African French

African French (French: français africain) is the generic name of the varieties of the French language spoken by an estimated 141 million people in Africa in 2018,[1][5] spread across 34 countries and territories.[Note 1] This includes those who speak French as a first or second language in these 34 African countries and territories (dark and light blue on the map), but it does not include French speakers living in other African countries. Africa is thus the continent with the most French speakers in the world.[6][7] French arrived in Africa as a colonial language; these African French speakers are now a large part of the Francophonie.

African French
français africain
French-language graffiti on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, in March 2012. The graffiti says: "LONG LIVE TUNISIA (Vive la Tunisie), free and democratic".
Native speakers
141 million (2018)[1]
Early forms
  • West African French
  • Maghreb French
  • Djibouti French
  • Indian Ocean French
  • Eastern African French
Latin (French alphabet)
French Braille
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Francophone Africa. The countries coloured dark blue had a population of 442.1 million in 2020.[2] In 2050, their population is forecast to reach between 845 million[3] and 891 million.[4]
A man from Labé, Guinea, speaking Pular and West African French

In Africa, French is often spoken alongside indigenous languages, but in a number of urban areas (in particular in Central Africa and in the ports located on the Gulf of Guinea) it has become a first language, such as in the region of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire,[8] in the urban areas of Douala and Yaoundé in Cameroon or in Libreville, Gabon. In some countries it is a first language among some classes of the population, such as in Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria, where French is a first language among the upper classes along with Arabic (many people in the upper classes are simultaneous bilinguals in Arabic/French), but only a second language among the general population.

In each of the francophone African countries, French is spoken with local variations in pronunciation and vocabulary.

List of countries in Africa by French proficiency

French proficiency in African countries according to the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF).[9][10]

Countries Total population French speaking population Percentage of the population who speaks French Year
 Algeria 45,350,141 14,903,789 32.86% 2022
 Benin 12,784,728 4,306,099 33.68% 2022
 Burkina Faso 22,102,838 5,403,610 24.45% 2022
 Burundi 12,624,845 1,073,506 8.50% 2022
 Cabo Verde 567,676 61,461 10.83% 2022
 Cameroon 27,911,544 11,490,652 41.17% 2022
 Central African Republic 5,016,678 1,435,061 28.61% 2022
 Chad 17,413,574 2,249,023 12.92% 2022
 Comoros 907,411 237,140 26.13% 2022
 Congo, Democratic Republic of the 95,240,782 48,924,702 51.37% 2022
 Congo, Republic of the 5,797,801 3,518,464 60.69% 2022
 Côte d'Ivoire 27,742,301 9,324,605 33.61% 2022
 Djibouti 1,016,098 508,049 50% 2022
 Egypt 106,156,692 3,204,706 3.02% 2022
 Equatorial Guinea 1,496,673 432,705 28.91% 2022
 Gabon 2,331,532 1,519,474 65.17% 2022
 Gambia, The 2,558,493 511,699 20.00% 2022
 Ghana 32,395,454 273,795 0.85% 2022
 Guinea 13,865,692 3,776,660 27.24% 2022
 Guinea-Bissau 2,063,361 317,351 15.38% 2022
 Madagascar 29,178,075 7,729,277 26.49% 2022
 Mali 21,473,776 3,702,660 17.24% 2022
 Mauritania 4,901,979 655,948 13.38% 2022
 Mauritius 1,274,720 926,053 72.65% 2022
 Morocco 37,772,757 13,456,845 35.63% 2022
 Mozambique 33,089,463 98,822 0.30% 2022
 Niger 26,083,660 3,362,988 12.89% 2022
 Rwanda 13,600,466 792,815 5.83% 2022
 Sao Tome and Principe 227,679 45,984 20.20% 2022
 Senegal 17,653,669 4,640,365 26.29% 2022
 Seychelles 99,433 52,699 53.00% 2022
 Togo 8,680,832 3,554,266 40.94% 2022
 Tunisia 12,046,656 6,321,391 52.47% 2022


There are many different varieties of African French, but they can be broadly grouped into five categories:[11]

All the African French varieties differ from standard French, both in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary, but the formal African French used in education, media and legal documents is based on standard French vocabulary.

Alcohol seller in Kara, Togo, with sign in French; she uses the phrase Soyez les bienvenus ("Be welcome"), considered an archaic phrase in metropolitan France; some terms and words persist in use in Africa after falling out of use in France.

In the colonial period, a vernacular form of creole French known as Petit nègre ("little negro") was also present in West Africa. The term has since, however, become a pejorative term for "poorly spoken" African French.

