Languages of France

Last updated
Languages of France [1]
Official French
Regional Alsatian; Catalan; Basque; Corsican; Breton; Gallo; Occitan; some Walloon; West Flemish; Franco-Provençal; Lorraine Franconian; French Guiana Creole; Guadeloupean Creole; Martiniquan Creole; Oïl languages; Réunion Creole; some twenty languages of New Caledonia, Yenish, the Maroon creoles and Amerindian languages of French Guiana
Immigrant Arabic, Berber, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Turkish, German, Chinese, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Russian, Dutch, English [2]
Foreign English (39%) [3]
Spanish (13%)
German (8%)
Italian (5%)
Portuguese (3%)
Signed French Sign Language
Keyboard layout

Of the languages of France, the national language, French, is the only official language according to the second article of the French Constitution, and its standardized variant is by far the most widely spoken.

A national language is a language that has some connection—de facto or de jure—with people and the territory they occupy. There is little consistency in the use of this term. One or more languages spoken as first languages in the territory of a country may be referred to informally or designated in legislation as national languages of the country. National or national languages are mentioned in over 150 world constitutions.

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

An official language, also called state language, is a language given a special legal status in a particular country, state, or other jurisdiction. Typically a country's official language refers to the language used in government. The term "official language" does not typically refer to the language used by a people or country, but by its government, as "the means of expression of a people cannot be changed by any law".


Several regional languages are also spoken to varying degrees as a secondary language after French, such as German dialects (Alsatian 1.44%), Celtic languages (Breton 0.61%) and other Gallo-Romance languages (Langues d'Oïl 1.25%, Occitan 1.33%). Some of these languages have also been spoken in neighbouring countries, such as Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy or Spain.

A regional language is a language spoken in an area of a sovereign state, whether it be a small area, a federated state or province, or some wider area.

Celtic languages Language family

The Celtic languages are a group of related languages descended from Proto-Celtic. They form a branch of the Indo-European language family. The term "Celtic" was first used to describe this language group by Edward Lhuyd in 1707, following Paul-Yves Pezron, who made the explicit link between the Celts described by classical writers and the Welsh and Breton languages.

The Gallo-Romance branch of the Romance languages includes in the narrowest sense French, Occitan, and Franco-Provençal (Arpitan). However, other definitions are far broader, variously encompassing Catalan, the Gallo-Italic languages, and Rhaeto-Romance languages.


The official language of the French Republic is French (art. 2 of the French Constitution) and the French government is, by law, compelled to communicate primarily in French. The government, furthermore, mandates that commercial advertising be available in French (though it can also use other languages). The French government, however, does not mandate the use of French by private individuals or corporations or in any other media.

Constitution of France French Constitution adopted in 1958

The current Constitution of France was adopted on 4 October 1958. It is typically called the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, and replaced that of the Fourth Republic dating from 1946. Charles de Gaulle was the main driving force in introducing the new constitution and inaugurating the Fifth Republic, while the text was drafted by Michel Debré. Since then the constitution has been amended twenty-four times, through 2008.

Toubon Law Linguistic purist law in France

The Toubon Law is a law of the French government mandating the use of the French language in official government publications, in all advertisements, in all workplaces, in commercial contracts, in some other commercial communication contexts, in all government-financed schools, and some other contexts.

A revision of the French constitution creating official recognition of regional languages was implemented by the Parliament in Congress at Versailles in July 2008. [4]

The 1999 Report written for the government by Bernard Cerquiglini identified 75 languages that would qualify for recognition under the government's proposed ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Of those languages, 24 are indigenous to the European territory of the state while all the others are from overseas areas of the French Republic (in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean and South America).

Bernard Cerquiglini French linguist

Bernard Cerquiglini, is a French linguist.

European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages Treaty to protect languages

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) is a European treaty adopted in 1992 under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe. The preparation for the charter was undertaken by the predecessor to the current Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, the Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe because involvement of local and regional government was essential. The actual charter was written in the Parliamentary Assembly based on the Congress' Recommendations. It only applies to languages traditionally used by the nationals of the State Parties, which significantly differ from the majority or official language and that either have a territorial basis or are used by linguistic minorities within the State as a whole.

