French, just like Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian, is a romance language and a descendant of Vulgar Latin. Romans spoke Vulgar Latin, but after the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, several of the conquered territories became linguistically and culturally isolated. Several different dialects formed from the Vulgar Latin including the romance languages spoken today. French replaced Latin as the official language of France in 1539. French Guiana is the only territory in South America where French is the official language.
Twenty-nine countries and 14 dependent territories speak French as an official language, making it the second most recognized official language after English. The states are spread across five different continents with the majority in Europe and Africa. It is a procedural language for the European Union as well as a deliberation language for the Court of Justice and the United Nations.
How Many People Speak French?
About 300 million people speak French across the world. However, this number represents the native, non-native, partial speakers, and those who speak the several dialects and creoles of the language. It is the sixth most spoken language after Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish, and Arabic. It is the second most studied foreign language after English with over 120 million students. There are about 80 million native French speakers and 220 million who speak it as a second or third language. About 50% of those who speak French are in Africa most of whom are in former colonies of France. It is estimated that by 2050 the population of French-speaking people will rise to about 700 million.
French in South America
Spanish and Portuguese are the dominant languages of South America. French Guiana is the only territory in South America where French is the official language. French Guiana is an overseas department of France located on the North Atlantic coast of South America. It borders Suriname are to the west and Brazil to the east. French Guiana is the only European territory in mainland America. It is home to about 250,000 French-speaking people. It is a member of the European Union and the Eurozone.
French in Europe
French is the official language of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Monaco. The largest number of native French speakers are in France, but the Democratic Republic of Congo is the most populous state where French is an official language. This is not to say that the entire population in the country speaks French. Of the 85 million people in the DRC, about 30 million speak French compared to more than 60 million in France. Nearly half of the Belgian population and one in every five Swiss speak French as a native language. Luxembourg, the country rated as a multilingual European state, also recognizes French as an official language. When these numbers are summed up, French becomes the second most spoken first language in Europe after German.
The Rest of the World
French is spoken in five continents with the majority in Africa, Europe, and North America. There are pockets of French-speaking people in the Middle East, Asia, Oceania, and South America. French Guiana is a French territory in South America. French is also the official language of Vanuatu, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Futuna, and Wallis. In the Middle East and Asia, French reflects treasures of the colonial past in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos.