French has been the official language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo since the Belgians first colonized the area in the 19th century: Next month, the country, officially independent since 1960, will host the French-speaking nations of the world at the biennial Francophonie Summit in Kinshasa.
While the DRC is frequently touted as the most populous French-speaking country in the world, less than one-third of its nearly 70 million people actually speak the language.
Nevertheless, the French language dominates the upper echelons of the DRC’s political, economic, and academic circles, which allows it to extend those circles into those of other French-speaking countries. Basically, the language is the cultural and linguistic bond between the member states of the so-called La Francophonie.
The summit is intended to bring together representatives from the Francophonie’s 56 member states and 19 observers for the purpose of organizing “political activities and actions of multilateral cooperation that benefit French-speaking populations,” according to the website of the International Organization of the Francophonie, or IOF.
This purpose will not be lost on the foreign dignitaries as they gather in a country that was traumatized by nearly a century of colonialism, wracked by subsequent decades of internal conflict, and where more than 70 percent of the population currently lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. There is no doubt that this economic disparity falls along the same line as the proportion of the country’s population that was not privileged enough to learn French.
One of the IOF’s goals is to promote French as a global language, which it believes is central to the social and economic development of the poorest nations within the Francophonie.
“The Francophone community is united by a sense of solidarity from the richest to the poorest countries across the world,” the IOF wrote in one of its pamphlets. “If development is to be sustainable and interconnected, economic growth has to be combined with the fair distribution of resources and considerate management of the environment. To achieve this, these countries must participate in world economic dynamics.”
What the IOF is essentially saying is that French-speaking countries -- especially developing ones where the language is not native -- need to promote the use of French domestically to participate in the French-speaking networks within the global economy and develop accordingly.
However, the global trend has overwhelmingly been the adoption of English as the language of both business and diplomacy. The current native English-speaking population is estimated at around 375 million, with 750 million speaking it as a second language, according to the British Council.
Nevertheless, the IOF projects that its current estimate of 220 million French-speakers worldwide, including those who speak it as a second language, will grow to 700 million by 2050, with 80 percent of them be in Africa, AFP reported.
Indeed, the future of French as a global language lies in Africa, but only if it can expand beyond its status as a language of the political elite and educated middle class, as is currently typified in the DRC.
Even so, languages such as English and Chinese are increasingly being viewed as vehicles for economic mobility in countries like the DRC, threatening French’s dominant position as the language of the educated.
The IOF’s present secretary general and Senegal's past president, Abdou Diouf, pointed out at the French Language World Forum in Quebec City in July that the global prominence of the French language has also suffered from strict immigration policies in some French-speaking countries that prevent interaction between various French-speaking peoples.
“I will say it strongly: a language cannot survive in isolation; it never circulates better than with its speakers,” Diouf said, AFP reported. “We cannot wish for the influence of the French language and, at the same time, close our borders to those who speak French, who study French, who create in French."
Immigration has become a highly polarized topic in France in particular. Under conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, immigration policies became significantly stricter, but restrictions may relax under Socialist President Francois Hollande, who also happens to be attending the summit in Kinshasa.
If Diouf’s words are to be taken seriously, then it will require a greater openness and spirit of exchange among the developed French-speaking countries in relation to those that are developing. Otherwise, the language will be doomed to obsolesce on the global stage.