Until Napoleon became emperor of France, which is just over two hundred years ago, half the French population did not speak or understand French. Instead, they used one of the many regional languages, some of which continue to be used in France to this day. The use of these regional languages declined only slowly until the late 1800s, at which time national education and deliberate policies of suppressing regional differences firmly established French as the language of France. By 1910, 90% of the French population understood French, although 50% still understood a local language or dialect.
Today, French is understood by all French citizens (excluding a small number of recent immigrants). Regional languages are seldom spoken, although perhaps 10% of the French still understand a regional language or dialect.
Recent Support for French Dialects
The suppression of regional languages by the French government over the past two centuries has almost eradicated them. However, in recent years there has been increasing tolerance of linguistic diversity and appreciation of the cultural heritage captured in these languages. Individual members of the public have lobbied for the preservation of regional languages, while some government members have added their support. In 2001, the French minister of Education (Jack Lang) announced that there would be bilingual education in the French public school system and that bilingual teachers would be recruited for this purpose.
The use of regional languages in primary and secondary schools is controversial. Supporters argue that it is required, in order to preserve the languages and regional cultures. Opponents argue that this is of little practical use, an additional strain on the school system and its funding, and difficult due to the non-standardization of the individual languages.
For a list of the various languages of France (of which there are hundreds, including the various dialects), see the Wikipedia article Languages of France.
For more articles on French, click on French Language.