French: Language of Tomorrow?

What do you think the most valuable foreign language will be in the future?  For most of you, Mandarin (or standard) Chinese was probably the first language that came to mind. That’s not an unreasonable assumption, considering China’s size and ascendency in the world economy.

However, data released by investment bank Natixis suggests that the most widely spoken language of the future might be something a little less predictable: Parlez-vous français, anyone?

Really? French? What is this, the 1800’s? These days, American writers can achieve almost instant viral success by writing editorials describing the relative unimportance of the French language. For example, in The New Republic, Jphn McWhorter asked

“One learns French to communicate with … who, exactly? Some will yearn to read Sartre and Molière; more power to them. But what about languages like Spanish and Chinese, which are useful to learn because we encounter them in everyday life?”

It’s true, right now there are “only” about 75 million native French speakers, and about 387 million people speaking it as either a first or second language. Compared to about 960 million native Mandarin Chinese speakers, that seems like small potatoes.

However, many French-speaking countries are located in Africa, with a rapidly growing population. So, according to Natixis, by 2050 we’ll have around 750 million French speakers, equivalent to or slightly more than the number of Mandarin speakers expected at that time.

As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry notes in Forbes, the projections may not be entirely accurate because Natixis is assuming that every person born in an officially French-speaking country will speak French. This is unlikely to be the case; local and tribal languages will undoubtedly continue to be  spoken. However, overly optimistic projections aside, he believes

“The point still stands: French is still a fast-growing, global language. The other mooted language of the future, Mandarin, despite being excruciatingly hard to learn for most Westerners, will probably not be that given China’s certain demographic slide. Meanwhile, French will be present on all continents, and particularly predominant in a continent that, by 2050, should be a fast-growing economic powerhouse–Africa.”

What do you think?

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2 replies
  1. Joseph Lemien
    Joseph Lemien says:

    I really wouldn’t be surprised if French surpases Mandarin in utility. Especially since all Chinese students study English in primary and secondary school, and it is a requirement in college as well (regardless of college major, even a Chinese History major must take English). Although walking through the streets of a random Chinese city armed only with English phrases won’t get you far, the majority of the Chinese people who will be traveling abroad or conducting business with foreigners will have strong levels of English, especially if we are projecting forward to 2050.

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