The Story of French and How it Became a Remarkably Popular Language

Book Cover, Story of French

Last week I began summarizing some of the highlights from The Story of French, by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. My post left off in the midst of the French Revolution. I read much of the book in November. During the week of our election, I was learning that at the time of the revolution roughly 10% of French citizens spoke French well. 20% of the population could get by using French. 50% of the population had limited familiarity and 20% knew no French at all. A difficult challenge for the new Republican government lay in convincing peasants to reject the king’s authority and embrace a new form of governing.

As I watched our electoral map turn red in rural areas and blue in cities across the United States, I was reading that many educated people in France, those living in large cities or near universities, largely supported the new regime while many of the rural poor and illiterate remained loyal to the authoritarian monarch. I found the parallel to today oddly reassuring. It’s at that point of France’s history, that I continue my summary of The Story of French.

The Tricky Business of Revolution

Battle in Vendee
Painting of a counter-revolutionary battle in the Vendée region of France, by Paul-Émile Boutigny.

After years of increasing unemployment, rising food prices due to poor harvests, massive government debt, and a regressive tax system that disproportionately overburdened the poor, the peasant class had helped launch the French revolution. But they didn’t exactly blame the king for their plight. They wanted to get rid of the regional parliaments that set and collected taxes. Many were staunch supporters of Louis XVI, declaring him “father of the French and king of a free people”. Militias formed across France to oppose the new National Assembly. Many of these groups obtained military aid from foreign monarchs backing a counter-revolution.

The Republicans responded by ending many of the nobility’s privileges—among them their tax-exempt status. They equalized legal rights for all citizens, allowed everyone to run for public office, outlawed religious persecution, and eliminated the feudal dues collected by landowners. Such reforms were slow to quell unrest, however, since the very people they were designed to help didn’t know they were taking place. The new government realized that an educated populace, that shared a common language, would be key to uniting the country. They created the Committee for Public Instruction and began establishing schools that offered free education to all citizens. The plan had the added benefit of taking education away from the clergy, most of whom supported the monarchy.

A mass exodus of roughly 250,000 nobles, royalists and resisters scattered across Europe, joining French Protestants that had been exiled by the king. Later, when the unrest had settled down, only about 40% returned to France. The 60% that stayed behind, helped contribute to the growing popularity of French among the European elite. Napoleon’s conquests of the Netherlands, Belgium, most of Italy, and nearly half of Germany relied on recruits from more than 20 countries. These soldiers needed to understand French in order to serve under a French command. When they returned home, after the war, they brought their newly acquired language skills with them.

A National Education System

French School Before Jules Ferry
French School Before Jules Ferry

Over the next 8 decades, the French government went through a variety of fits and starts as it struggled to establish a universal school system in France. Teachers were scarce. Training programs were underfunded. By 1880, most of France was still an agrarian society where children needed to work. The Catholic Church still ran most schools. Under the direction of Jules Ferry, who served as the French Prime Minister and the country’s first minister of education, public education was again reorganized. In March 1882, Ferry succeeded in passing a law that made primary education in France free, secular, and mandatory.

Ferry wanted to rid the education system of the Church’s influence. Many Catholic schools were known for advocating autocratic rule and promoting regional languages over French. Ferry’s vision for France included a secular Republic where all citizens could vote and clergy were relegated to running churches. The Story of French makes note of a famous poster (shown at right) that portrays the chaotic nature of public schools before Jules Ferry. To this day, Ferry’s defenders credit him with playing an important role in unifying the nation. Detractors point out that he provoked the near-extinction of several regional languages.

By the Second World War, almost all French citizens understood French. I was extremely surprised to learn, however, that 50% of the population still identified their regional language as their mother tongue.

A Bit on the French Empire

In an earlier post, about Longfellow’s epic poem, Evangeline, I described the tragic ethnic cleansing that befell the French people who settled in what is now Nova Scotia. Most of the French who came to North America were from populated areas in northern France. As a whole, they were more educated than the average French citizen. They spoke French well and were more likely to be literate. Perhaps as a reaction to the persecution they experienced in the New World, French Canadians went to great lengths to preserve French customs and language. The French spoken in Quebec today is believed to be much closer to the French spoken in northern France 2-3 hundred years ago than is the French spoken by modern-day Parisians.

After establishing and then ceding most of its North American colonies, France began its second major colonial push in the mid-19th-century, focusing primarily on Africa. More than any other colonizer, France recognized the importance of setting up schools that would teach French to the local population. They initially sent trained educators to these regions and set up immersion schools. They soon realized, however, that the Jesuit missionary schools were far more effective when it came to teaching French.

