Defend French. Weber, most influential languages

I’m sorry, I know this is an often debated essay, but I’m looking for opinions on it. I’ve read it several times and I know the influence of a language is very subjective, but I don’t see how French is as influential as he states it is.

  1. English had 37 points, French 23, Spanish 20, Russian 16, Arabic 14, Chinese 13, German 12, Japanese 10, Brazilian Portuguese 10, and Hindi/Urdu 9.

  2. Weber says that an influential language will have many second language speakers–and I agree with this; people will learn it due to its culture, economic benefit, or some other reason. However, French has a lot of second-language speakers in Africa kind of because it was imposed on its ex-colonies and it’s hard to change the language of government, business, and school. The problem I have with French in Africa is that a tiny minority (5-10% in most cases) speak it as native speakers and the second-language speakers have varying abilities. Some can only say the basics and others are advanced, C1, C2 type speakers.

There are many countries with French as its native language, but many are tiny countries with small numbers of French speakers. I think that the only way that French can maintain or beat Spanish is if all people in the French-speaking African countries go to school and become native/bilingual French speakers. And the African countries have to improve economically, of course!

  1. French used to be the language of diplomacy but if you check out the statistics for what languages the European diplomatic and EU documents are written in, you’ll notice that French use has plunged in this are. Pretty much every language has lost ground to English, not just French, but I really don’t see how Weber maintains that French is more influential than Spanish world-wide.

The relatively small number of French speakers (~70 million native speakers, per Ethnologue) compared to Spanish (320+ million, per Ethnologue) is pretty stark, in my mind. And the GDP and internet statistics don’t paint a good picture for French, neither now nor in the future.

  1. I actually do agree with Weber’s belief that Mandarin isn’t that influential right now since it is concentrated in one country (like Hindi/Urdu), but with its increasing economic might, people may look at Mandarin as another language to study in addition to English.

Of course, Romance and Germanic language speakers will take ~3.5 times as many hours to learn Mandarin as English, which makes Mandarin less appealing. I think that Mandarin is now definitely more influential than what Weber thought in the early 90’s, 6th most influential. Its economy and increasing role in international politics have greatly increased.

  1. I would think that Brazilian Portuguese (well, Portuguese really) would have gained ground on Japanese and German, probably leapfrogging them. I kind of see Portuguese as a “china-lite” due to its economic growth. The positives of Portuguese are that it is much easier for people that know latin-based languages and it has a wider geographical distribution than Mandarin.

  2. Arabic:I don’t see it as influential as one would suspect due to its diglossia. (MSA, local dialect, classical arabic) It seems like learning Arabic is really like learning two languages! In comparison, learning Spanish or French lets you talk with all of the countries with Spanish and French as their official languages with little trouble.

What are your thoughts on the 6 questions I asked?


I generally prefer the KryssTal estimation of number of speakers: KryssTal : The 30 Most Spoken Languages in the World

It appears to me that you are really underestimating the alphabetisation of Franco-Africa, and the general size of the Francophonie. You say that there are around 70 million native french speakers, while france has more than 65 million habitants. When you add on Switzerland, Belgium, Haiti, three Canadian provences, that is surely much higher than 70 million. Figuring in Africa as well (Mali, République Centrafrique, Senegal, and Congo are not small countries) KryssTal’s number of 200 millions speakers seems much more accurate to me.

I know a couple African guys at my University in the US with whom I exchange words in French from time to time (I think they get a kick out of a white guy speaking their language… they barely consider French a european language, which I think is great!), and they all speak excellently. Two guys are from the Congo, and one from Cameroun. There is even a guy from Portuguese speaking Angola whose French is easily on a high C level.

  1. Not everybody in France speaks French. Just like in the US, not all of the 310 million people speak English. In fact, they estimate that only 90% of people speak English in the US. There are a lot of immigrants that don’t know English here.

1a. Switzerland (1.5 million), Belgium (4.5 million), Haiti (million), and Quebec (7 million) have about 14 million speakers total. The vast majority of Haitians speak Haitian Creole, actually.

