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Language Shift In Cameroon Introduction

Language Shift in Cameroon Introduction

One of the most multilingual countries in Africa, Cameroon’s rich linguistic history is due to its complicated colonial past which up till this day still has significant impact on the country and its languages. This essay will consider the changes in the linguistic situation, namely language shift. It will also discuss the impact of the colonial past as well as globalization, from a sociolinguistic perspective.

Historical Background

Arriving in the early 1470s, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Cameroon. by the abundant supply of prawns in River Wouri, they named it “Rio dos Camaroes”, meaning river of prawns. In due course, the land became known as Cameroon. (Ngoh, 1979) On 12th July 1884, a treaty was signed, officially establishing German rule in the country. (Ngoh, 1979) However, the German rule only lasted till the end of World War I, leading to the beginning of the French and British colonization. When Germany lost, they had to cede Cameroon over to the British (20% of the area) and French (80% of the area). (Kouega, 2007) With this came strong linguistic influence from the French and English language while National languages were prohibited from more formal domains and education. (Rosendal, 2008)

On 1st January 1960, French Cameroon gained independence. On the other hand, there was a division in British Cameroon that was administered by the Nigerian Federation. The North British Cameroonians voted to remain with the Nigerian Federation while the South British Cameroonians voted secession from it, followed by reunification with Independent French Cameroon which took place in 1961. (Kouega, 2007) Later, Cameroon was split into 10 provinces – two Anglophone and eight Francophone. (Rosendal, 2008)

Language Profile in Cameroon

Cameroon is by far one of the most multilingual and multicultural countries in Africa, boasting a total of 277 living languages as listed by the Ethnologue. Majority of which are national languages, a host of lingua francas and two official languages.

Languages of Wider Communication

The languages of wider communication are Arab Choa, Basaa, Cameroon Pidgin English, Duala, Ewondo, Fulfulde, Hausa, Kanuri and Wandala. These nine national languages are used by different groups of people at a regional or provincial level. (Rosendal, 2008)

Along with French, Fulfulde and Cameroon Pidgin English (CPE) are considered lingua francas. The provinces which use Fulfulde as their lingua franca take up 34.8% of the total area of the country, with nearly three million people speaking it as their second language. (Echu, 2004)

CPE is no longer exclusively used by the Anglophone provinces but also the Francophone provinces. It is estimated to be spoken by at least 50% of the population. Spoken in both urban and rural areas, CPE is used for out-group communication between people at all levels. It is prevalent in the media advertisements, music, political rallies, the market place and other informal situations. (Kouega, 2007) Due to its more frequent use, it has also become accepted as a language of religion. (Rosendal, 2008) This ‘no man’s language’ is common in the daily socio-economic life. (Echu, 2004)

Tracing back to the post-colonial period, French from then till now has become more significant as more Cameroonians have acquired it. It is used as a language of wider communication nationwide between the Anglophones and Francophones, Fulfuldophones and Francophones (who do not understand Fulfulde) as well as Francophones who do not have a common national language. (Echu, 2004)

Official Languages

French and English entered the Cameroon scene in 1916 during the France and Britain colonization. Both colonizers imposed their languages in the country, principally in administration and education. This resulted in the successful implantation of both languages which has lasted until today. (Echu, 2004) After independence and reunification, French and English were adopted as the official languages. Cameroon is the only African country that adopted both languages. It was a pragmatic decision with the goal of fostering unity (Kouega, 2007) by choosing a ‘neutral’ language instead of one national language over another, avoiding rivalry between national language speakers. (Rosendal, 2008) Cameroon later shifted from being a united state to a unitary state, leading to the amendment of its constitution in 1996. Section I.1.3 of the constitution (Presidency of the Republic of Cameroon, 1996) declares:

The official languages of the Republic of Cameroon shall be English and French, both languages having the same status. The State shall guarantee the promotion of bilingualism throughout the country. It shall endeavor to protect and promote national languages.

Despite the equal status, French has had a de facto popularity over English. Unfortunately, there were few reasons to incentivize Francophones to learn English. With the dominant status of French, Francophones could get civil servant jobs easily without being bilingual. Meanwhile, Anglophones have to learn French due to its higher status. The status of French has also influenced the use of national languages. (Rosendal, 2008) This has resulted in a shift that has occurred, away from English and National languages, toward French.

