[lg policy] The Politics of Pidgin English in Cameroon

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jan 17 14:09:01 UTC 2010

The Politics of Pidgin English in Cameroon

*Culled from Dibussi Tande: Scribbles from the Den: Essays on Politics and
Collective Memory in Cameroon. Langaa
232 pages. Available from African Books
Oxford (£19.95), Michigan State University
, Amazon.com<http://www.amazon.com/Scribbles-Essays-Politics-Collective-Cameroon/dp/9956558915/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1244173584&sr=8-1>and
Barnes &

*Although Pidgin English is the most widely-spoken language in
English-speaking Cameroon, and rivals French as the language of choice in
some parts of French-speaking Cameroon (particularly in the Littoral and
Western Provinces), it is still treated with scorn and disdain by the Elite
who consider it a language for the illiterate masses.*

[image: Bathroom_sign_cameroon]
*Cameroon English: "Polluted" by Pidgin or French?*

*Click here for a printable/downloadable version of this article in PDF
format* <http://www.dibussi.com/files/politics_of_pidgin_in_cameroon.pdf>

The origins of this disdain go back to the pre-colonial and colonial eras
when Pidgin was the lingua franca used by Cameroonians to communicate with
Europeans. Hence the descriptions of Pidgin as bad, bush, or broken English.
“It is interesting that even today Cameroonians popularly associate Standard
English, commonly known as 'grammar', with the elite; Pidgin English is
perceived as the language of the common man, ” says Augustin Simo

Today, critics of Pidgin English claim that it is polluting Cameroonian
English, and preventing English-speaking Cameroonians from speaking Standard
English correctly. According to a survey carried out by Jean-Paul
Kouega<http://www.terralingua.org/DiscPapers/DiscPaper17.html>on the
attitude of educated Cameroonians towards Pidgin, “the respondents
commented that the use of Pidgin by pupils interferes with their acquisition
of English, the language that guarantees upward social mobility.”

[image: Cameroon_english]
*English in Cameroon: Is Pidgin the Culprit? *

Nowhere is the disdain for Pidgin more glaring than at the University of
Buea, Cameroon’s lone English language university, where anti-Pidgin English
signboards have been placed all over campus:

   - Succeed at university by avoiding Pidgin on campus"
   - Pidgin is like AIDS--Shun it"
   - English is the Password, not Pidgin"
   - Speak English and More English"
   - Pidgin is taking a heavy toll on your English--Shun it"
   - “Commonwealth Speak English not Pidgin”
   - If you speak Pidgin you will write Pidgin<http://jat.esmartweb.com/ub.htm>
   - l'Anglais un passeport pour le monde, le Pidgin, un ticket pour nulle
   part <http://www.ogmios.org/2112.htm>
   (“English, a Passport to the World, Pidgin, a Ticket to Nowhere" – Yes,
   this one is in French....)

The perennial critics of Pidgin cannot even fathom that declining English
standards in Cameroon may be due to ineffective language teaching methods in
Primary and Secondary Schools. Neither does it even cross their minds that
the dramatic encroachment of the French language into the English sphere has
resulted in a new form of Cameroonian English, which is usually a
word-for-word translation of French sentences – and which is regularly on
display in the English section of Cameroon Tribune. Pidgin, they insist, is
the sole culprit for declining English standards in Cameroon.

In a recent interview with Martin
Prof. Abioseh Porter of Drexel University attributed attitudes towards
Pidgin, particularly at the University of Buea, to intellectual snobbery:

“I find such notices senseless. In fact, the people who seemed to have
understood the import of Pidgin as a language of mass communication are the
missionaries. They quickly realized that language is a great cultural binder
and they knew how to exploit it to reach the greater masses of the people.
To me, this opposition to the use of Pidgin is nothing short of intellectual
snobbery, period. You and I are now communicating in English, but if we were
either in Cameroon or in Sierra Leone, Pidgin or Krio would be the most
appropriate means of communication. But where you’re warning people against
using the language they master best, that doesn’t make sense to me.”

The fate of Cameroon Pidgin English is similar to that of other “Creoles”
around the world which also carry the stigma of illiteracy and “bushness’.
For example, "Despite their rich cultural heritage,” says Morgan Dalphinis
(Caribbean & African Languages. Karia Press, 1985), “Creoles have been
devalued of prestige, in the same way that their speakers have been, for at
least five hundred years."

Today, the attacks on Cameroonian Pidgin English stand out because of their
ferociousness and the quasi-criminalization of Pidgin in certain quarters,
as in the University of Buea where it is banned.

So, is Cameroon’s “Pidgin Problem” simply a pedagogic issue (even if it is a
misplaced one), or is the “problem” fueled by broader societal conflicts
about class, linguistic and communal identity, and political
marginalization? In other words, are we dealing here with the Pedagogy of
Pidgin or with the Politics of Pidgin in Cameroon?

*Pidgin and the Politics of Identity and Power*

In order to understand the position of Pidgin English in Cameroon, and the
fury with which its critics go after it, one has to first contextualize the
unequal relationship between Cameroon’s English-speaking minority (20% of
the population) and the French-speaking majority, and also decipher the
assimilationist tendencies that underlie that relationship. According to Lyombe
Eko <http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3821/is_200304/ai_n9173452>

“In the 40 years since the reunification of English-speaking Southern
Cameroons and French-speaking Republique du Cameroun, the resulting
over-centralized government, run mostly by the French-speaking majority, and
operating under what is essentially an Africanized version of the Napoleonic
code, has attempted to eliminate the British-inspired educational, legal,
agricultural, and administrative institutions which the Anglophones brought
to the union. This has been accompanied by a concerted attempt to assimilate
the English-speakers into the French-dominated system.”

