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Official Bilingualism In Cameroon – The Real Challenges 

This year, the celebrations were accentuated around the values youths acquire from and attach to national symbols and emblems. They were crowned by the Head of State’s Address, which reminded them of the quest for quality education as gauge for employment.

In celebrating the Youth Day, it is important to know how it came about. February 11, like bilingualism in Cameroon, marks the reunification of the former two Federated States of the Republic of Cameroon. However, how bilingual have Cameroonians become since the enactment of that option?

In appreciating bilingualism in Cameroon, I wish to affirm that it was a simple option; that is, an intention or promise to attain an objective.  Bilingualism in Cameroon was and may still be a simple option to attain some end. This position is supported by what happened in each Federated States and culminated in reunification.

While former Southern Cameroons was struggling under E.M.L. Endeley and John Ngu Foncha on how to conform to the United Nations’ condition to gain independence either by joining the about-to-become independent Republics of Cameroon and Nigeria, the Republic of Cameroon, under Ahmadou Ahidjo, had taken measures to prepare, gain and enjoy such independence.  

These measures centred on a legal frame-work or the draft Constitution. Apparently, it did not include bilingualism but had only French as the sole language of the nascent State. It was when John Ngu Foncha informed Ahmadou Ahidjo of his re-unification plans that he (Ahidjo) opted to revise his draft constitution to include the change of name and the bilingual nature of the nascent Federal Republic.

Foncha then used Ahmadou Ahidjo’s promises as campaign weapon to win most of former Southern Cameroons to join the Republic of Cameroon and become the Federal Republic of Cameroon. As one of these Cameroonians, today, almost half a century of that Union, I dare say that that option has made very little progress. It has remained an option and largely so. 

If to be bilingual means able to function in two languages, and not to confuse this with official bilingualism in Cameroon, which means functioning in English and French, I say with confidence that there are many more bilingual Cameroonians than those in official bilingualism. For example, there are many Cameroonians who speak more than one language other than French and/or English with incredible equanimity. One can easily find a Cameroonian who speaks, say, Ewondo, Bulu, Bamileke, Douala…

Also, examples abound of Cameroonians who speak both English and French in the same stead but who did not attend any other bilingual institutions. How that has come to be, promoters of official bilingualism have something to learn from it. It is something much more than inter-tribal marriages or attending bilingual institutions. What it is and how can that be done is the real challenge of official bilingualism in Cameroon.

This challenge has persisted despite lame efforts to contain it. Texts are interpreted sometimes poorly and with French voice interferences and translations on scripts or billboards carry diminutive English versions as if to show how dependent English is on French. If English and French have the same status, once a text is to be interpreted or translated, each language should play that role with some integrity.

It has often been said that one can force a horse into a stream but cannot force it to drink. If the horse is not thirsty or has nothing to gain from drinking, it will not drink, not even when forced to the stream. Drinking for the horse’s survival should be likened to a Cameroonian’s thirst to learn English or French.

Recently, the "Cameroon Calling" Programme on CRTV related the story of an English-speaking Cameroonian who needed a service but having greeted in English the service provider said that she did not understand English. She asked the applicant (in French) to go out and wait. Meanwhile, others who came and spoke in French were easily served. It was when the English-speaking Cameroonian realised this that he returned, spoke in French and was easily served. Bilingualism had served and saved him.

This suggests that it is only when one is exposed to a challenge and confronted with a direct benefit that one can commit oneself and do all it will take to obtain that direct benefit. Exposure and commitment are the indispensable prerequisites and ingredients of bilingualism in Cameroon. 

How can this be improved on?  The State can enact and enforce laws on this. Parallel to this, in every teaching and learning experience, we are told that the first tool is the Example, the second is the Example and the third again is the Example.  Indeed, Example is the best teacher.  Unfortunately, our Examples are lame, cosmetic and unconvincing to produce learning.

In Cameroon, official bilingualism example providers are absent. Those from who emanate much national activity speak neither English nor French when and where they are supposed to bring-about the necessary impacts.  To improve Cameroon’s bilingualism, the State should incite and expose Cameroonians to learning situations where the commitment to learn acts as rewards or sanctions where necessary

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