In contrast to popular belief about language learning, the Jesuits did not employ immersion. Instead, they methodically went about studying the regional culture and dialect first. Only after establishing a rapport with the local people did they feel prepared to deliver instruction. Their primary goal was, of course, to convert the local population to Christianity. However, because France was financially supporting them, they also taught French, using the local language to clarify subject matter. (Apparently, Catholic indoctrination was fine for the new colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, just not for children in mainland France.)

Photo of Algiers Harbor
Photo of Algiers Harbor, 1899, Library of Congress

In Algeria, as early as the 1850s, the colonial government set up “mixed schools” where students learned Arabic in the morning and French in the afternoon. These schools were primarily attended by the children of European immigrants and a small percentage of upper-class Algerians. Most Algerians did not send their children to French schools. However, the European settlers gradually took over the agricultural, commercial, and industrial sectors of the country. They hired the local inhabitants to work for them and those people had to understand and speak French. As a result, by 1914 roughly 1 million inhabitants in a total population of 4.5 million spoke French.

Colonial Independence

Street in Beirut
Street in Beirut Showing the Influence of French Architecture

As colonialism fell in the 20th century, the newly independent African states found themselves in a similar position to that of the French Republicans of 1790. In setting up a new government, countries needed to establish an official language. Most regions were home to multiple tribal peoples, each with its own unique customs and language. Many of these languages were ill-defined at best without a formal grammar or character set for written expression. Conveniently, the educated and governing classes already communicated in French. Selecting French as the official language was not only practical, doing so cemented the ruling class’s hold on power. Today, 21 African countries cite French as the official language.

France’s success in the Middle East and Asia was far less significant than in Africa. Once the French had pulled out of these regions, many of the newly formed states adopted overtly anti-French policies. Members of the elite class, however, still valued a French education for their children. Ironically, many of these former colonies progressed further in French after independence than they had before.

The French Academy

Cardinal Richelieu
Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu, by Philippe de Champaigne

Glaringly absent from my summary thus far is the role of the Académie française in shaping French. The authors refer to the prestigious institution throughout the book. For those unfamiliar with it, the Académie française was formed in 1635 by Cardinal de Richelieu. Richelieu was an influential statesman who served under Louis XIII. The Academy’s charter is to standardize, purify, codify, and preserve the French language for all time. There are 40 elected members of the Académie française. Since they generally hold their seats for life, they’re referred to as les immortels.

The Academy gave French the systematic grammar which helped French become Europe’s common language for commerce and diplomacy. You may find French difficult to pronounce but it is an extremely consistent and polished language compared to English. As for the spelling, well that’s a different matter. The lettered class consciously made French difficult to spell so that fewer people would be able to join their ranks.

Given its stated mission, many people have the impression that the Académie française acts as a sort of language police that prohibits French from evolving in ways that will weaken its purity. I included myself in this camp until reading The Story of French. Apparently, the Academy does very little in that regard. Its main function is to maintain and publish an official French dictionary and it does a pretty poor job of managing even that. Over the 385 years since the Academy’s founding, there have only been 8 complete editions of the Dictionaire de l’Académie française. The latest full edition is from 1935.

As far as policing the language is concerned, a delegation within the Ministry of Culture performs that role. They monitor the foreign influences that are naturally appearing in people’s speech. To the horror of language purists, words like buzz, open-space, tweet, flop, best-of, and low-cost are becoming increasingly prevalent. The delegation attempts to find French equivalents for such invaders. The Académie française merely places their rubber stamp on whatever the Ministry of Culture recommends.

Quebec’s Important Influence

It turns out that Quebec’s language protection policies are considerably stronger than those of France. Surrounded by a continent of English speakers, French speakers in Canada feel understandably more threatened and go to much greater lengths to defend their language. The Office québécois de la langue française not only maintains an authoritative French dictionary, it also creates policies to “Frenchify” businesses operating in Quebec.

Quebec’s Grand dictionnaire terminologique excels at keeping up with new terms cropping up in a variety of sectors: commerce, technology, science, and medicine to name a few. Quebec wisely recognized that new concepts and inventions with English names should be translated as quickly as possible. They have a much larger staff for performing this role and a far more open attitude regarding taking input from outsiders. Thus in France, a lawsuit undertaken to seek damages for a group of people is referred to as a class action, whereas in Quebec, its called a recour collectif.