Although ratification was blocked by the Constitutional Council as contradicting the Fifth Republic's constitutional provision enshrining French as the language of the Republic, the government continues to recognise regional and minority languages to a limited extent (i.e. without granting them official status) and the Délégation générale à la langue française has acquired the additional function of observing and studying the languages of France and has had et aux langues de France added to its title. The category of languages of France (in French: langues de France) is thus administratively recognised even if this does not go so far as to provide any official status. Following his election as President, François Hollande reasserted in 2012 his campaign platform to ratify the European Charter and ensure a clear legal framework for regional languages (within a programme of administrative decentralisation that would give competencies to the regions in language policy). [5]

François Hollande 24th President of the French Republic

François Gérard Georges Nicolas Hollande is a French politician who served as President of the French Republic and ex officio Co-Prince of Andorra from 2012 to 2017. He was previously the First Secretary of the Socialist Party from 1997 to 2008, Mayor of Tulle from 2001 to 2008, and President of the Corrèze General Council from 2008 to 2012. Hollande also served in the National Assembly of France twice for the department of Corrèze's 1st constituency from 1988 to 1993, and again from 1997 to 2012.

The regional languages of France are sometimes called patois , but this term (roughly meaning "dialects") is often considered derogatory. Patois is used to refer to supposedly purely oral languages,[ citation needed ] but this does not, for instance, take into account that Occitan was already being written at a time when French was not and its literature has continued to thrive, with a Nobel Prize for Frédéric Mistral in 1904.

It is estimated that at the time of the French Revolution in 1789, only half of the population of France could speak French, and as late as 1871 only a quarter spoke French as their native language. [6]

Language education

The topic of the teaching of regional languages in public primary and secondary schools is controversial. Proponents of the measure state that it would be necessary for the preservation of those languages and to show respect to the local culture. Opponents contend that local languages are often non-standardised (thus making curricula difficult), of dubious practical usefulness (since most are spoken by a small number of people, without any sizable corpus of publications) and that the curriculum and funding of public schools are already too strained. The topic also leads to wider controversial questions of autonomy of the régions . Regarding other languages, English, Spanish, Italian and German are the most commonly studied foreign languages in French schools.

In April 2001, the Minister of Education, Jack Lang, [7] admitted formally that for more than two centuries, the political powers of the French government had repressed regional languages[ citation needed ], and announced that bilingual education would, for the first time, be recognised, and bilingual teachers recruited in French public schools.

Cross-border languages

Some of the languages of France are also cross-border languages (for example, Basque, Catalan, Corsican, Dutch, Franc-Comtois, Franco-Provençal, Norman, Picard, Occitan and others), some of which enjoy a recognised or official status in the respective neighbouring state or territory. French itself is also a cross-border language, being spoken in neighbouring Andorra, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, and Switzerland.

List of languages

Mother tongues of the French population (2007 AES)

   French (87.2%)
   Arabic (3.6%)
   Portuguese (1.5%)
   Spanish (1.2%)
   Italian (1.0%)
   German (0.7%)
   Turkish (0.5%)
   English (0.4%)
  Other languages (3.9%)

According to the 2007 Adult Education survey, part of a project by the European Union and carried in France by the Insee and based on a sample of 15,350 persons, French was the mother tongue of 87.2% of the total population, or roughly 55.81 million people, followed by Arabic (3.6%, 2.3 million), Portuguese (1.5%, 960,000), Spanish (1.2%, 770,000) and Italian (1.0%, 640,000). People who spoke other languages natively made up the remaining 5.2% of the population. [8]

Geographical distribution of regional languages and dialects. (Note that French is spoken all over the country, including both Metropolitan France and DOMs-TOMs (not shown on this map).) Langues de la France.svg
Geographical distribution of regional languages and dialects. (Note that French is spoken all over the country, including both Metropolitan France and DOMs-TOMs (not shown on this map).)

National language

Regional languages

The regional languages of Metropolitan France include:






Overseas languages

There are also several languages spoken in France's overseas areas (see Administrative divisions of France for details):

Sign language

French Sign Language is also recognised as a language of France (with at least one regional variant in Provence).