  1. Ethnologue estimated 320 million NATIVE Spanish speakers and 68.5 million native speakers for French, based on their same criteria. However, the number of French speakers is dwarfed by Spanish. I agree that French probably has about 80-90 million native speakers but ethnologue is being conservative in their estimates. However, they would be conservative for all languages; as they are applying the same methods to measure all language speakers.

  2. KryssTal’s number of 200 million is probably the number of primary and secondary speakers, even the big French proponent Weber estimates about 200 million total primary + secondary French speakers.

  3. Mali and all those countries are large in territory but have relatively small numbers of FRENCH speakers. The vast majority of those people speak their native tongues and some speak French at varying levels of proficiency.

  4. French’s status as one of the leading languages in the world is really dependent on Africa, even the Francophone says this. However, even though a lot of people in the US say that the Latin American economies aren’t that strong, Africa’s French-speaking economies are worlds away from the Latin American ones.

  5. Speaking to a few African immigrants doesn’t reflect the linguistic status of tens of millions of Africans, by the way. As I probably said before, the ruling elite speak French in Africa, the ordinary person doesn’t it speak it that much,

Sorry, I don’t mean to say that French is unimportant–most would agree with me in saying that historically, currently, and in the future, it will be a very desired language to know. However, in relation to Spanish I think it’s behind and that Portuguese and Mandarin will gain ground on it.

Aside–they say that French is actually easier than Spanish for English speakers for vocabulary. How much did English help you in learning French words?

Also, how non-phonetic is French? I’ve read that it is better than English but that spelling is still a real challenge.

Just to make it clear, I would not dispute the number of Spanish speakers being higher then French speakers. I also don’t doubt that as South America gets richer spanish will probably surpass French in influence. France’s advantage has to do with its history, and it is likely to dissapear.

But to defend my prior arguments:

I never said everyone speaks French in France, but 86% of 65 Million is still a pretty high percentage of 70 million.

86% of 65million is 55.25million plus 14million is 69.25. Very close to 70 million and I refuse to believe there are that few native speakers of French in Africa or elsewhere.

I think you and I would probably find this list: List of languages by total number of speakers - Wikipedia
easier to agree about as far as number of speakers

I think looking at number of second language speakers of a language might tell more about its influence than number of native speakers, hence (as you mentioned) why Chinese is so far down on the influence list.

Obviously diplomacy’s future appears to be in English, Spanish does appear to me to have more of a future than French.

To defend the guys I know, I attend a school very far from being a ruling-elite sort of place (public Historically Black university with high African student population). I know for a fact that at least two of the guys I know are refugees.

I would assert, though, that how well the language is spoken has little to do with how influential the language is. A tourist tout in Egypt needs very little English to do what they do, but the fact that they are speaking English, I think, reflects English’s influence.

Just to be clear, in that link I was referring to the Weber list. Which I guess is convienent given its citation in the original article!

Oh, I’m not saying that your school was one that rich kids attend, but that your African friends that spoke great French probably were part of the local African elite.

Sheer numbers don’t make a language influential, don’t get me wrong. Bengali, for example, has many more native speakers than French, but I don’t think you would find many people saying that it is more influential than French. So the fact that Spanish has a lot more native speakers than French doesn’t mean that is necessarily more influential. But by the same token, in my mind a native speaker counts more than a secondary speaker because you really don’t know how well the secondary speaker knows the language!

The number of secondary speakers does seem to be a measure of a language’s influence, but what if we converted the hundreds of millions of native speakers into secondary speakers that also spoke a myriad of local languages? Would that make Spanish more influential now? I don’t really think so.

Maybe the best measure of a language’s influence is the number of people that study it as a foreign language. English leads by a mile and I think that French is second. However, this may just be measuring the desirability of a language and not it’s usefulness. To me, Spanish is a more practical and useful language while French is more of a language that one learns due to love of its language and culture. I’m not saying that french isn’t useful nor practical, but less so than Spanish.

I just wish there were more native French speakers in the Western Hemisphere or in the US; it is hard to find French speakers here. And if it were only phonetic. :frowning:

“I just wish there were more native French speakers in the Western Hemisphere or in the US; it is hard to find French speakers here. And if it were only phonetic. :(”

Haha, I know how you feel, or at least I knew! I was frustrated about having to use skype exclusively for language practice then one day I saw a couple guys walking by and heard the French. I just said something stupid in French and the reaction was better than I expected.

