Most French people speak the French language as their mother tongue, but certain languages like Norman, Occitan, Auvergnat, Corsican, Euskara, French Flemish and Breton remain spoken in certain regions (see Language policy in France). There have also been periods of history when a majority of French people had other first languages (local languages such as Occitan, Catalan, Alsatian, West Flemish, Lorraine Franconian, Gallo, Picard or Ch'timi and Arpitan). Today, many immigrants speak another tongue at home.
According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, "the French language has been essential to the concept of 'France'," although in 1789, 50 percent of the French people did not speak it at all, and only 12 to 13 percent spoke it fairly well; even in oïl languages zones, it was not usually used except in cities, and even there not always in the outlying districts.
Abroad, the French language is spoken in many different countries – in particular the former French colonies. Nevertheless, speaking French is distinct from being a French citizen. Thus, francophonie, or the speaking of French, must not be confused with French citizenship or ethnicity. For example, French speakers in Switzerland are not "French citizens".
Native English-speaking Blacks on the island of Saint-Martin hold French nationality even though they do not speak French as a first language, while their neighbouring French-speaking Haitian immigrants (who also speak a French-creole) remain foreigners. Large numbers of people of French ancestry outside Europe speak other first languages, particularly English, throughout most of North America (except French Canada), Spanish or Portuguese in southern South America, and Afrikaans in South Africa.
The adjective "French" can be used to mean either "French citizen" or "French-speaker", and usage varies depending on the context, with the former being common in France. The latter meaning is often used in Canada, when discussing matters internal to Canada.