Immigrant languages [9]

A large number of immigrant languages are spoken in France, with a handful having a significant number of home speakers. (Figures as of 2000) [2]

Main immigrant languages

  • Arabic, especially the Maghrebi Arabic dialects, is the second-most common language in French homes, with several million speakers. [10]
  • Berber languages from North Africans are one of the most spoken languages in France, about 2,200,000 speakers.
  • Italian: spoken by Italian immigrant communities in many major French cities, especially in southern regions, such as Nice, Savoie, and Corsica. [ citation needed ] About 790,000 speakers, excluding Italian dialects.
  • Portuguese: mostly the European variant, spoken by about 700,000 people.
  • English: significant British minorities in Aquitaine and Brittany, as well as commuters working in the UK but living in Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Dispersed minorities in Paris and on the Côte d'Azur (French Riviera). The most widely taught foreign language in the French education system, but not widely used and understood except in specific job positions (chiefly technical and tourism). About 325,000 home speakers.
  • Polish: spoken by about 130,000 people [11]
  • Turkish: spoken by about 221,000 people [12]
  • Vietnamese: the most spoken Asian language in France, spoken by about 324,000 people [13]
  • German and German dialects: spoken by about 300,000 people. Figure includes both standard German and other dialects of High German. See Alsatian and Lorraine Franconian, spoken respectively in Alsace and Lorraine.


At the 1999 census, INSEE sampled 380,000 adult people all across Metropolitan France, and asked them questions about their family situation. One of the questions was about the languages that their parents spoke with them before the age of 5. This is the first time serious statistics were computed about the proportion of mother tongues in France. The results were published in Enquête familiale, Insee, 1999. [14] [ citation needed ]

Here is a list of the nine most prominent mother tongues in France based on Enquête familiale.[ citation needed ]

RankLanguageMother tonguePercentage of adult population
1 French 39,360,00086% (note that this figure is an underestimate because people under 18 years of age were not surveyed; see note #2 below the table)
2 German dialects (Alsatian, Lorraine Franconian, etc.)970,000 (of whom Alsatian: 660,000; standard German: 210,000; Lorraine Franconian: 100,000)2.12% (of whom Alsatian: 1.44%; standard German: 0.46%; Lorraine Franconian: 0.22%)
3 Maghrebi Arabic 940,0002.05%
4 Occitan language (Languedocian, Gascon, Provençal, etc.)610,000 (another 1,060,000 had some exposure)1.33% (another 2.32% had some exposure, see notes)
5 Portuguese 580,0001.27%
6 Oïl languages (Picard, Gallo, Poitevin, Saintongeais, etc.)570,000 (another 850,000 had some exposure)1.25% (another 1.86% had some exposure, see notes)
7 Italian, Corsican and Ligurian (Monegasque)540,0001.19%
8 Spanish 485,0001.06%
9 Breton 280,000 (another 405,000 had some exposure)0.61% (another 0.87% had some exposure, see notes)
10About 400 other languages: Polish, Berber languages, East Asian languages, Catalan, Franco-Provençal, Basque, West Flemish, etc., as well as those who gave no response2,350,000 (of whom English: 115,000)5.12% (of whom English: 0.25% of total adult population)
Total45,762,000 (46,680,000 including those with two mother tongues who were counted twice)102% (2% of people have both French and another language as their mother tongue, thus, they are counted twice)

When the people with mother tongue and people with some exposure to the language before the age of 5 (see note #3 below) are added together, the five most widely spoken languages in metropolitan France are (note that the percentages add up to more than 100, because many bilingual people are now counted twice):

Notes on the table

  1. The data in the table are about mother tongues , and not about actual language practice. It states that 14% of the adult people living in France in 1999 were born and raised up to the age of 5 in families that spoke only (or predominantly) some other languages than French. It does not mean that 14% of adult people in France spoke some other languages than French in 1999.
  2. Only adults (i.e. 18 years and older) were surveyed. This means that French people born between 1981 and 1999 are not included in the survey. The mother tongue of the younger generations is more predominantly French than is the case with the older generations because, as the Enquête familiale survey explains, regional and immigrant language transmission decreases dramatically with each new generation, as French replaces the regional and immigrant languages. In the Enquête familiale survey, only 35% of parents whose mother tongue was a regional or immigrant language reported that they spoke that language to their children. Thus, the 86% figure of people with French as their mother tongue is an underestimate because the younger generations whose predominant mother tongue is French are not counted.
  3. The concept of "mother tongue" may not give a complete idea of the phenomenon of minority languages in France. This is because there are many people who were born and raised in families in which parents spoke to them only (or predominantly) French, but in which some regional or immigration languages were also occasionally used. One example: while the data shows that 610,000 adults in 1999 had one of the Occitan dialects as their mother tongue, the survey also found out that another 1,060,000 adults were born and raised in families in which one of the Occitan dialects was occasionally spoken. Some of these 1,060,000 people may speak Occitan as fluently as the 610,000 people who have it as a mother tongue, while some other (the majority, probably) have only a limited knowledge of Occitan. That 1,670,000 adults are speakers of Occitan cannot be corroborated, but it may be the case that the total number of people with some form of exposure to Occitan is higher than the 610,000 figure, though some of may have stopped using the language altogether since then.