In 2006, the year The Story of French was published, the online French dictionary of the Académie française received about 2 million hits per year. By contrast, Quebec’s dictionary of terminology was getting 50 million hits per year. Indeed, the Québécois have been so successful that the French cultural ministry’s language delegation now relies on Quebec’s language office as a resource. It’s worth repeating, however, that the French are far more lax about protecting their language from English influences.

The Future of French

Cannes Film Festival
Cultural events like the Cannes Film Festival are promoted across the globe.

It’s clear that the authors of The Story of French, care deeply about the protection and promotion of their beautiful sounding and historically rich language. They admire the achievements of French Canadians and are somewhat frustrated with France’s seeming indifference toward the advancement of French. They point to the importance of cultural influences. English has become the world’s most popular language, largely due to the global popularity of American culture.

In the second half of the 20th century, as France’s last remaining colonies gained their independence, the notion of spreading French culture to other parts of the world became extraordinarily unpopular. Some people viewed the term Francophonie, as a synonym for post-colonialism. In a striking display of apathy, the French paid little or no attention to Quebec’s movement for independence in the 1970s and 80s. Within France, however, strong measures have always been undertaken to protect the country’s film, music, publishing, culinary, and other cultural business sectors.

Meanwhile, Quebec has worked to expand its visibility in places such as French-speaking Africa. Today, African young people increasingly choose French-Canadian universities over French universities when seeking higher education in the west. Even though French researchers lead the world in many areas, these students prioritize the flexibility and support services they receive at Canadian institutions.

The French government is indeed concerned about the prevalence of English in diplomatic and scholarly circles. It doesn’t want to see French lose its status as an international language. Yet, the government does not require scientists to publish in French as well as English. In Japan, by contrast, in order to receive public funding, you must agree to publish your results in Japanese.

The authors argue, that the key to the French language’s worldwide longevity rests on the popularity of French culture. Fortunately, it seems that France has gradually become aware that a rising tide lifts all ships. French institutions increasingly embrace and help promote films, music, and literature coming from francophone countries around the world. The French publishing industry has gone one step further, seeking talented authors from other languages who have yet to receive international exposure and translating their works into French. French institutions of higher learning are undergoing major organizational changes to better compete internationally. These and other initiatives that expand France’s global presence may well result in French remaining one of the world’s most popular languages. I, for one, fervently hope they succeed.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. Très intéressant! Merci.

  2. Interesting history, thanks. I was rather struck by this, referring to the time of the revolution:

    roughly 10% of French citizens spoke French well. 20% of the population could get by using French. 50% of the population had limited familiarity and 20% knew no French at all.

    This implies that at least 90% of the population of France had something other than French as its native language. I know there are regional languages in a few places like Brittany and Alsace, but I didn’t think that was the case with most of the country so recently. What were they speaking, if not some form of French? Is it just that the local dialects of what we now consider French were so different from each other that they weren’t considered “French” at all?

    France’s success in the Middle East and Asia was far less significant than in Africa.

    The Middle East/North Africa region was my area of academic specialization. One wouldn’t really expect the French language do be preserved as well there as in sub-Saharan Africa (where most countries had many small languages and a single unifying language was needed), because countries like Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco each already had a common unifying language — Arabic. But it’s striking how much the usage of French has actually tended to increase in the latter three (collectively known as the Maghrib) since the end of colonial rule, even though government policy has encouraged the use of Arabic. The reason seems to be the association of French with secularism and modernity and the attractiveness of French culture, in contrast to the dreary puritanism of Islamic fundamentalism (I wrote a post about this a few years ago). Family ties with relatives among the Algerian-origin population in France likely also play a role.

    Concerning the future, how would you assess the impact of the internet? It’s a truly global medium in which people from literally anywhere on Earth can end up in direct conversation with each other, and as such, it seems to have room for only one common language, a role in which English seems pretty entrenched. Japan is the only country whose pop culture is even remotely comparable with American in its global appeal, but I don’t see the Japanese language challenging the dominance of English at all outside Japan, even though the “internet dialect” of English is absorbing a fair number of new words from Japanese (and not from any other language). It seems to me that the internet has put the whole world in the same position those sub-Saharan African countries were in — in dire need of a single unifying language for communication among people with a huge number of local native languages — and it just so happens that the internet arose at a time when English already had a dominant position. It’s hard to see what Québec (for example) can do about this.

    • Thanks for your excellent and thought-provoking comments Infidel.