A key aspect in this assimilationist policy has been a systematic attempt to
devalue anything of Southern Cameroons origin, including its people. As
Lyombe points out,

“To this day, when speaking of English-speaking Cameroonians, many
French-speaking Cameroonians use the word "Anglo" as an epithet to mean
"uncouth," "backward," "uncivilized," "inconsequential," and so on.”

This view of the backward “Anglo” extends to the English that they speak and
its byproduct, Pidgin English. It is quite common for barely literate
Francophone Cameroonians to insist that the majority of Anglophone
Cameroonians are incapable of speaking standard English, and that even the
most educated among them speak only *“l’anglais de Bamenda”* – by this they
mean a dumbed-down and “Pidginized” English which is supposedly as barbaric
as Pidgin itself. Of course, there is no truth to this claim, but it serves
the purpose of transforming Cameroon English and Cameroon Pidgin English
into symbols of Anglophone inferiority, and of Anglophone inability to fit
into the mainstream.

So instead of Pidgin being seen as a symbol of Anglophone creativity and
resilience, it has become a stigma and an anathema, which supposedly
reinforces the perception that English-speaking Cameroonians are unable to
excel even in their own English or Anglophone sphere.

The underlying message is a fairly simple one: In order to fit in,
English-speaking Cameroonians must shun their inferior culture and
language(s) which are obstacles to their integration into the national (read
Francophone) mainstream, and gravitate towards French which is the language
of access, success and power. Pidgin in particular is therefore portrayed as
a language of confinement (in the “Anglophone Ghetto”), of exclusion (from
“national mainstream”) and of inferiority (vis-à-vis the French language).

*Buying into the Myth of Inferiority*

It was Castells (1997) who noted that:

“If nationalism is, most often, a reaction against a threatened autonomous
identity, then, in a world submitted to culture homogenization by the
ideology of modernization and the power of global media, *language, the
direct expression of culture, becomes the trench of cultural resistance, the
last bastion of self-control, the refuge of identifiable meaning* (52).” [My

Cameroon’s Anglophone elite have failed to appreciate the role of Pidgin as
a tool for identity formation and protection in the former British Southern
Cameroons. Instead they see it as a threat which must be eradicated.  The
result, among other things, says Ngefac &
is a steady “depidginization” of Cameroon Pidgin English:

“It is demonstrated that the feeling that Pidgin is an inferior language has
caused Cameroon Pidgin speakers to opt for the “modernization” of the
language using English language canons, instead of preserving the state of
the language as it was in the yesteryears.”

This again is in line with the traditional relationship of domination and
submission which Creole languages have had to deal with all over the world.
As Dalphinis has pointed out in the case of Caribbean Creoles,

"Creole languages… have, therefore, traditionally been devalued by their own
speakers who may point to these languages and at times their own African
features and say that these are the cumulative reasons for their poverty and
underdevelopment. They mistakenly equate cause with effect."

The persistent attack on Pidgin English in Cameroon cannot be taken at face
value because it points to a more insidious phenomenon, i.e., the steady
destruction (deliberate or inadvertent) of Anglophone culture and identity –
something which Dr. Juliana Nfah-Abbenyi recognized so well in her keynote
address at a conference organized by the University of Albany’s Consortium
on Africa <http://www.albany.edu/intled/africa/AboutUs.htm>. According to a
blog about the event<http://womenscrossroads.blogspot.com/2006_03_01_womenscrossroads_archive.html>,

“Pidgin English competes with English proper, French and the more than 200
native languages in polyglot Cameroon, and is being singled out at this
Anglophone University as a special threat. Using Gloria Anzaldua, Homi
Bhabha and other theorists as a framework, Dr. Abbenyi showed how these
signs reveal "a deep anxiety and malaise" about linguistic and national
identity in Cameroon. *Pidgin, she said, drawing on her personal experience
as a native speaker of this vernacular, is "the language of playfulness,
informality, vulgarity, transgression, trade, celebration, and family." To
ask students to "shun it" is to ask them to enter the English-speaking
public sphere--which is already fraught in majority-Francophone
Cameroon--and not look back.*” [My emphasis.]

In an earlier article on my
the second class status of English in Cameroon, I argued that
“Cameroon’s ‘language problem’ is neither pedagogic nor individual, it is
political. And, it is at the core of Cameroon's unending crisis of
identity.” Today’s national hand-wringing over Pidgin English is also not a
pedagogic problem, as its critics would like us to believe, but part and
parcel of that unending struggle between competing and conflicting visions
about Cameroonian identity.

I will like to emphasize that my conclusion in no way ignores the real issue
of falling English standards in Cameroon. However, rather than blaming
Pidgin or any other language for these declining standards, we should turn
to the educational system itself with its poorly-trained teachers and
outdated language teaching methods which have barely changed since the
1960s. Once we factor in the nefarious influence of the dominant Francophone
culture and its ubiquitous French language, then it becomes obvious why
English standards are going down the drain…
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