The Language of the Future is French, a New Study Concludes

Unfortunately, the study is probably full of merde.

Mar 26 2014, 11:00pm
Image: Wikimedia Commons

If I’ve learned anything from watching people time travel in movies, it’s that everyone, everywhere, in every historical moment always speaks English. In the past, their English will have British accents, and in the future it will be spoken without affect and sound sort of stilted. And if you should need a guide to help you figure out which time period you've ended up in, allow me to point you to some recent science that explains how English changes over time.

So how should future people sound? With such Doge-derived inflection? According to a recent study released by the investment bank Natixis, the most-spoken language of 2050 won’t be English or a variation thereof, nor will it be Mandarin. It’ll be French.

French. Bizarre, n'est-ce pas?

French isn’t even the most spoken language right now—it’s sixth after Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic—and the population of France itself isn’t exactly booming. But French has a population ace up its sleeve—it’s widely spoken in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the fastest growing regions of the world. The latest projection is that French will be spoken by 750 million people by 2050—8 percent of people will be French speakers, up from 3 percent who are today. Four out of five of those Francophones in the world will live in Africa.

Meanwhile, the share of English speakers will purportedly decline from 8 percent to five percent.

But, as some have pointed out, that’s not necessarily vrai, and takes a pretty dubious understanding of how language works—looking at national population growth projections and the country’s “official languages”—to get these results. That could be called gaming the system, given that French is an official language in 32 countries, a number second only to English’s 45.

“In reality English will remain the most used language in the world by 2050,” said Alexandre Wolff from the Observatory of the French Language. “This [study] concerns 32 states where French is the official language and here the projections are indeed impressive, but they do not take into account the coexistence of languages, which is the reality in many countries,” he said.

Setting aside other questions regarding China’s eminent population drop that the study assumes will take place for a moment, it's basically arguing that these growing countries—most often former colonies of France and Belgium in sub-Saharan Africa—are going to hang on to the language. This hasn’t always been the case historically.

Consider Algeria—a part of France until 1962, now only half of its population speaks French, which no longer has an official status. The language of the former occupiers is competing against the official state languages of Arabic and Beber.

South of the Sahara, New Geography reports that countries which formerly had large French-speaking populations and which were mostly responsible for tripling the number of French speakers in the world from 1945 to the present, are switching to English due to its relevance in Southern Africa, as well as internationally.

If we look at where the next locus of power on the African continent will be, in terms of both economics and population it’s probably Nigeria—a former British colony, where the official language is English. By 2050, Nigeria's population is expected to reach more than 440 million people , compared to about 400 million for the US. The oil-rich African country's population is forecast to be nearly 914 million by 2100, likely passing China to be the second most populated country in the world in 2100, after India.

A glance at the World Factbook’s fastest growing countries shows that countries with current highest population growth rates (also considered a flawed metric) also have English as an official language, including Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Malawi and Jordan. The exception is Lebanon, which tops the list. However, French there may be on the decline.

According to statistics from the Education Ministry cited in Lebanon’s The Daily Star , 62.5 percent of all Lebanese schools offered French as a second language in the school year 1999-2000. This number decreased to 55.8 percent in 2005-2006. During the same period, schools offering English increased from 19.7 percent to 21.6 percent. Qatar also has a high population growth rate and is part of La Francophonie, but English is pretty widely used there for business.

So anyway, French—you’re a lovely language and no doubt extremely useful. Are you la langue de l’avenir? Peut-être, peut-être pas. In any case, English’s reigning hegemony is not reason to not learn the subjunctive case. It doesn’t make sense—that’s why you shouldn’t learn the subjunctive.