V. Y. Mudimbe describes African French as possessing "approximate pronunciation, repressed syntax, bloated or tortured vocabulary, intonation, rhythm and accent stuck in the original African language flow; many phonetic, morphologic and lexical africanisms."[12] The differences from European French are due to influence from the mother tongues and the complexity of French grammatical rules, which inhibit its learning by most non-native speakers.

The difficulty linguists have in describing African French comes from variations, such as the "pure" language used by many African intellectuals and writers versus the mixtures between French and African languages. For this, the term "creolization" is used, often in a pejorative way, and especially in the areas where French is on the same level with one or more local languages. According to Gabriel Manessy, "The consequences of this concurrency may vary according to the social status of the speakers, to their occupations, to their degree of acculturation and thus to the level of their French knowledge."[13]

Code-switching, or the alternation of languages within a single conversation, takes place in both Senegal and Democratic Republic of Congo, the latter having four "national" languages – Kikongo, Lingala, Ciluba and Swahili – which are in a permanent opposition to French. Code-switching has been studied since colonial times by different institutions of linguistics. One of these, located in Dakar, Senegal, already spoke of the creolization of French in 1968, naming the result "franlof": a mix of French and Wolof (the language most spoken in Senegal) which spreads by its use in urban areas and through schools, where teachers often speak Wolof in the classroom despite official instructions.[14]

The omnipresence of local languages in francophone African countries – along with insufficiencies in education – has given birth to a new linguistic concept: le petit français.[13] Le petit français is the result of a superposition of the structure of a local language with a narrowed lexical knowledge of French. The specific structures, though very different, are juxtaposed, marking the beginning of the creolization process.

Français populaire africain

In the urban areas of francophone Africa, another type of French has emerged: Français populaire africain ("Popular African French") or FPA. It is used in the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa, but especially in cities such as Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Dakar, Senegal; Cotonou, Benin; and Lomé, Togo. At its emergence, it was marginalized and associated with the ghetto; Angèle Bassolé-Ouedraogo describes the reaction of the scholars:

Administration and professors do not want to hear that funny-sounding and barbarian language that seems to despise articles and distorts the sense of words. They see in it a harmful influence to the mastery of good French.[15]

However, FPA has begun to emerge as a second language among the upper class. It has also become a symbol of social acceptance.

FPA can be seen as a progressive evolution of Ivorian French. After diffusing out of Ivory Coast, it became Africanized under the influence of young Africans (often students) and cinema, drama, and dance.

FPA has its own grammatical rules and lexicon. For example, "Il ou elle peut me tuer!" or "Il ou elle peut me dja!" can either mean "This person annoys me very much (literally he or she is annoying me to death)" or "I'm dying (out of love) for him/her" depending on the circumstances. "Il ou elle commence à me plaire" signifies a feeling of exasperation (whereupon it actually means "he or she starts to appeal to me"), and friendship can be expressed with "c'est mon môgô sûr" or "c'est mon bramôgo."[15]

FPA is mainly composed of metaphors and images taken from African languages. For example, the upper social class is called "les en-haut d'en-haut" (the above from above) or "les môgôs puissants" (the powerful môgôs).


Pronunciation in the many varieties of African French can be quite varied. There are nonetheless some trends among African French speakers; for instance, r tends to be pronounced as the historic alveolar trill of pre-20th Century French instead of the now standard uvular trill or 'guttural R.' The voiced velar fricative, the sound represented by غ in the Arabic word مغرب Maghrib, is another common alternative. Pronunciation of the letters d, t, l and l may also vary, and intonation may differ from standard French.

Abidjan French vocabulary

French language signs outside a pharmacy in Port-Bouët, Abidjan, in 2009.

According to some estimates, French is spoken by 75 to 99 percent of Abidjan's population,[16] either alone or alongside indigenous African languages. There are three sorts of French spoken in Abidjan. A formal French is spoken by the educated classes. Most of the population, however, speaks a colloquial form of French known as français de Treichville (after a working-class district of Abidjan) or français de Moussa (after a character in chronicles published by the magazine Ivoire Dimanche which are written in this colloquial Abidjan French). Finally, an Abidjan French slang called Nouchi has evolved from an ethnically neutral lingua franca among uneducated youth into a creole language with a distinct grammar.[17] New words often appear in Nouchi and then make their way into colloquial Abidjan French after some time.[18] As of 2012, a crowdsourced dictionary of Nouchi is being written using mobile phones.[19]