South Florida is actually a great place to practice French. My family is mostly Francophone and my Grandmother’s building in Ft. Lauderdale Fl is probably 1/3 from quebec. It works out because half the workers in the building seem to be from Haiti! Next time I’m down there I’m definetly going to try to check out some Hatian stores/restaurants.

As far as the lack of being phonetic, I am of the utmost of agreement. It gets easier over time, but I still have no idea how to pronounce the french word for “rubber” (caoutchouc). I’m going to start learning Spanish soon and I can tell, as far as pronunciation, it will be a lot easier.

To be fair to French, it’s super hard finding large language communities aside from English and Spanish in the US. German, Chinese (there are many dialects and Cantonese is the most common type in chinatowns), Russian, the list goes on.

You’ll love the fact that Spanish is VERY phonetic. It’s pretty much 100% phonetic except for “ge, gi” leading to an “h” sound…that’s actually the only exception I can think of off the top of my head.

According to people I’ve talked to that have good (B1+) knowledge of French and Spanish, Spanish is harder for grammar and vocabulary while French is harder for pronunciation and spelling. The Spanish subjunctive is apparently (I don’t know French) more difficult than in French. Adverbial clauses really separate the men from the boys in Spanish. French IS considered the hardest romance language for most, to be honest. You may find it interesting that like 10% of Spanish words have Arabic roots due to the occupation of Spain that lasted hundreds of years until 1492.

The major difficulties I think people cite for French are in the double negatives (ne pas, ne rien, ne aucune, ne jamais, ne personne… etc) and the addition of 2 reflexive pronouns (I think that is what they are called… [en, y]).

From what I see the subjunctive must be considered harder in spanish because it has a future subjunctive. I think adverbs can be used more freely in French, but I am not sure. Articles are a little harder in French, or so I’ve heard.

What I have been told is that proper Castillano is more gramatically complex than Latin American dialects.

  1. The future subjunctive is really NEVER used in Spanish, except in some dusty old law documents. I’ve never heard it being used by any people. I chat with a lot of Spaniards on skype and last week my Spanish friend had to think about when they actually used the future subjunctive; it’s so rare!

  2. The grammar is the same whether you are in Spain or Latin America. The Spanish do use the indirect pronoun “le” when referring to a male whereas everybody else uses the direct object pronoun “lo” but it is just a quirk. And they obviously use the vosotros but it’s not a big deal. I haven’t felt like there were any differences living in Spain or Latin American countries.

  3. On they say that in French you have to put the pronoun with every conjugated verb. Is this correct? In Spanish it is much more common to not include the pronoun unless you are emphasizing something or really want to be clear. So that’s another hard part of Spanish.

  4. I read on howtolearnanylanguage that Spanish and French share 80% similar vocabulary. The consensus is that Spanish/Portuguese and French/Italian are the closest grammar-wise and if you want to learn the quickest. But boy, Spanish and Portuguese are REALLY similar. Mutual intelligibility has been estimated in scientific studies to be 54% for Spanish/Portuguese, with Portuguese speakers understanding more Spanish than vice-versa, due to Portuguese having many more vowels and phonemes. Take out the pronunciation and they are extremely similar.


  1. Well that’s good. Sounds like its gone the way of the English subjunctive in general =0
  2. Don’t they use vosotros/vos in a couple countries in Latin America?
  3. Yes, it is basically like English in this respect.
  4. I can decipher a lot of written Spanish thanks to my French and one semester of Spanish in High School. There is obviously some fun non-latin vocabulary that is in every Romance language.
  1. Well that’s good. Sounds like its gone the way of the English subjunctive in general =0
  2. Don’t they use vosotros/vos in a couple countries in Latin America?
  3. Yes, it is basically like English in this respect.
  4. I can decipher a lot of written Spanish thanks to my French and one semester of Spanish in High School. There is obviously some fun non-latin vocabulary that is in every Romance language.

