The Language Question in Cameroon A Rejoinder

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Nov 11 14:39:46 UTC 2006

The Language Question in Cameroon  A Rejoinder

By Peter W. Vakunta, Department of French and Italian, University of
Wisconsin, Madison

Cameroonian Pidgin English, like most creoles the world over, is a
language on its own. It is not an appendage of so-called Standard English.
I taught Standard English on Cameroon radio for years before moving to the
USA, so I know how to draw a line between English and Pidgin. In the
Caribbean, there is CREOLE, in Canada there is JOUAL, etc. These pidgins
carry not only social identities but also world views and have to be
allowed to thrive. In this stance, I have the support of Jacob Grimm who
argues: "Each individuality, even in the world of languages, should be
respected as sacred; it is desirable that even the smallest and most
despised dialect should be left to itself and to its own nature. It is not
wise to subject it to violence, because it is sure to have some advantages
over the greatest and most highly valued languages (57).

In my opinion, the language conundrum in Cameroon goes beyond the question
of acceptability or rejection of pidgin. Of all the burning issues that
remain unresolved in Cameroon in the wake of independence, the language
question is perhaps the thorniest. Forty-five years after gaining
independence from France and Britain, it is hard to believe that there is
no reliable national language policy in Cameroon. Unlike most African
countries, Cameroon still uses French and English, languages of
ex-colonial masters, as official languages. By this very token, our
country stands out as a sore finger in the African linguistic landscape.
The question that begs the asking is why Cameroon which boasts two hundred
and thirty-six native tongues does not have an indigenous official
language policy. Why are we still dressed in borrowed robes forty-five
years after our token independence? How can we talk of a Cameroonian
national identity without an indigenous language policy? We have a right
to articulate our own cultural identity. Bjornson has described
assimilation as the adoption of European tastes, languages, customs, and
colonial government policies by Africans (1991: 19). Bob Marley called it
mental slavery. Language is the soul of a people.  Language transports
culture. Kill a mans language and you have killed the man! Language, one
of the main aspects of culture does not function in isolation (Vinay
1977:452). Sadly enough, in Cameroon we continue to speak in borrowed

The acculturation that has taken root in Cameroon has had as a consequence
the renunciation of our traditional values. This is what Raphael Constant
perceives as an anomaly and points out that the tragedy of the colonized
is the servile manner in which he tries to portray himself in the color of
Elsewhere (1990:80) Franz Fanon refers to this socio-linguistic anomaly as
Black skin white masks (1967:15).A man who wields his language adeptly
possesses the world expressed and implied by that language (Fanon1967:18).
Language pundits maintain that multilingualism is an effective
communicative tool. It is an added advantage to the multilingual and to
the nation as a whole given that what is acquired in one language is
easily transferable to the second or third language. Multilingualism is an
enriching socio-linguistic phenomenon. It broadens the mindset of
individuals in the linguistic community. It lubricates social intercourse.
Statistics have shown that multilingual individuals exhibit a higher
degree of cognitive ability than monolinguals.

Strangely enough, Cameroons multilingualism is serving no purpose at all
on account of tribal hostility. The linguistic question is an offshoot of
the animosity that divides Anglophones and Francophones in Cameroon.
Revolting disdain for the English language from members of government has
led Francophones to downplay the use of English an official language
although the constitution of Cameroon states explicitly: the official
languages of the Republic of Cameroon shall be English and French. This
notwithstanding, English has been totally relegated to the back burner by
the Francophone majority in Cameroon. The second fiddle role that has been
assigned to English-speaking Cameroonians by French-speaking members of
government has made the implementation of a Cameroonian language policy a
non-starter. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to undermine and
eventually destroy the Anglo-Saxon culture in Cameroon.  Otherwise, how
does one explain the fact that in typical Anglophone towns and cities in
Cameroon one finds billboards with inscriptions in French only? Tiko, a
town in the South-West province is a case in point. As you enter this
town, you are greeted by a signboard that reads: Halte Page!  For goodness
sake, what does this mean to the Anglophone South-Westerner?  How do the
powers-that-be expect the average man who has never been exposed to French
to understand what this injunction means? This is only one out of a myriad
of such sign boards dotted here and there in the country.