However, in more recent years, linguists have noticed a different trend. More Cameroonians are learning English. A new linguistic reality has begun to form in Cameroon as more people are opting for English medium education. The reasons for the shift and trend mentioned will be elaborated on in the following section. Meanwhile, all this has been detrimental to the national languages which have been restricted to informal domains, mainly being used at home. (Rosendal, 2008)

Reasons for the Language Shift from English to French

Once adopted as the official languages of Cameroon, both French and English became the languages of more formal domains such as legislation, administration and education. Measures have been taken by the government to encourage French-English bilingualism. Example, the newspaper is available in both languages, and both language subjects have been made compulsory in schools. (Kouega, 2007) However, due to its dominant status and popularity over English, French has become more prevalent than English in many formal domains. (Rosendal, 2008)

Formal Domains


With two official languages came two sub-systems of education – the Francophone and the Anglophone sub-systems. English is a compulsory subject in Francophone schools and French is a compulsory subject in Anglophone schools. At the primary level, Francophone students are taught to listen, speak, read and write in French. Meanwhile, Anglophone students are taught interactive skills that will help them to operate in a French-speaking setting. These skills are taught throughout the secondary education. At the tertiary level, students are expected to have acquired enough of both languages to understand lectures and take examinations in French and English. (Kouega, 2007) However, most tertiary schools in the country teach 99% of their courses in French, typically with the English subject as the only exception. (Atechi, 2015)

This poses a huge challenge for Anglophone students who are not as fluent in French, forcing many to end their education due to the language barrier. Given this situation, many Anglophones choose to enroll their children in Francophone schools. The Anglophone community almost has no choice but to learn French to advance in their studies and benefit from the opportunities in their own country. (Atechi, 2015) Besides this, teachers and students are prohibited from using national languages during class. (Rosendal, 2008)

Legislation and Administration

All legislative documents are written in French and English. Members of the parliament may use either language in their verbal communication at national assemblies. However, French is mostly used as majority of the members are Francophone. It should be noted that there is also a system for simultaneous translation. Besides this, national languages are not sanctioned to be used in any state related situations, with the exception of reaching the masses during electoral campaigns. (Rosendal, 2008)

Similarly, administration is restricted to French and English. Officials employed by the state are only allowed to speak in either language when communicating with the clients, even if they know the national language the client uses. Thus, these clients usually need to enquire assistance from interpreter. (Rosendal, 2008) This makes dealing with administration unnecessarily difficult due to the communication issues and it would be more convenient if Cameroonians knew either official language.

These policies in legislation and administration also mean that it is extremely difficult to get a job in the better paying governmental sector as one is required to be fluent in both official languages. Typically, only the well-educated are able to master these languages. (Rosendal, 2008)


The printed press is exclusively in French and English. Radio stations on the other hand, have it slightly different. The ten provincial radio stations have two types of programs broadcasted. Firstly, they relay major news that comes from the national radio station, meaning that they are in French and English. Secondly, they broadcast programs in the national languages of that specific province. The quality of these national language programs is questionable as many journalists are not trained in these languages. Thus, the use of the national language be inaccurate or incomprehensible. (Kouega, 2007)

With the official languages being dominant in the media, the lower class and less affluent or illiterate people are likely to struggle in attaining the information they need from the media, an inconvenience they will have to face on the daily.

Other Formal Domains

It is worth mentioning that French is also dominant in other areas such as shop signs, billboards, insurance and medical documents. French is also prevalent in public places such as banks, hotels and post offices. The table below reflects the results of the languages reportedly heard by 111 informants at specific locations. This is adapted from an original study. (Kouega, 2007)

Languages/Locations English French Pidgin English Mixed*

Bank 5 (4.5%) 67 (60.36%) 17 (15.32%) 22 (19.82%)

Hotel 17 (15.32%) 56 (50.45%) 10 (9.01%) 28 (25.23%)

Post Office 11 (9.91%) 61 (54.95%) 12 (10.81%) 27 (24.32%)

*English + French + Pidgin English + National Languages.

These results tell us that French is more dominant than English in public places.

Informal Domains

In the Home

National languages are more often used in the home, instead of French and English. National languages have mostly been reduced to verbal communication within the family and village life. Normally used to communicate about daily chores and everyday life, it is also used in the culture, music and represents traditional knowledge and heritage. (Rosendal, 2008)

Reasons for the Growing Trend from French to English

As mentioned briefly previously, there has been a growing trend in recent years where more Cameroonians are turning to English instead of French (The term trend is used as this change is not complete and still ongoing). Majority of the Francophones are now shifting from a French medium school to an English medium school. At the same time, Anglophones who initially chose to pursue French medium education due to the benefits it provides within the country, are now shifting to having English as their L1, without losing their grasp of French as it is still useful in the country. (Fonyuy, 2010)

The overarching reason for this is economic benefit. The beginning of this trend can be traced back to the early 1990s, when Cameroon experienced an economic crisis. Businesses were not doing well, and many people lost their jobs. Soon, it became clear that there was not much hope for Cameroon during that period. Thus, people started looking for job opportunities beyond Cameroonian borders. This period coincides with the growth of English. (Atechi, 2015)

With the dawn of globalization, English has even more so become ‘the’ international language. As it is the language of technology, science and global communication, English would definitely open more doors of opportunities than French would. Due to this, Francophone university graduates who did not care to learn English through the free bilingual language programs in university, are now putting money into paid English language courses. Despite it being expensive, the benefits outweigh the cost. (Atechi, 2015)

Parents are also scrambling to get their children into English medium schools. This would explain why many English medium schools that were constructed for Anglophone children are not flooded with Francophone children. (Fonyuy, 2010) One example would be an English medium primary school in Yaounde, where out of 456 students, 88% of them come from a Francophone background. On the contrary, it is still very uncommon to find a student of Anglophone background in a French medium school. (Atechi, 2015) This clearly shows that the trend is truly taking place.

