PARIS — In the 18th Century, the French language was so influential that King Frederick the Great of German-speaking Prussia, an ardent admirer of French philosophers, sponsored a contest throughout Europe for the best essay, written in French, on "the universality of the French language."
Now, President Francois Mitterrand of France continually makes speeches warning that the French language is in danger. According to a report prepared recently for the first summit conference of French-speaking countries, the world has only 69 million native speakers of French and only 39 million others who use French as a second language.
That total of 108 million French speakers means that French ranks as only the 12th most commonly used language in the world, behind Mandarin Chinese, English, Russian, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, Malay-Indonesian, Japanese and German.
A Slap in the Face
There are constant efforts to reverse the trend. A French government television commercial, which has been shown often in the past few weeks, shows a trendy young man trying to entice a beautiful young woman to his apartment. He suggests it would be "cool" for them to have a "drink" in his "living." She slaps him across the face. With good sense now knocked into him, he changes his pitch and propositions her entirely in French. She falls into his arms.
French officials are less troubled by the use of English in seduction scenes than by its use in high technology. In a speech to the French Academy last December, Mitterrand said that the French language had reached a crucial moment in its history.
"Either the French language learns to master computer technology," he said, "or, in a few years, it ceases to be one of the great means of communication in the world. Does a country that knows how to build the Ariane space rocket have the right to lose its language?"
On a similarly philosophical note, Mitterrand wrote in a recently published book on foreign policy, "No one listens any more to a people that lose their words."
The recent official report on the status of the French language is one of the most realistic ever presented. Admirers of the French language often like to stand before a map of the world and point out the impressive number of "French-speaking" countries. But the report, which was prepared by the High Council of Francophonie in Paris, shows just how flimsy that definition can be.
A Favored Colony
Take the case of Senegal. The French ruled it for almost 300 years, until 1960. It was a favored colony: The Africans of its four main towns had had the right to vote in French elections since the French Revolution. The politician who led Senegal to independence, former President Leopold Senghor, is a French poet who now sits in the French Academy. French is the official language of the country. Everybody looks on Senegal as a French-speaking country in Africa.
But the report shows that Senegal, with a population of 6.5 million, has only 60,000 people who speak French as a mother tongue and 700,000 others who speak it as a second language--a language, in other words, that they have learned outside their homes, most likely at school, and use in their work. Most Senegalese speak their tribal languages, not French.
In North Africa, the report shows, French is receding in the face of government drives to use Arabic as the language of instruction in the schools. Algeria, with a population of 21 million, was once classified as a province of France. But the report shows that independent Algeria has only 150,000 speakers of French as a mother tongue and 6.5 million speakers of French as a second language.
Unlike the relationship of Spain with Spanish, Portugal with Portuguese and Britain with English, France--with its 51.5 million speakers of French as a mother tongue and its 4.5 million speakers of French as a second language--overwhelmingly dominates the statistics of use of the French language.
Only three other countries in the world have even as many as a million speakers of French as a mother tongue: Canada, with 7 million (mostly in the province of Quebec); Belgium, with 4.2 million, and Switzerland, with 1.3 million. Only Algeria has more speakers of French as a second language than France itself.
Official U.N. Language
The High Council of Francophonie did present statistics as evidence of the continued influence of French: 35 countries and 3 provinces give French some kind of official status; 25 million students learn it as a foreign language; France is the second-largest exporter of movies in the world; 2,000 publishers produce books in French; French is one of the two official languages of everyday work at the United Nations, though it continually loses ground to English, the other official language.
Yet these achievements of the language pale beside the basic fact that French is losing influence in the world and that English has become the language of modern science and technology and of international trade.