See also

Related Research Articles

Breton language Celtic language

Breton is a Southwestern Brittonic language of the Celtic and Indo-European language family, spoken in Brittany.

Occitan language Romance language

Occitan, also known as lenga d'òc by its native speakers, is a Romance language. It is spoken in southern France, Italy's Occitan Valleys, Monaco, and Spain's Val d'Aran; collectively, these regions are sometimes referred to as Occitania. Occitan is also spoken in the linguistic enclave of Guardia Piemontese. However, there is controversy about the unity of the language, as some think that Occitan is a macrolanguage. Others include Catalan in this family, as the distance between this language and some Occitan dialects is similar to the distance among different Occitan dialects. In fact, Catalan was considered an Occitan dialect until the end of the 19th century.

Alsatian dialect Low Alemannic German dialect spoken in most of Alsace, a region in eastern France

Alsatian is a Low Alemannic German dialect spoken in most of Alsace, a formerly disputed region in eastern France that has passed between French and German control five times since 1681. A dialect of Alsatian German is spoken in the United States by the so-called Swiss Amish, whose ancestors emigrated there in the middle of the 19th century. The approximately 7,000 speakers are located mainly in Allen County, Indiana, with "daughter settlements" elsewhere.

Patois is speech or language that is considered nonstandard, although the term is not formally defined in linguistics. As such, patois can refer to pidgins, creoles, dialects, or vernaculars, but not commonly to jargon or slang, which are vocabulary-based forms of cant.

Diglossia situation in which two dialects or languages are used by a single language community

In linguistics, diglossia is a situation in which two dialects or languages are used by a single language community. In addition to the community's everyday or vernacular language variety, a second, highly codified lect is used in certain situations such as literature, formal education, or other specific settings, but not used normally for ordinary conversation. In most cases, the H variety has no native speakers.

This article presents the current language demographics of the Canadian province of Quebec.

Langues doïl one of the two historically important Romance language groups in France, the other being the Oc languages (Occitan)

The langues d'oïl are a dialect continuum that includes standard French and its closest autochthonous relatives historically spoken in the northern half of France, southern Belgium, and the Channel Islands. These belong to the larger Gallo-Romance languages, which also include the historical languages of east-central France and western Switzerland (Arpitania), southern France (Occitania), portions of northern Italy, and the Val d'Aran in Spain.

Macanese Patois is a Portuguese-based creole language with a substrate from Malay, Cantonese and Sinhalese, which was originally spoken by the Macanese community of the Portuguese colony of Macau. It is now spoken by a few families in Macau and in the Macanese diaspora.

Gallo language regional language of France

Gallo is a regional language of France. It is not as commonly spoken as it once was, as the standard form of French now predominates. Gallo is classified as one of the Oïl languages.

Languages of Canada languages of a geographic region

A multitude of languages are used in Canada. According to the 2011 census, English and French are the mother tongues of 56.9% and 21.3% of Canadians respectively. In total 85.6% of Canadians have working knowledge of English while 30.1% have a working knowledge of French. Under the Official Languages Act of 1969, both English and French have official federal status throughout Canada, in respect of all government services, including the courts, and all federal legislation is enacted bilingually. New Brunswick is the only Canadian province that has both English and French as its official languages to the same extent, with constitutional entrenchment. Quebec's official language is French, although, in that province, the Constitution requires that all legislation be enacted in both French and English, and court proceedings may be conducted in either language. Similar constitutional protections are in place in Manitoba.

Francization or Francisation, Frenchification, or Gallicization designates the extension of the French language by its adoption as a first language or not, adoption that can be forced upon or desired by the concerned population.

