Taking your languages further…

In my day job in localisation, I’ve come across a whole stack of language which, if I am totally honest, I hadn’t even heard about before I started. Most people know that in France they speak French, in Germany they speak German, and in Spain they speak Spanish, right?

Well, yes, of course. But it’s a much more complicated (and amazing) picture than that. Over here in the UK we all tend to learn a certain basic level of French (mainly for historical reasons). We might also get the chance to pick up German or Spanish. But that tends to be the sum of our experience in 95% of cases. I learned those three at school, along with a bit of Japanese as a hobby (I was not one of the cool kids, in case you don’t guess), but even I never thought much beyond the idea of using my German to go to Germany and my Spanish to go to Spain.

So what’s my point? Well, for a start – the ‘big name’ languages are only the main picture: they don’t tell you what else is going on. In France, French is the official and most used language, but a small proportion of the population also speak regional languages like Breton, Catalan, Occitan and Alsatian. It’s the same in most countries, where smaller regional languages still flourish despite the tide of modernisation generally being in favour of the homogenisation of national languages. Here in the UK we’ve done a pretty good job of stamping out regional dialects and languages, but some still have a foothold. Welsh, Gaelic and Scots are obvious examples, but even here in England we have Cornish which still manages to keep its foot in the door (just about).

But what I’ve been thinking about most of all recently is: what else can I do with the ‘big’ European languages that I speak? People have often asked me what is the point in learning a language like French, because ‘what use is it unless you’re going to France?’ Leaving aside for a moment how stupid that question is, and all the applications of French in business, understanding the world or socialising (for a start), these people clearly have no idea how far across the globe some of these European languages have spread.

Let’s carry on with French as an example, because it’s the most commonly learned language here. Around 17% of us Brits can at least hold a conversation in French, so it’s reasonable to assume that you might know some French and wonder what else you can do with it other than ordering an overpriced croissant in Paris. So let’s have a look at some of the other places around the world that you could go just with your French…

1. Canada: Ok, you probably know that some parts of Canada are francophone. Quebec being the most famous example. But did you know that French is the mother tongue of 22% of Canadians? And that it’s the sole official language of Quebec, as well as co-official in three other territories? If you really want to spend time in those areas, or maybe move to that part of Canada, you’d better brush up on your French, because French Canadians are pretty proud of their language, and speaking to them in their own tongue is important. You can read about some of the differences between French and Canadian French here – to me it sounds really strange, but it’s not difficult to adapt to the slightly different way of speaking there.

2. Africa: I’m lumping Africa here in one, but there are several African countries where French is the main language or a widely-used or co-official language. Senegal, Tunisia and Morocco, for a start. In fact, just with English and a basic knowledge of French, you could get around the vast majority of the continent, as most countries recognise one or other of those languages as a national language. I’m particularly keen to go somewhere like Senegal, as the Senegalese have none of the French snobbery about speaking ‘perfect’ French and are generally really happy to engage with your attempts at making yourself understood in French. In many cases, French has blended with the local language (in the case of Senegal, Wolof) – but most locals will understand both. You might find local African words sneaking into French, but you’ll also find French words making their way into these languages. If you’re planning on spending a lot of time there, your French will certainly evolve into a more African style of French, but European French will be understood fine in most places.

3. Haiti: In Haiti, French and Creole are co-official. French is French, but Creole is far more exciting to learn. If you speak French, you’ll recognise straight away how the French words have become ‘creolised’ to become a new (but very similar) language. I’m not saying that if you speak French you can immediately speak Creole, but you’d have a lot of fun doing so and recognising the many, many French words in Creole, for example: the French chien (dog) becomes chen la in Creole. Boite (box) is bwat la in Creole. Bonjou is hello, how much is konbyen and you’d recognise many more words like jaden (jardin), travay (travaille) and liv la (livre)… You’ll get by just fine with ‘mainstream’ French too though.

Port au Prince, Haiti

4. Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg: Even within Europe there are several countries where French is one of the official languages. In each of them, the dominant language depends on the area (French is co-official with German in Switzerland, Flemish in Belgium and German and Luxembourgish in Luxembourg) – but you’d be able to get around most of them with French. From experience, in Luxembourg city, people tend to use French a lot more than German, and everyone will speak to foreigners in French. The French in these countries is slightly accented, but fundamentally the same.

And that’s just French. This post would probably go on forever if I told you where you could go if you also spoke German and Spanish, but maybe I’ll write another one later.

As for French, it has around 73 million native speakers worldwide and 338 million total speakers – a hell of a lot of people for you to chat to, and a lot of places to explore! See the full list of countries where French is offically used here. And happy travelling!

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