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French is one of the world's most widely spoken languages. In addition to its general use in France, it is the native tongue in seven cantons, or states, of Switzerland and in the southern half of Belgium. Outside of Europe the language continues to be widely used wherever the French colonial influence was once prevalent for example, in the province of Quebec and in Haiti. French is also commonly heard in North and West Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. It is one of the official languages of the United Nations and is used at many international conferences as well as in numerous scientific and cultural publications. No other tongue except English is so widely studied as a second language. The wide use of French and English is out of all proportion to the number of people who speak those languages as native tongues.

As a nation formed from a patchwork of individual cultures, France has many linguistic minorities representing various backgrounds. In Brittany, Breton is the only living Celtic language outside of Great Britain. It was originally brought to France by Celts fleeing Anglo-Saxon pressure in southern England during the 5th and 7th centuries and is accompanied by many proud traditions. In the northeast, German-speaking people live in the French portion of the Saar, and a more distinctive tongue is spoken in Alsace, where German language roots are combined with French additions. Italian is spoken in places along the French-Italian border, and numerous remnants of Latin-based languages from Roman times are heard along the Mediterranean. These include Occitan, also called Langue d'Oc, and Provencal, which is spoken in southern France. The Corsican dialect, used on the island of Corsica, also evolved from Latin during the Middle Ages. In the western Pyrenees, the Basque language is spoken by a people who live on both the French and Spanish sides of the mountains.