Here are some examples of words used in the African French variety spoken in Abidjan (the spelling used here conforms to French orthography, except ô which is pronounced [ɔ]):[20]

  • une go is a slang word meaning a girl or a girlfriend. It is a loanword either from the Mandinka language or from English ("girl"). It is also French hip-hop slang for a girl.[21]
  • un maquis is a colloquial word meaning a street-side eatery, a working-class restaurant serving African food. This word exists in standard French, but its meaning is "maquis shrubland", and by extension "guerrilla", see Maquis (World War II). It is not known exactly how this word came to mean street-side restaurant in Côte d'Ivoire.
  • un bra-môgô is a slang word equivalent to "bloke" or "dude" in English. It is a loanword from the Mandinka language.
  • chicotter is a word meaning to whip, to beat, or to chastise (children). It is a loanword from Portuguese where it meant "to whip (the black slaves)". It has now entered the formal language of the educated classes.
  • le pia is a slang word meaning money. It comes perhaps from the standard French word pièce ("coin") or pierre ("stone"), or perhaps piastre (dollar, buck).

When speaking in a formal context, or when meeting French speakers from outside Côte d'Ivoire, Abidjan speakers would replace these local words with the French standard words une fille, un restaurant or une cantine, un copain, battre and l'argent respectively. Note that some local words are used across several African countries. For example, chicotter is attested not only in Côte d'Ivoire but also in Senegal, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, the Central African Republic, Benin, Togo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[18]

As already mentioned, these local words range from slang to formal usage, and their use therefore varies depending on the context. In Abidjan, this is how the sentence "The girl stole my money." is constructed depending on the register:[18]

  • formal Abidjan French of the educated people: La fille m'a subtilisé mon argent.
  • colloquial Abidjan French (français de Moussa): Fille-là a prend mon l'argent. (in standard French, the grammatically correct sentence should be Cette fille (là) m'a pris de l'argent)
  • Abidjan French slang (Nouchi): La go a momo mon pia. (Momo is an Abidjan slang word meaning "to steal")

Kinshasa French vocabulary

Boulevard du 30 Juin in the commercial heart of Kinshasa

With more than 11 million inhabitants, Kinshasa is the largest francophone city in the world, recently passing Paris in population. It is the capital of the most populous francophone country in the world, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an estimated 43 million people (51% of the total population) can speak French (essentially as a second language).[1][5] Contrary to Abidjan where French is the first language of a large part of the population, in Kinshasa French is only a second language, and its status of lingua franca is shared with Lingala. Kinshasa French also differs from other African French variants, for it has some Belgian French influences, due to colonization. People of different African mother tongues living in Kinshasa usually speak Lingala to communicate with each other in the street, but French is the language of businesses, administrations, schools, newspapers and televisions. French is also the predominant written language.

Due to its widespread presence in Kinshasa, French has become a local language with its own pronunciation and some local words borrowed for the most part from Lingala. Depending on their social status, some people may mix French and Lingala, or code switch between the two depending on the context. Here are examples of words particular to Kinshasa French. As in Abidjan, there exist various registers and the most educated people may frown upon the use of slangish/Lingala terms.

  • cadavéré means broken, worn out, exhausted, or dead. It is a neologism on the standard French word cadavre whose meaning in standard French is "corpse". The word cadavéré has now spread to other African countries due to the popularity of Congolese music in Africa.
  • makasi means strong, resistant. It is a loanword from Lingala.
  • anti-nuit are sunglasses worn by partiers at night. It is a word coined locally and whose literal meaning in standard French is "anti-night". It is one of the many Kinshasa slang words related to nightlife and partying. A reveler is known locally as un ambianceur, from standard French ambiance which means atmosphere.
  • casser le bic, literally "to break the Bic", means to stop going to school. Bic is colloquially used to refer to a ballpoint pen in Belgian French and Kinshasa French, but not in standard French.
  • merci mingi means "thank you very much". It comes from standard French merci ("thank you") and Lingala mingi ("a lot").
  • un zibolateur is a bottle opener. It comes from the Lingala verb kozibola which means "to open something that is blocked up or bottled", to which was added the standard French suffix -ateur.
  • un tétanos is a rickety old taxi. In standard French tétanos means "tetanus".
  • moyen tê vraiment means "absolutely impossible". It comes from moyen tê ("there's no way"), itself made up of standard French moyen ("way") and Lingala ("not", "no"), to which was added standard French vraiment ("really").
  • avoir un bureau means to have a mistress. Il a deux bureaux doesn't mean "He has two offices", but "He has two mistresses".
  • article 15 means "fend for yourself" or "find what you need by yourself".
  • ça ne dérange pas means "thank you" or "you are welcome". When it means "thank you", it can offend some French speakers who are not aware of its special meaning in Kinshasa. For example, if one offers a present to a person, they will often reply ça ne dérange pas. In standard French, it means "I don't mind".
  • quatre-vingt-et-un is the way Kinois say 81, quatre-vingt-un in Europe.
  • compliquer quelqu'un, literally to make things "complicated" or difficult for someone. It can be anyone: Elle me complique, "She is giving me a tough time".
  • une tracasserie is something someone does to make another person's life harder, and often refers to policemen or soldiers. A fine is often called a tracasserie, especially because the policemen in Kinshasa usually ask for an unpayable sum of money that requires extensive bargaining.