Similar linguistic garbage litters airports in Cameroon. The Nsimalen
airport in Yaounde is an example. At Nsimalen you would read gibberish
such as: To gather dirtiness is good. This is a direct translation of the
French: ramasser la salet cest bien. The French in this sentence leaves
much to be desired. It is also annoying to realize that there is no
English translation of the notices on these sign boards. The originators
of this communicative trash know only too well that in bilingual countries
all over the world, notices, billboards, memos, letterheads road-signs,
application forms, court forms, policing documents, health forms, drivers
licenses and hospital discharge forms are written in the official
languages of the country in question. Failure to do so is a violation of
the constitution, an illegal act punishable by law in every civilized
country. There is no iota of doubt that diplomats accredited to Cameroon
are having a kick out of the unintelligible stuff that litters our
airports and other public arenas. They must be taking us for a bunch of
language freaks when they read this kind of hotchpotch. Public
authorities: mayors, governors, divisional officers, police officers and
gendarmes are expected to maintain a zero tolerance policy linguistically
speaking. Breaches of official language policy ought to be punished. There
is a pool of translators and interpreters at the Presidency of the
Republic whiling away time. These professionals were educated at the
expense of the taxpayer. They should be made to serve the nation by
translating official documents aimed at public consumption. Administrators
should avail themselves of the services of these well trained
professionals. Let our myopia, linguistic bigotry and blind allegiance not
deter us from valuing the priceless work that translators and interpreters
are capable of doing.

One also finds on billboards inanities such as: Not to make dirty is
better. This hoodle poodle is meant to be a translation for: Ne pas salir
cest bien This is not funny! If the situation were not so grave one would
be laughing but the language imbroglio in Cameroon brooks no laughter.
Personally, I couldnt care less how much surgery the Francophones carry
out on the French of Rousseau. As a matter of fact, psycho-sociological
factors have made me totally callous to the mastery of Voltaires mother
tongue beyond the ability to ask for water to drink when I am on a visit
to the Francophone world. If I have acquired a smattering of French it is
because it enables me to put bread on the dinning table. What I do care
very much about, though, is the place my mother tongue occupies in the
linguistic scheme of affairs in Cameroon. It is the duty of each and every
Cameroonian to prevent the demise of his or her own language in this

Many years ago, I read some stomach-churning stuff that was being paraded
around as the C.A.P examination in Cameroon. The following is an excerpt:

Each candidat should pick by bilot a sujet. Each sujet is mark over 40
marks. For each port, candidat shall establish the working mothed card.
Fill in the analysis car in annexe B.

Honestly, if you who are reading this article are an Anglophone parent in
your right mind, tears should be flooding the sheet of paper right in
front of you! This rape of the English language speaks volumes about the
disrespect Francophone educators have for English speaking learners. How
are Anglophone learners expected to succeed in examinations where the
phraseology has been doctored out of intelligibility? The unintelligible
stuff above was meant to serve as an examination that would determine the
fate of thousands of Anglophone students who have spent four years
chaffing in technical secondary schools nationwide. Little wonder they
fail in drones.

When the senile Minister of National Education, Robert Mbella Mbappe, was
confronted by Anglophone parents and teachers over the issue of the
Cameroon GCE Board he raved and ranted in the face of representatives of
TAC and the SONDENGAM Committee: You can do whatever you like with your
so-called GCE board, none of my children studies in Cameroon! (Nyamnjoh,
1996:114).This is the minister of national education, who is paid with
Taxpayers money, raving and ranting in the face of taxpayers! In the
civilized world, he would have been asked to resign without further ado.


When all is said and done, we must ask ourselves the inevitable question:
Is there light at the end of the tunnel in Cameroon? The response is in
the affirmative. What needs to be done is take giant steps toward
extricating ourselves from the prevailing conundrum. In order to salvage
Cameroon from the canker of corruption, unfair discrimination and false
pretenses, Cameroonians at home and in the Diaspora have to take a number
of draconian measures:

We have to take our destiny into our own hands. No amount of external
goodwill will solve our developmental problems. We must be prepared to
look one another in the face and say: look, this is where we went wrong;
it is time to correct ourselves. We must work in tandem toward seeking
long-lasting solutions to prevalent linguistic and political problems in
our country;

 We must combat corruption in all its forms through education and the
inculcation of moral values (truth, integrity, loyalty, respect, honesty,
trustworthiness, dedication) into our citizens;
We have to fight poverty by any means necessary, including redirecting
educational pursuits toward the acquisition of skills needed in the

We must back our hard-won political independence with genuine economic
autonomy. Ngwane wonders: Of what use is political freedom without
economic emancipation? (2004:14) Forty- five years after independence,
Cameroon should now be in a position to set itself on a path that would
lead the nation to peace and prosperity. Under an enlightened leadership
endowed with goodwill we should be able to harness our natural and human
capital to serve all and sundry regardless of ethnic origin, creed,
language, sexual orientation or gender. Cameroon has the potential to
serve as a sterling example of a success story on the African continent.
To achieve this goal, we need the good will of the men and women at the

Most importantly, Cameroonians must learn to rise above their tribal
enclaves. Cameroon is affected by a plague called linguistic tribalism.
Weve got to kill the tribalistic monster and forge ahead!


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