We’re admittedly a little biased on this one. Even before you read the article, you know that we’re going to say that you should learn Spanish. But to prove we are actually right - not just biased - we’ve come armed with some facts.
For a little while, we are going to play Devil’s advocate. France was a beacon of culture and progress for centuries. It’s one of the birthplaces of the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, which was followed by the world’s most famous motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” during the French Revolution of the 19th century. Rimbaud and Verlaine wrote in French! And they have inspired almost everyone, even rock musicians like Patti Smith and Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.
This ‘hype’ made French the language of the educated and sophisticated. It’s no small feat that French is the only foreign language spoken by the Queen of England or the most studied foreign language in American schools. Even English speakers, which are accustomed to navigating the world without hassle, would learn French for the status that it entails. French, of course, is also a staple of diplomacy - it’s an official language in almost every other international body.
French vs. Spanish by number of speakers
But that’s where it ends. Unless you’re learning French to move to a French-speaking country, we need to be practical. French only has 76 million native speakers and a total of 274 million worldwide (granted, it is still the only language, besides English, with more second language speakers than natives). Spanish, on the other hand, is spoken natively by 480 million. When you add second language speakers, the number jumps to 570 million. The amount of Spanish speakers more than doubles the number of French speakers.
However, things will get better for the French. In 30 years, French will have around 500 million speakers worldwide. It’s less than what Spanish has now, but it’s still… better. At the same time, Spanish is expected to have about 700 million speakers. Of course, languages can’t be judged as useful or not just by the number of speakers. Mandarin Chinese, for example, it’s the world’s most spoken language by the number of native speakers - but it has a negligible amount of second language speakers, probably due to its geographical isolation and its fame for being a difficult language to master. Which brings us to another point: economics.
French vs Spanish in emerging markets
As practical people in a practical world, most of us are interested in learning Spanish because it opens a few doors. Learning Spanish immediately translates into more job offers and into an opportunity to expand your business into new emerging markets. Even for diplomacy and international cooperation, it’s not a bad bet. While English and French frequently get all the attention, Spanish is an official language of some of the world’s biggest international institutions, including the United Nations.
Looking at the list of emerging markets, it won’t take you a lot of time to spot a few Spanish-speaking countries. There’s Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Peru. On the other hand, French is nowhere to be found. Mauritius and Tunisia, which appear on some lists, only use French in limited contexts.
It’s worth noting that in 30 years - when French is expected to reach 500 million speakers - 80% of them will live in Francophone Africa. And Africa is, indeed, the only place in the world where French can give English a run for its money as an international lingua franca. So we’ll take a closer look into Africa’s emerging markets. Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia (by alphabetical order) seem to be the markets most economists think will do well in the next few decades.
Now, which of those are French-speaking countries? Only one, Senegal. But like in many other countries, French is not the sole official language. Wolof is also an official language and, apparently, preferred by much of the population. It’s spoken natively and it’s the vernacular, heartfelt language of the people, even in urban areas. Morocco used to have a French-speaking minority, but it doesn’t have any official status. We have to say, so far it’s not looking good for French.
Of course, there are other nations in Francophone Africa that hide true opportunities and prosperity. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a good example. It’s the world’s largest producer of cobalt, the second biggest producer of diamonds and one of the greatest producers of copper. It has immense natural resources, some of which still vastly unexplored, but it is a country still recovering from the war of 1990s. It will be a leading economy one day - just not on the next 30 years, and you might be looking for something closer in time.
French proficiency in Francophone Africa vs. Spanish proficiency in Latin America
Finally, we must take a look at our last set of data. How high is French proficiency in these African Francophone countries? We’ve already pointed out that many of these countries have several official languages, which come from several different ethnic groups. In general, French is used mostly as a language of intercultural communication or for governmental and educational purposes. Only a fraction of the population speaks it natively and/or at home; proficiency is usually quite low in rural areas.
Now let’s look at the position Spanish enjoys in Latin America. Many Latin American countries have other official languages - notably, languages spoken by indigenous peoples. But, overall, Spanish is always the language of government, media and education. The lowest Spanish proficiency rate is probably encountered in Bolivia, where only two thirds of the population speaks Spanish, followed by Peru at 84%. In other countries, the rates of Spanish speakers are somewhere between 90 and 99%.
So while you might travel for weeks in the heart of the African continent without hearing French, it’s impossible to the same in South America. Of course, Spanish varies a lot from country to country - but rest assured that you’ll be understood, even if you’re speaking with an Argentinian accent in the heart of Caracas, Venezuela.
We’ve laid out the facts for you - now it’s your turn to be the judge. Are you learning a foreign language for professional reasons? Or are you just an enthusiast of the language? Where do you live? Do you prefer spicy tacos or good old Belgian chocolate? Whichever you choose, we’ll always be here to introduce you to the best things Spanish has to offer.