Languages of France

There are a number of languages of France, although the French language is by far the most widely spoken and the only official language of the country. However, several historical regional languages are still spoken to varying degrees. Some of them are sometimes called patois, but this term (roughly meaning dialect) is sometimes considered derogatory. The real importance of local languages remains subject to debate. Several other languages are spoken by a substantial percentage of the population due to immigration.


Government outlook

The official language of the French Republic is French (art. 2 of the French Constitution), and the French government is, by law, compelled to communicate primarily in French. The government, furthermore, mandates that commercial advertising should be available in French (though it can also be featured in other languages); see Toubon Law. The French government, however, does not mandate the usage of French in non-commercial publications by private individuals or corporations.

In April 2001, the Minister of Education, Jack Lang, admitted formally that for more than two centuries, the political powers of the French government had repressed regional languages, and announced that bilingual education would, for the first time, be recognized, and bilingual teachers recruited in French public schools.

The 1999 Report ( written for the French government by Bernard Cerquiglini identified 75 languages that would qualify for recognition under the government's proposed ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. 24 of those languages are indigenous to the European territory of the state, while all the others are from overseas areas of the French Republic (in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean and South America).

The topic of the teaching of regional languages in public primary and secondary schools is controversial. Proponents of the measure state that it would be necessary for the preservation of those languages and to show respect to the local culture. Opponents contend that local languages are often non-standardized (thus making curricula difficult), of dubious practical usefulness (since most are spoken by a small number of people, without any sizable corpus of publications) and that the curriculum and funding of public schools are already too strained. The topic also leads to wider controversial questions of autonomy of the régions.

Although ratification was blocked by the Constitutional Council as contradicting the Fifth Republic's constitutional provision enshrining French as the language of the Republic, the government continues to recognise regional and minority languages to a limited extent (without granting them official status) and the Délégation générale à la langue française has acquired the additional function of observing and studying the languages of France and has had "et aux langues de France" added to its title.

Certain of the languages of France are also cross-border languages (for example, Basque, Catalan, Picard, Norman, Franco-Provençal, Flemish, Occitan and others), some of which enjoy a recognised or official status in the respective neighbouring state or territory.

List of languages

The languages of metropolitan France include:

There are migrant languages

There are also several languages spoken in France's overseas areas (see Administrative divisions of France for details)

French Sign Language is also recognised as a language of France.


At the 1999 census, INSEE sampled 380,000 adult people all across Metropolitan France, and asked them questions about their family situation. One of the questions was about the languages that their parents spoke with them before the age of 5. This is the first time serious statistics were computed about the proportion of mother tongues in France. The results were published in Enquête familiale, Insee, 1999.

Here is a list of the nine most prominent mother tongues in France based on Enquête familiale. Before trying to use these data, or analyze them, readers should peruse the notes at the bottom of the table. Given the complex nature of the subject, misunderstandings and confusions are likely if the notes are not read.

Rank Language Mother tongue of
(in thousands of adults)
Percentage of adult population
1 French 39,360 86%
(the real figure for the whole population
is closer to 90%, see notes)
2 German and German dialects
(Alsatian, Lorraine German, etc.)
(of whom Alsatian: 660;
standard German: 210;
Lorraine German: 100)
(of whom Alsatian: 1.44%;
standard German: 0.46%;
Lorraine German: 0.22%)
3 Arabic
(essentially Maghreb Arabic)
940 2.05%
4 Oc languages
(Languedocian, Gascon, Provençal, etc.)
(another 1,060 had some exposure)
(another 2.32% had some exposure, see notes)
5 Portuguese 580 1.27%
6 Oïl languages
(Picard, Gallo, Poitevin-Saintongeais, etc.)
(another 850 had some exposure)
(another 1.86% had some exposure, see notes)
7 Italian (and dialects) 540 1.19%
8 Spanish 485 1.06%
9 Breton 280
(another 405 had some exposure)
(another 0.87% had some exposure, see notes)
10 About 400 other languages
(Polish, Berber languages, East Asian languages, Catalan, Franco-Provençal, Corsican, Basque, etc.)
as well as no answers
(of whom English: 115)
(of whom English: 0.25% of total adult population)
Total 45,762
(46,680 including those with two mother tongues who were counted twice)
(2% of people have both French and another language as their mother tongue, thus, they are counted twice)

If we add up people with mother tongue and people with some exposure to the language before the age of 5, then the five most important languages in metropolitan France are (note that the percentages add up to more than 100, because many people are now counted twice):

  • French: 42,100,000 (92%)
  • Oc languages: 1,670,000 (3.65%)
  • German and German dialects: 1,440,000 (3.15%)
  • Oïl languages: 1,420,000 (3.10%)
  • Arabic: 1,170,000 (2.55%)

Important notes to understand the table

1- It is important to understand that the data in the table are about mother tongues, and not about actual language practice. The survey found that 14% of people living in France have a mother tongue other than French. This does not mean that 14% of people in France speak another language than French. What it means is that 14% of people living in France in 1999 were born and raised up to the age of 5 in families that spoke only (or predominantly) some other languages than French. Living in an essentially French speaking country, most of these 14% of people either totally abandoned their mother tongue after the age of 5, or are now using essentially French (and occasionally their mother tongue too). INSEE did not ask about languages actually spoken at home as of 1999 (such as US or Canadian censuses do), so we have to do with the mother tongues data, but it is important to understand that the data presented here are only a picture of the linguistic situation of people when they were 5 y/o or younger. It is not a depiction of the linguistic reality of France as of 1999.

2- It is also important to understand that only adults (i.e. 18 y/o and above) were surveyed. This means that French people born between 1981 and 1999 are not included in the survey. This has two consequences. In terms of the total number of speakers of each language, the data presented here show a smaller number of speakers than the reality. The more interesting data, in fact, is the percentage that follows the total number of speakers. Here, a second consequence is that the survey skews results in favor of regional and immigration languages. Typically, the mother tongue of the youngest generations is much more frequently French than for the older generations. Thus, the result of excluding people born after 1981 is that the percentage of people whose mother tongue is French is a little underestimated, while the percentage of people whose mother tongues are regional or immigration languages is a little overestimated. According to the data, in 1999 French was the mother tongue of 86% of people living in Metropolitan France, but in reality French was probably the mother tongue of around 90% of people.

3- On the other hand, the concept of "mother tongue" may not give a complete idea of the phenomenon of minority languages in France. This is because there are many people who were born and raised in families in which parents spoke to them only (or predominantly) French, but in which some regional or immigration languages were also occasionally used. One example: while the data tell us that 610,000 adults in 1999 had one of the languages of Oc as their mother tongue, the survey also found out that another 1,060,000 adults were born and raised in families in which one of the languages of Oc was occasionally spoken. Some of these 1,060,000 people probably speak Occitan as fluently as the 610,000 people who have it as a mother tongue, while some other (the majority) probably have only a limited knowledge of Occitan. We cannot infer from this that 1,670,000 adults are speakers of Occitan, but we can say that the total number of people with some form of exposure to Occitan is higher than the 610,000 figure.

4- The situation is even more complex if we take into account note 2, which warned that many people with a mother tongue other than French may have discarded it since the age of 5, and may be speaking only French now. Not all of the 610,000 people listed in the table are actually speaking Occitan in 1999. Many have long since abandoned speaking that language. On the other hand, those with some exposure to Occitan are much more numerous than the 610,000 figure would suggest. As can be seen, the matter is extremely complex, and great care should be exercised before using or commenting the data presented here.

See also

External links

de:Sprachen in Frankreich fr:Langues régionales de France nds:Spraken in Frankriek pt:Línguas da França


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