1.The future subjunctive is really never used in daily life. You may get the random quote in that tense.(Adonde fueres, haz lo que vieres) (“Wherever you go, do what you see”=When in Rome, do as the Romans do)
You will have to recognize two ways of conjugating the imperfect subjunctive. First, you conjugate the verb in the third person plural of the past tense.

Buscar (to look for)→buscaRON

Then you drop the “RON” and add “ra, ras, ra, áramos, rais, ran” (I, you, he/she, we, ya’ll, they) if you are outside of Spain

or add “se, ses, se, ásemos, seis, sen” if you are in Spain.

  1. The vos is used most famously in Argentina and also in some parts of Colombia. In some parts of Perú, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, too, I believe, but it is most famous and universal in the Rioplatenese countries. They can even conjugate verbs differently (tienes→tenés) But the vos is just used instead of “tú”. If you don’t adjust the conjugation, it is just a pronoun that replaces the “tú”. When I talk with Argentines, they use the “vos” and conjugate verbs differently when they start to talk fast and normally. haha

The vosotros is a conjugation that is used in Spain instead of the “ustedes” form. It makes sense because it is less ambiguous. With the vosotros, you are saying “you all” instead of the “Ustedes”, which can mean either “you all” or “they”. I don’t use the vosotros because I’ve never been accustomed to Spanish from Spain, even though I lived there the longest.

  1. The trouble with Spanish is that the basic vocabulary is extremely accessible for Americans (yarda=yard), but the advanced vocabulary is very different from English. I can’t find too many relationships with these Spanish words and their English equivalents. These example words are just brute memorization, I think. It’s probably the same with French, right?

Pelaje=fur of animal (“pelage” is actually the term in English, comes from latin)

ad cazasigiloso: (…) As I probably said before, the ruling elite speak French in Africa, the ordinary person doesn’t it speak it that much (…)

I think that depends on the country you talk about. If you go to the Maghrib, you’ll meet many locals who speak excellent French. French certainly is not a language of an elite in Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria. As a matter of fact, it is commonly used in every day interactions between people from various social classes. Things change if you go further south. But in countries like the Ivory Coast French is widely used too, in addition to other local languages. I worked with street children from a few African countries and we communicated in French.


It’s amazing the world French opens, isnt it? After the earthquake in Haiti, my state saw an influx of Hatian refugees. Every once in a while I come across one and it is always interesting to hear what they have to say in their native tongue. Absolutely beautiful and nice people.

I have a good friend from the Ivory Coast that I call “Frenchie.” :slight_smile:

Language in Africa seems very complex to me. In pretty much all of those countries you have tons of local languages competing a european tongue (French, Portuguese, English) and then sometimes another international language. In the Western Hemisphere you have a dominant official language (French, Spanish, English, Portuguese) that pretty much almost everybody speaks.

I guess I’m referring to some African countries that are trying to move away from French (Rwanda and another one) and closer to English but they find they can’t do that because French is so entrenched in the school system. I don’t know what is going to happen in Africa economically, politically, or linguistically.

I doubt any African language will take dominance. Swahili is overshadowed by English for the most part. Arabic is starting to be spoken more and more in northern Mali (or at least until the French war there recently). South Africa is crazy with the 11 official languges, but it looks like English will remain at the top as far as lingua franca utility.

It seems pretty likely that Arabic will be the main language of northern Africa but do you think that French will get pushed out or die out? Apparently, like 50% of the Algerians can speak French to some extent. Or was it Libya?

What seems more likely: French becomes the dominant language of the current African countries where it is official in, French and the indigenous languages become “equals”, or French slowly dies out as the countries lean toward English?

I think the local languages will still be the maternal language of most Africans there with French serving as a lingua franca; kind of like how it is now.

I don’t think Arabic speaking regions of Africa are likely to ally themselves with their non-islamic neighbors. I think similar polarizations between each regions languges should be expected. Algeria and Lebanon are both part of the Francophonie and have large numbers of French speakers.

I think Central Africa and Western Africa will remain Francophone and Southern Africa will remain Anglo, much as it is now. France has a lot of interaction with their former colonies; I would say much more so than England. Indigenous languages are just far to many in number and variety. I agree we’ll probably see, as has happened in India, the European language alternative being preferred.