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Parlez-vous français? Languages in France
At a Glance:
- Following the country’s colonial past, French is an official language in 29 countries across the globe, which constitute the French-speaking world or “Francophonie”.
- France is home to several regional languages, including Occitan, Alsatian, Breton, Corsican, and Basque.
- Regional languages are quickly disappearing, despite the government’s recognition of such languages as “part of French heritage”.
The Language of Love: French
French is not only the official language of metropolitan and overseas France: due to the country’s colonial past, the French language is widely spoken across the globe. As many as 29 countries belong to the French-speaking world, also known as the Francophonie.
France currently boasts the world’s sixth-largest economy, and many multinational companies conduct affairs in French as well as in English: it is well worth investing some time in learning to speak the language. Moreover, French is also useful for those with a career in international relations, as French is an official language of the United Nations, EU, UNESCO, NATO, the International Red Cross, and international courts, to name but a few organizations.
Above all, there is no better way to immerse yourself into your new culture than by learning the language! However, French is not the only language that matters — several regions of Metropolitan France do not only have their own culture and traditions, but their own regional language as well.
Immigrant and Minority Languages in France
In 2015, 8.8% of France’s population had immigrated to the country from abroad, and an estimated one million foreigners living in France do not speak French. This has resulted in many immigrant languages being spoken in France.
For example, France’s colonial history means that Arabic still has a strong linguistic presence in the country to this day, particularly the Tunisian and Algerian varieties. Berber languages are also widespread among the North African community. Portuguese is another frequently spoken immigrant language, due to the mass migration of those looking for better living conditions and jobs in the 1960s and 1970s.
A minority language is spoken by less than half the population of a state, region, or territory. Some minority languages, such as Basque, actually spread across several states. There are many minority languages in France, such as the Langues d’Oïl, Catalan, Arpitan, and Ligurian, to name just a few: they are spoken by up to 60% of the population in some localities. More widely spoken minority languages include Occitan, Alsatian, Breton, Corsican, and Basque.
Occitan is a widely spoken Romance minority language used in seven regions of southern France —Provence-Côte d'Azur, Aquitaine, Auvergne, Dauphiné, Limousin, Languedoc-Roussillon, and Midi-Pyrénées — as well as in Italy, Monaco, and Spain. The language has been spoken since the Middle Ages, and the Occitan community in France is estimated to include at least 500,000 people today.
Occitan is used in everyday conversations by locals and has several varieties within the modern language. The four main dialects of Occitan are Northern Occitan, Languedocien, Gascon (used in the southwest of France), and most famously, Provençal, the regional language in Provence.
Unlike Occitan, which is closely related to French, Alsatian (Elsaässerditsch) is in fact a Germanic minority language: it is not only spoken in Alsace, in the northeast of France, but also in part of the German Moselle area. The two main dialects are the Bas-Rhin dialect of northern Alsace and the Haut-Rhin dialect, spoken in southern Alsace.
The language is considered particularly significant considering the identity and heritage of the region, which has suffered a long history of conflict between France and Germany. However, there’s no need to worry about understanding Alsatian — the majority of the population speak perfect French while the Alsatian language is unfortunately declining fast.
Similarly to Alsatian, the Celtic minority language Breton (Brezhoneg) is dying out in the region of Brittany, where it was once commonly spoken. That’s not to say you won’t meet any native speakers among the older generation. However, the use of Breton has fallen into a decline for various reasons.
For example, due to the strongly centralist education policies of France, beginning in the 19th century, Breton was forbidden in schools and often frowned upon. The language has gradually stopped being passed down through the generations: today, the UNESCO classifies it as severely endangered.
Nevertheless, Breton remains a 21st century language: it is the main Celtic language used on Wikipedia, as well as being available on Skype, Firefox, Mozilla, and OpenOffice, among others.
Corsican, which is spoken on the French island of Corsica, is a Romance language closely related to Italian. Diglossia —two languages, or varieties of the same language, spoken in the same community — remains common on the island to this day.
Although the official language of the island is French, and Italian is also spoken, the regional language is Corsican, with an estimated 125,000 to 170,000 speakers. A dialect of Corsican called Gallurese is also spoken in northern Sardinia. The Corsican language is prevalent enough to have its own radio and television programs, and the local government is calling for Corsican to be on co-official status with French on the island.
Basque is spoken in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques Department of France, in the southwest of the country. In France, an estimated 70,000 people speak Basque as well as French — meaning it still has a prominent role in society in comparison to other minority languages.
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