See also


  1. 29 full members of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF): Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, DR Congo, Republic of the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Niger, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Seychelles, Togo, and Tunisia.
    One associate member of the OIF: Ghana.
    One observer of the OIF: Mozambique.
    One country not member or observer of the OIF: Algeria.
    Two French territories in Africa: Réunion and Mayotte.


  1. Observatoire de la langue française de l’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie. "Estimation du nombre de francophones (2018)" (PDF). Retrieved 2020-11-24.
  2. Population Reference Bureau. "2020 World Population Data Sheet - Population mid-2020". Retrieved 2020-11-24.
  3. United Nations. "World Population Prospects: The 2019 Revision" (XLSX). Retrieved 2019-09-28.
  4. Population Reference Bureau. "2020 World Population Data Sheet - Population mid-2050". Retrieved 2020-11-24.
  5. Observatoire démographique et statistique de l'espace francophone (ODSEF). "Estimation des populations francophones dans le monde en 2018 - Sources et démarches méthodologiques" (PDF). Retrieved 2020-11-24.
  6. Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF). "La langue française dans le monde" (PDF) (2019 ed.). p. 38. Retrieved 2020-11-24.
  7. Chutel, Lynsey. "French is now the fifth most spoken world language and growing—thanks to Africans". Quartz Africa. Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  8. (in French) Le français à Abidjan : Pour une approche syntaxique du non-standard by Katja Ploog, CNRS Editions, Paris, 2002
  10. Qui parle français dans le monde – Organisation internationale de la Francophonie – Langue française et diversité linguistique
  11. "Is there a difference between French and African French?". African Language Solutions. 2015-09-11. Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  12. Mudimbe, V. Y. Quel enseignement de la littérature et de la culture françaises? (in French). Conseil international de la langue française (Colloque).
  13. Manessy, G (1978). "Le français d'Afrique noire: français créole ou créole français? [The French of black Africa: French creole or creole French?]". Langue française (in French). 37: 91–105. doi:10.3406/lfr.1978.4853.
  14. Calvet, M. "Le français au Sénégal: intérférences du wolof dans le français des élèves sénégalais [The French of Senegal: Wolof interference in the French of Senegalese students]". Le Français en France et Hors de France (in French). 7: 71–91.
  15. Bassolé-Ouedraogo, A (2007). "Le français et le français populaire africain: partenariat, cohabitation ou défiance? FPA, appartenance sociale, diversité linguistique" (PDF) (in French). Institut d'Études des Femmes, Université d'Ottawa. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-02-27.
  16. Marita Jabet, Lund University. "La situation multilinguistique d'Abidjan" (PDF) (in French). Retrieved 2007-05-29.
  17. Sande, Hannah (2015). "Nouchi as a Distinct Language: The Morphological Evidence" (PDF). In Kramer, Ruth; Zsiga, Elizabeth C.; Tlale Boyer, One (eds.). Selected Proceedings of the 44th Annual Conference on African Linguistics. Somerville, Massachusetts: Cascadilla Proceedings Project. pp. 243–253.
  18. Bertin Mel Gnamba and Jérémie Kouadio N'Guessan. "Variétés lexicales du français en Côte d'Ivoire" (PDF) (in French). p. 65. Retrieved 2013-09-30.
  19. "Languages: Crowd-Sourced Online Nouchi Dictionary". Rising Voices. 2012-07-30. Retrieved 2012-09-02.
  20. Suzanne Lafage (2002). "Le lexique français de Côte d'Ivoire" (in French). Archived from the original on 4 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-01.
  21. "Le Dictionnaire de la Zone © Cobra le Cynique".
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