Cameroon’s Anglophones; Linguistic Suicide or Bilingual Disadvantage?


Figure A: Cameroon, situated in the pivot of Africa’s west coast with a population of 19 million.

A Bit of History to Get Us Started:

Confidently deemed the breadbasket of Central Africa, Cameroon suffers from internal linguistic afflictions which have often flown under the global radar. It is the only sub-Saharan African state that sustains two dissimilar colonial legacies, awkwardly dealing with a dichotomy of cultural, linguistic, and political differences. In 1916, after the German colonial regime was expelled, the French and British became the co-colonialists of Cameroon. Upon gaining independence in 1960, the government, burdened by an already violent path to sovereignty, decided that the country should become officially bilingual, hoping to avoid any further friction in national identity. While the country’s two official languages are of European origin, there are approximately 250 indigenous languages spoken in Cameroon, further intensifying the complicated pattern of linguistic anxiety.

Cameroon is compiled of ten administrative regions, two of which are officially English speaking, eight of which are considered formally francophone (see Figure C). The English-speaking region consists of the Southwest and Northwest provinces, where a form of Pidgin English, known as Wes Cos, is informally used as the lingua franca. The remaining area of the country (in blue) deems French its lingua franca, although it is home to multiple local tongues such as Ewondo, Bulu, Duala, Bamileke, and Fulfulde (See Figure B). Most Cameroonians speak one local language and one official language, though indigenous languages are not officially used in the education system and are rapidly fading in practice as younger generations are encouraged to learn English or French at an earlier age. The linguistic situation in Cameroon, in other words, does not just revolve around a fissure between Francophones and Anglophones.

Although the creation of a bilingual nation was seen as a way to avoid internal conflict at the dawn of independence, bilingualism has turned into a national handicap, creating a stark rift in communication throughout the country. Cameroon’s lack of linguistic unity has lead to a sickness that is seeping into other aspects of its national well-being. The disparity in population distribution lends to an inequality in the usage of French and English, skewing the representation of Anglophones and Francophones in the work force, governmental positions, and higher education institutions. Furthermore, many fear a loss of ethnic heritage as indigenous tongues lack utility in an increasingly globalized world. Although bilingualism was originally a plan, albeit a lazy one, to enforce political and social integration, it has now turned into a force of cultural and political disintegration.

The Case of Bilingualism; Can Cameroon Practice what it Preaches?

The country’s policy of bilingualism, adopted upon independence, created two very disparate education systems. Although Cameroon as a whole is deemed bilingual, realistically it is not. In the French-speaking region (80% of the country), the school system is based on the French model, and instruction is in French. In the Anglophone territories, instruction is based on the British system model, and courses are taught in English. The education system in Cameroon is thus not truly bilingual since students usually master only the language of their respective colonial system. These disparate school systems also represent broader cultural differences. The British school system is defined by administrative decentralization and relatively open social norms. The French system is defined by a strong executive and centralized bureaucracy, with less tolerance for open debate and dissent. As Cameroonians often themselves say, “The educational systems have produced very different people regardless of whether they originated from the same father.”  Take, for example, an excerpt from the political blog of an Anglophone Cameroonian:

“A francophone can hardly understand why an Anglophone will fight and die for principles. An Anglophone parent cannot understand why his francophone counterpart will cooperate with his child to influence the latter’s teacher. A francophone pupil is most likely to take it physically on his teacher than his Anglophone counterpart but an Anglophone pupil is more likely to challenge his teacher on ideas than a francophone pupil will do. An average francophone believes that cabinet ministers are more knowledgeable than him while an average Anglophone believes that he too is qualified to be minister… We can go on and on but we must know that it is the educational system and not the individuals that are responsible for the differences we have.” (Tijah)

Thus, the nationally “bilingual” education system has split the country into two arms, producing and supporting not only a linguistically divided Cameroon, but a culturally and ideologically separated one as well.

Figure B: Cameroon’s indigenous linguistic history constitutes countless tribal languages whose borders are blurred.

