How La Francophonie Promotes the French Language Worldwide
We often regard English as the world’s dominant language, without considering the influence of other European languages. Spanish dominates in every South American country bar Brazil, while its use in the USA is rising in parallel with the growing Hispanic population throughout southern states. Similarly, French is the primary language of 300 million people, making it the fifth-most widely spoken language globally. And one French organisation has done more than most to promote and celebrate its mother tongue.
An organisation with a difference
Organisation internationale de la Francophonie was created in 1970, at a time when France’s position as a global superpower seemed threatened by the decline of its empire. The organisation’s brief was to preserve and promote the French language, while also advancing the humanist values associated with speaking French (including democracy and the advancement of human rights). From its headquarters in Paris, the organisation undertakes political activities around the world, promoting equal ties among countries where France historically played a significant role. Its “égalité, complémentarité, solidarité” motto clearly acknowledges France’s own national motto (“liberté, égalité, fraternité”).
La Francophonie’s international influence is genuinely impressive. It has 61 member states, from Albania and Bulgaria to the UAE and Vietnam, though some of these newer members have attracted controversy for their tenuous links to French culture. Countries with French-speaking minorities (Canada and Belgium) are long-standing members, as are former colonies like Mauritius and Ivory Coast. Indeed, the majority of French speakers can be found in Africa, making this a key region for activities and campaigns.
Mind your language
Despite its noble political aims, La Francophonie’s primary mission is to encourage the take-up of French. It has adopted some innovative techniques to accomplish this goal, such as developing the TV5Monde television network. It provides a high-profile vehicle for celebrating French culture by broadcasting French-language television programming from around the world, accompanied by subtitles in a dozen languages. Other notable achievements include establishing a French language day for international organisations, and developing a network of Francophone universities stretching from the Caribbean to Asia.
English is widely regarded as a competing (and even corrupting) influence in French culture. Americanisation is fiercely resisted by organisations like La Francophonie, who wish to retain the purity of their native tongue. It can’t be denied that words like ‘digital’ and ‘email’ have become ubiquitous in French conversation, while terms like ‘brainstorming’ have no Gallic equivalent. Of course, the same is true in reverse, with over a quarter of English words originating in French. After all, there’s no English equivalent for terms like ‘jury’, ‘aperatif’, ‘genre’ or ‘fiance’.
It’s difficult to ascertain how much La Francophonie has achieved during the last half a century, but it’s undoubtedly played a key part in ensuring the French language remains in fine health. Its role in global communications is still significant, as the fourth-most used language on the internet and the second business language of the European Area. La Francophonie also provides support for an estimated 125 million people studying French as either a first or second language, with 900,000 qualified French teachers around the world. And few people will be surprised that the La Francophonie website is almost entirely written in French, with only its homepage translated into a handful of other languages.
Nor is the preservation of French culture and language a battle La Francophonie is fighting alone. Other bodies exist to promote French culture, attempting to preserve its language in an increasingly Anglicised digital landscape. The Alliance Francaise and Institut français perform comparable roles, with the latter also focusing on cross-cultural exchanges and promoting French culture around the world.