      Regarding other languages spoken in France, the answer is that yes there were many entirely different languages spoken across France and multiple dialects within each of those. I was also surprised to learn about how few people spoke French. For example, within the Langues d’oil language family, spoken in northern France, the dialects include Angevin, Berrichon, Bourguignon-Morvandiau, Champenois, Franc-Comtois, French, Gallo, Lorrain, Manceau, Mayennais, Norman, Picard, Poitevin, Romande, Saintongeais, and Walloon. Other language families spoken in France include Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Franco-Provencal, Flemish, Gallo Italic (sounds like a font), Lorraine Franconian, and Occitan. Again, each one of these have several different dialects. Crazy eh?

      You make an interesting point in mentioning that Arabic was already a language that unified populations in the Middle East and Maghreb. I hadn’t thought about that but it makes perfect sense. I’m eager to read your post. Thanks for the link.

      With respect to French rivaling English, I don’t think anyone is expecting that to happen. The question is more whether French can survive in places outside of France. The authors both live in Montreal and they see English as a serious threat despite the success of the Quebec terminology dictionary and other international gains like being the first choice for university students coming from Senegal. They’ve traveled the world and are inspired by the many francophiles they’ve encountered across the globe. Without France’s help, however, they feel these islands may disappear.

      When it comes to choosing a second language, most people choose English. But, in many areas of the world, people learn more than one language. If you’re Chinese, or Turkish, or Ukrainian, and you already speak English, adding French is not that difficult but why would you choose it? What would attract you there in the first place? The authors argue that if France would learn to fully embrace and nurture all of the Francophonie, French would have a chance at maintaining a spot near the top of the list of most spoken languages.

      I love your analogy to English being a unifying dialect for the Internet. The Story of French was published in 2006, and I don’t recall the authors even mentioning the influence of the Internet. Happily, the Internet also accelerates the learning of French, just the way it has helped people learn English. There is a ton of online content and many social media sites that make it possible to listen to, read, carry on conversations, and write in French. Japanese, despite its popularity, is far behind French in this regard.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and experience. I appreciate the dialogue.

      • Thanks! I do appreciate that you post about things like this that get me to think. I may get the book.

        I looked up a couple of those language names you listed and they did seem more different from French than one would expect for mere dialects. I suppose it’s not such an unusual situation. Some “dialects” of Italian qualify as separate languages (especially Sardinian), and what we call “Chinese” is really a group of eight related languages. I once had a Chinese lady friend for several years whose native language was Mandarin, and when we watched Hong Kong movies, she couldn’t understand a word of the Cantonese and had to follow them from the English subtitles, just like I did.

        Of course Basque is totally different, as you probably know. It seems to be a living fossil left over from before the Indo-European conquest of Europe, not related to anything else now spoken.

        If the terminology in Québec and France is diverging, due to more English words being adopted in the latter but not the former, one wonders if they will eventually end up creating a new dialect cleavage and ultimately undermining mutual intelligibility. I suppose French in the Maghrib and black Africa is also picking up words from local languages to some extent. This pretty much always happens in such cases — English is also slightly different in each country that uses it.

        I think languages differ in the degree to which they can spread beyond the cultures which originate them. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic have all spread far beyond their original homelands to each become the common language of a range of varied societies. The Japanese language, in my opinion (I studied it enough to get by fairly well in Japan while I was there), couldn’t do that. Its features and quirks are too strongly bound up with the nature of Japanese culture specifically. If another country switched to speaking Japanese, they would need to either adopt the whole Japanese culture or else change the language drastically to fit their existing culture. There’s also the problem of writing. Japanese has a very weird and complex writing system. English and French have difficult spelling (measured by how difficult it is to predict the spelling of a word from its pronunciation), but that’s nothing like so large an obstacle.

        Getting back to the post:

        The new government realized that an educated populace, that shared a common language, would be key to uniting the country

        I can’t help noticing that the US now has an educated (by 1789 standards) population with a common language, and we are not particularly united. So it doesn’t always work. I suppose it does help, though.

        By the way, I responded to your comment on my Maghrib post. In brief, I think the long-term effect and significance of Trumpism will turn out to be a lot smaller than they appear while we’re living through it.

        • You’re right about Japanese. My daughter has studied it for several years and told me enough about it for me to realize that it is much harder to master than the European languages. Just the challenge learning three character sets, any one of which poses its own unique challenges, is daunting.

          You raise a good point about a common language being perhaps necessary but not sufficient for uniting a population. If people speak your language but they’re tuned into a different information source than the one you’d like them to hear, you can’t do much to gain their allegiance.

          I’m happy to know you remain optimistic about mankind’s future. 🙂

          As always, thanks for your comments.

  3. I always wondered about French spelling.

  4. Fascinating! I really want to read this

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