Varieties of French Dialects

Dialects of the French language are spoken in France and around the world. The francophones of France generally use Metropolitan French although some also use regional dialects or varieties such as Meridional French. In Europe outside France there are Belgian French, Swiss French, and in Italy Aostan French. In Canada, French is an official language along with English; the two main dialects of French in Canada are Quebec French and Acadian French, but also another dialect commonly grouped as Canadian French, used by Anglophones speaking French as a second language or by Francophones in Canada using a different dialect. In Lebanon, French was an official language until 1941 and the main dialect spoken there is Lebanese French or Levantine French. Note that the discussion here refers to varieties of the French language, not to the Romance sister languages of French spoken in France. See also French-based creole languages, which are also considered separate languages.

Limonese Creole is a dialect of Jamaican Creole spoken in Limón Province on the Caribbean Sea coast of Costa Rica. Limón Coastal Creole is similar to varieties such as Colón Creole, Mískito Coastal Creole, Belizian Kriol, and San Andrés and Providencia Creole. The number of speakers is below 100,000. Limón Coastal Creole does not have the status of an official language. It is very similar to Jamaican Creole and has borrowed many words from English.

Lorraine Franconian dialect

Lorraine Franconian is an ambiguous designation for dialects of West Central German, a group of High German dialects spoken in the Moselle department of the former north-eastern French region of Lorraine.

Kriol is an English-based creole language that developed from a pidgin used initially in the region of Sydney and Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia in the early days of European colonisation. Later, it moved west and north. The pidgin died out in most parts of the country, except in the Northern Territory, where the contact between European settlers, Chinese and other Asians and the Indigenous Australians in the northern regions has maintained a vibrant use of the language, spoken by about 30,000 people. Despite its similarities to English in vocabulary, it has a distinct syntactic structure and grammar and is a language in its own right.

Of the languages spoken in Texas none has been designated the official language. Around two-thirds of Texas residents speak solely English at home, while another 29.10% speak Spanish. Throughout the history of Texas, English and Spanish have at one time or another been the primary dominant language used by government officials, with German recognized as a minority language from Statehood until the first world war.

La vergonha is what Occitans call the effects of various policies of the government of France on its citizens whose native language was a patois, a language other than French, such as Occitan or one of the dialects of the langues d'oïl. Vergonha is being made to reject and feel ashamed of one's mother tongue through official exclusion, humiliation at school and rejection from the media, as organized and sanctioned by French political leaders from Henri Grégoire onward. Vergonha, which is still a taboo topic in France where some still refuse to admit such discrimination ever existed, can be seen as the result of an attempted linguicide. In 1860, before schooling was made compulsory, native Occitan speakers represented more than 39% of the whole French population, as opposed to 52% of francophones proper; their share of the population declined to 26–36% in the 1920s, and then dropped to less than 7% by 1993.

Poitevin (Poetevin) is a language spoken in Poitou, France. It is one of the regional languages of France and is not as commonly spoken as it once was, as the standard form of French now predominates. Poitevin is now classified as one of the langues d'oïl but is distinguished by certain features of the langue d'oc. The language is spoken on what was the border between the two language families of oïl and oc. The langue d’oïl subsequently spread south, absorbing oc features.

Languages in censuses

Many countries and national censuses currently enumerate or have previously enumerated their populations by languages, native language, home language, level of knowing language or a combination of these characteristics.


  1. "Europeans and their Languages" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-03-30.
  2. 1 2 "La dynamique des langues en France au fil du XXe siècle" (PDF) (in French). Retrieved 2015-03-30.
  3. "SPECIAL EUROBAROMETER 386 Europeans and their Languages" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-01-06.
  4. Article 75-1: (a new article): "Les langues régionales appartiennent au patrimoine de la France" ("Regional languages belong to the patrimony of France"). See Loi constitutionnelle du 23 juillet 2008.
  5. "Hollande : "Je ferai ratifier la Charte des langues régionales"". EITB. 2012-09-25. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
  6. "Open Yale Courses". 2007-09-17. Retrieved 2015-03-30.
  7. "Educacioun". Retrieved 2015-03-30.
  8. "GESIS - Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences". Retrieved 2018-04-24.
  9. "Enquete familiale" (PDF). Retrieved 2019-01-07.
  10. Emmanuelle Talon, "L’arabe, une « langue de France » sacrifiée", Le Monde Diplomatique, Oct. 2012,, access date: 12/05/2015
  11. "Language: Polish". Joshua Project.
  12. "Turkish". Joshua Project.
  13. "Language: Vietnamese". Joshua Project.
  14. "Enquete familiale" (PDF). Retrieved 2019-01-07.