Impact of the Language Shift and Growing Trend

The shift toward French and the growing trend toward English have been detrimental to the National languages. A study of the students in two primary schools have produced the following results:

“18% of the total number of children have French as L1 and English as L2, 16% have English as L1 and French as L2. Only 5% have a National language as L1 and French or English as L2”. (Fonyuy, 2010)

This tells us that the official languages are prevailing over the National languages, causing its diminishing acquisition. A more appalling statistic is that “up to 53% of students do not understand their National language”. (Fonyuy, 2010)

On top of this, the state supports the promotion of literacy in national languages, as stated in its constitution, however, it does not contribute funding to it. As a result, many of the already few schools that offer national languages have had to discontinue the programs due to the lack of funding. (Kouega, 2007)

Evidently, national languages are experiencing language endangerment. It is likely due to the ideologies people have about national languages, that it is not practical nor beneficial in the globalized world. Even within Cameroon itself, people do not necessarily need national languages to communicate as many have become so accustomed to using the lingua francas Fulfulde, CPE and especially French.


It is clear that people have the tendency to shift toward the language which benefits them the most. With globalization dictating the pace of change all over the world, Cameroonians have come to terms with reality and accept that learning French or national languages does not offer much. Shifting to French will still benefit people and their communication within Cameroon, but it does not open doors to the broader horizons abroad. The people have seen the global opportunities English can bring and they do not need a state language policy to make the necessary changes that will benefit themselves.

Generally, considerable shifts toward the politically empowered and socio-economic languages can be expected. It is likely for the gap between French and English to reduce over the next few years as more Francophones opt for English immersion. However, it will also lead to the continuous decline of national languages which has already begun. It is evident that there is a change in language used from the parent generation to their children’s generation. The lack of inter-generational language transmission will also accelerate the decline of national languages as they are not passed down from generation to generation anymore. (Rosendal, 2008)

Thus, more needs to be done to maintain these national languages, especially in terms of language policies. Although the national languages are mentioned in the constitution and it states that the government will protect and promote them, this is a very vague statement which until now lacks implementation. (Rosendal, 2008) Policies with more concrete goals, objectives and plans need to be made. Perhaps a policy that restructures the education system. Where instead of having two sub-systems, they are merged into one that has a better-balanced language curriculum for French, English and National languages. This would ease the burden parents have of choosing a school that will help to preserve their child’s linguistic identity or one that will teach them the English skills they need for a brighter future. (Atechi, 2015)

Despite all this, French will most likely still remain a highly used language within the country as it is already so deeply rooted in the system, formal domains and daily communication. Although it is not impossible, a full change from French to any other language in Cameroon would take many years to transition. It could be more practical for Cameroon to continue to use French, but at the same time be more open to the use of other languages such as English in all domains. Instead of being so exclusive and allowing French such high dominance just because majority of people in Cameroon are Francophones. It is worth noting that this growing trend toward English might actually enhance the bilingual policy which initially suffered setbacks as most people gravitated toward French only. (Atechi, 2015) It is possible that all these changes are helping to positively shape the language situation in Cameroon. Conclusion

This essay has explored the language shift and growing trend in Cameroon, the motivations behind them and their impact on national languages. However, it has only skimmed the surface of the impact on national languages and other topics such as language death were not covered due to a different focus in this essay.


Atechi, S. (2015). English and French in Cameroon today: Revisiting a previous statement. International Journal of Language Studies,9(1), 75-90. Retrieved April 13, 2018.

Echu, G. (2004). The Language Question in Cameroon. Retrieved April 13, 2018, from

Fonyuy, K. E. (2010). The growing demand for English in parts of Cameroon that were once firmly under French influence. The Rush for English Education in Urban Cameroon: Sociolinguistic Implications and Prospects,26(1). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from rush for English education in urban Cameroon sociolinguistic implications and prospects.

Kouega, J. P. (2008). The Language Situation in Cameroon. Current Issues in Language Planning,8(1). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from

N.d. (2005, September 6). Constitution of the Republic of Cameroon. Retrieved April 13, 2018, from

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