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What is French?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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French is a Romance language spoken throughout the world by more than 260 million people, making it the 5th most-spoken language, and the 3rd most-spoken of the Romance languages, behind Portuguese and Spanish. It has at times been considered the “language of the world”, though in recent years English has in some ways superseded this role. French is an official language in Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Canada, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Luxemburg, Madagascar, Mali, Monaco, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Switzerland, Togo, and Vanuatu. It is also widely spoken in many of France’s old territorial holdings, including Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

This language is related to other Romance languages, such as the widely spoken Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese tongues. It is descended from Latin, and as such shares a great deal of vocabulary and grammar with other Latin-derived languages. While French is not usually comprehensible without study to speakers of other Romance languages, or vise versa, often enough words are cognates to allow some meaning to be deduced.

French is one of the easier languages for native English speakers to learn, due to the large number of cognates and relatively simple grammar. The language greatly influenced English during and after the Norman conquest of England, and as a result English finds the greatest number of cognates with French among the Romance languages.

Outside of France, French is most widely spoken in Canada. More than 10% of the world’s speakers of this language live in Canada, the bulk of whom reside in the province of Quebec. Because of its wide-spread use, and fairly vocal political groups, French is an official language alongside English in Canada, and all products and signs must be printed in both languages. In the province of Quebec, French is the sole official language, and has held this status since 1974.

For a long period of time, French was viewed, alongside Latin, as the language of international learning, and many scientific papers and journals were published in this language. It was also seen as the language of culture, and a great number of writers — even those who spoke English natively — composed great works in French as their primary language. In fact, the term we use to denote a language that is used by a wide number of speakers who do not share a native tongue, lingua franca, means quite simply, “French language”.

Since the emergence of the United States as a global business and scientific power in the wake of World War II, English has slowly been replacing French in many quarters as the lingua franca of the scientific and corporate worlds, with Chinese and Japanese also coming up quickly. For many in the arts, however, French is still considered the language of choice. It also enjoys a reputation as the “language of love,” because of the perceived smoothness and lilting nature of its sound. It is often said that poetry feels more natural in French, because of the meter the language tends to follow and the sentence structures that fit most naturally.

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Discussion Comments
By bluedolphin — On Dec 30, 2013

I admire the French. No matter where they went, which country or region they colonized, they taught the people there French and made it the official language.

For example, the French ruled Lebanon for about twenty years I believe, but almost all Lebanese speak French. The Ottomans ruled Lebanon before that, for more than two hundred years and the Lebanese don't know a word of Turkish.

The French, the Spanish and the British were very ambitious in this regard. This is why many African countries speak French, South American countries speak Spanish and India speaks English.

By fify — On Dec 29, 2013

@fBoyle-- I think that French and Italian have many differences. But they are both Romance languages based on Latin. So I'm sure that many French words will seem familiar to you and you can guess their meaning. If you decide to learn French, I think it will be very easy for you.

By fBoyle — On Dec 28, 2013

I speak Italian. If I go to France, will I be able to understand French?

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