SOAS University of London

SOAS Language Centre

French at SOAS Language Centre

French is a descendant of Latin and is, therefore, a language belonging to the Romance (or Italic) branch of the Indo-European language family.  It is a close relative of Italian, Catalan and Spanish, although it shares somewhat greater similarity with the dialects of southern France, collectively known as ‘Provençal’. Standard French is based on the usage of Paris and linguistic issues, such as borrowing from other languages, are monitored by the Académie Française.   

As with English, the majority of the world’s speakers of French are not found in its country of origin but elsewhere: whilst the population of France can be estimated at around 66 million, the number of speakers worldwide is certainly three times that number – more likely, four.  The difficulty in estimating the total number of French speakers is that, as with English, many millions have evolved their own local form, often extremely divergent and only partially intelligible with Parisian French.

French is used as a lingua franca across much of western and central Africa, from Senegal to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it is the national language. In North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria), it lost ground to Arabic in the period of decolonisation but continues to be widespread. Elsewhere in Africa, French is spoken in the Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar, Reunion, Seychelles and Mauritius – the last three having produced French-derived creoles.

Once firmly established in various places in the southern tip of India and across much of continental South East Asia, French has yielded considerably to indigenous languages since World War II. That said, it remains an important language for historical research into the European battle for supremacy in India and in the territories further east, referred to as ‘Indochina’ (present day Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam), where French colonialism met with its greatest successes in Asia.  

SOAS Language Centre offers the following for French: