History of French Language in Africa

The history of French language in Africa is long just like the English language. French is a classic language, given the fact that it is included in the historical sketch of English Language as one of Great Britain. With roughly half of all French speakers residing in Africa, the French language is one of the fastest-growing languages globally. While it is still strongly associated with France—where it originated—most French speakers live in other countries.

Like Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish, French is a Romance language. The Romans’ everyday language, Vulgar Latin, is the ancestor of Romance languages. Roman colonists spread it widely, but many conquered lands became culturally and linguistically isolated after the Western Roman Empire fell apart.

Vulgar Latin evolved into numerous local dialects, eventually evolving into the Romance languages we know today. French evolved from northern France’s Gallo-Romance dialects and replaced Latin as the state language of France in 1539.

French is ranked second only to English as the most widely used official language. French is also the procedural language of the European Union, the only language used in EU Court of Justice deliberations, and one of the United Nations’ recognized working languages.

Trailing only English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, and Bengali, French has become the world’s seventh most widely spoken language. About 300 million native speakers there are, including partial speakers and speakers of many French dialects and creoles.

History of French Language in Africa

Looking at the history of French language in Africa, we will have to understand that the French arrived in Africa as a colonial language; these African French speakers are now a large part of the Francophonie.

The Beginning of the French Among the Blacks

Direct European contact in West Africa dates back at least as far as the fifteenth century AD when Portuguese traders made their first links with West African coastal peoples. Previously, Europeans has been aware of and had participated to varying degrees with West African peoples through the trans-Saharan trade. Throughout the latter part of the fifteenth century the Spanish, Dutch, British and French all began to establish their presence in the West African context.

The timing of these early contacts is linked closely to the growth of maritime capabilities, increasing interest in trade activity with Africa and the Far East, religious expansion and the Age of Exploration. Africa, and West Africa in particular, came to represent important possibilities for the expansionist policies of the European powers over the next five centuries.

The early contacts made by Europeans, primarily the Portuguese, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were largely focused on the coastal areas of West Africa and were primarily trade related although missionary work and exploration did also occur. The Europeans traded in slaves, sugar, pepper, ivory, wax, and gold during this period.

The trade in gold was a major factor in the expansion of European interest in West Africa. Gold from West Africa, Ghana in particular, represented 1/10th of the world’s gold reserve in the early part of the sixteenth century (Boahen, 1986). Europe’s growing dependence on gold and the associated growth of merchant capitalism reinforced Europe’s links to West Africa.

The West African coastal peoples encountered by the early European traders represented only a small part of the richness and complexity of the region in general. Previous to European contact, the region had witnessed the emergence and solidification of a series of ancient African polities, among them, the Ghana, Mali, Songhai and Hausa empires and states.

These pre-colonial states, Islamic expansion and a strong pre-colonial trade network all contributed to a diverse and complex social environment into which European traders, explorers and missionaries entered, perhaps naively.

Read Also: List of African Countries Speaking French Language

African Speakers in French Language

Africa has the most French speakers of any continent. The French language was introduced to the African continent due to colonialism. France and Belgium lost control of their African colonies in the 1950s and 1960s. However, French is still spoken in at least 29 African countries.

Although it is primarily a second language for most speakers, it has surpassed local languages in some areas, such as Abidjan in Ivory Coast. Estimates say that there will be 700 million French speakers by 2050, with Africa accounting for 80 percent of them!

In countries with multiple local languages, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, French is a lingua franca – a language used by people who do not speak each other’s native language. It is also used as the language of administration and in school.

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