and it is thought that approximately 40% of the population speak French as a second language. The type of French in Kinshasa varies between the different classes, with business people and upper classes speaking more traditional French, and a ‘street’ or slang version using a combination of Lingala and French. One example of this dialect is ‘Merci minga’ or ‘Thanks a lot’, which literally combines the French word for ‘thank you’ and the Lingala for ‘a lot’.

Français de Treichville

Another country boasting a large number of French speakers is Cote d’Ivoire, with dialects in the former capital Abidjan a true indication of the diversity of ‘African French’. There are several distinct forms of the language here, with the educated classes speaking a formal French, but the majority of the population speaking ‘français de Treichville’, named after a working class district of the city. In addition to these two variations, there is also ‘francais de Moussa’, and a gang slang version called ‘nouchi’, which recently became formalised with its own mobile formatted dictionary.

The future of French

With English now the dominant global language, Francophone Africa really is the key to the development of the French language as a whole. Many languages are becoming endangered by the spread and evolution of dominant tongues, such as English and increasingly now Chinese. As economies grow and the political landscape shifts, language plays a crucial role. If French is to survive this period of language globalisation, then the development of the language in Africa is truly of paramount importance. As the African continent continues to develop economically and politically, the linguistic impact could very well determine the future of global languages.