Although the problem is evident in elementary and secondary education, its effects are most clear within Cameroon’s higher education system. The first experiment in bilingualism in took place in 1962, at the Cameroonian Federal University. From its inception, inequalities between Anglophone’s and Francophones emerged, as English speakers were forced to seat high-level French examinations while French speakers were not forced to do the equivalent. Anglophones complained of discrimination and forced assimilation into the French system. Today, four of the six national universities in Cameroon are officially bilingual (University of Douala, University of Dschang, University of Yaoundé I, and University of Yaoundé II). The practice —or non-practice— of bilingualism continues to discredit Cameroon’s tertiary education system today. Many professors lecture in the language with which they are most comfortable, and students often blame poor academic performance on lack of proficiency in a second language, or a professor’s perceived inability to understand or mark correctly the work of students in a second language. The overabundance of French professors within the education system (approximately 80%) leaves Anglophone students at a disadvantage since most “bilingual” lectures are taught in French.

Figure C: The split between Cameroon’s English speaking and French speaking provinces is disproportionate. Red indicates Anglophone districts, Blue indicates Francophone districts, and Light Yellow is indicative of Equatorial Guinea’s partially Spanish speaking population.

Twisted Tensions?

Most Cameroonian Anglophones assert that they still suffer discrimination today. Due to their majority status, Francophone’s have continued to occupy top-ranking positions in government and the civil service, and no effective language policy guarantees the rights of minorities. This predicament creates a sense of identity for Cameroonian Anglophones, a fissure around which they collect in their mutual experience of prejudice. Their use of English becomes a symbol of group solidarity within an environment that they perceive as linguistically and socio-politically threatening. What do all of these tensions mean for the country’s education system? English speakers insist that they are cheated and marginalized, and they may have a point: as stated earlier, the majority of University professors are French, leaving English speaking students at a linguistic disadvantage in their studies. Francophone schooling also places a higher importance on foreign language acquisition, better preparing students for the challenge of a bilingual education, especially at the university level. Due to these perceived inequities, English speakers often refuse to send their children to predominantly French instruction schools, partially out of linguistic pride, and partially out of cultural spite. Although the decision to marginalize themselves may exhibit solidarity and protest, English speakers could potentially be worsening their position through linguistic exclusiveness.

The Rise of the Well Rounded Francophone

While Cameroonian Anglophones today often decline to take part in bilingualism, Francophones are positioning to do the opposite. Since the 1970s, increasing numbers of children of francophone parentage have been attending Anglophone schools. The trend has no systematic organization, deriving instead from private incentives within the francophone community. French-speaking Cameroonians believe that learning English will guarantee them a better position in the global sphere. Parents admire the Anglophone school system, which opens up opportunities to study in English-speaking institutions (potentially in the US) and seems to offer larger social benefits in an increasingly globalized world. In towns like Douala and Yaoundé, over fifty percent of children in some Anglophone government primary schools come from francophone homes. Francophone city dwellers realize the socioeconomic advantages of raising children who can gain access into a global market commanded by predominantly English speaking organizations.

A number of optimists insist that Francophone’s are attempting to integrate the two language communities and bridge the country’s deep cultural gap within the next generation. However, most Cameroonians are more realistic: “the francophone views English not necessarily through the patriotic eve of a Cameroonian who wants to be a better citizen by learning the other language, but in terms of individual interests regarding the educational and professional opportunities it offers—especially abroad” (Echu). Most likely, Francophones realize that becoming truly bilingual may in fact be the key to entrance into a globalized work force and economy. Could Cameroon’s zeitgeist of bilingualism be giving birth to a better-rounded Francophone?

Moving Forward…

Cameroon, due largely in part to the evolution of the education system, can no longer maintain English as a secondary language. Now viewed as a high status global tongue, English is slowly becoming the country’s de facto lingua franca. It seems that this shift would have Anglophones leaping with joy in an instance of underdog pride and recognition. Though the situation seems to be strangely reversed. English speakers are losing their competitive edge, as their linguistic skill becomes simply a trait that all Cameroonians acquire by the level of tertiary education.  Anglophones have long felt discriminated against in the schools, and now many refuse to attend francophone institutions or become truly bilingual. The Anglophone rejection of bilingualism, to avoid contamination by la francophonie, puts them at a disadvantage. They no longer have a specialization or comparative advantage over their francophone neighbors. Moreover, an inability to speak French puts them further behind against the rising, truly bilingual, francophone generation. First, Cameroon was aversely affected by its failure to unify, or to truly implement bilingualism in its education system. Now, as it comes closer to reaching this goal, will the position of the Anglophone Cameroonian minority become even more disadvantaged?


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