This paper is an adaptation of an earlier one I delivered on the Cameroon National Radio Station on the 9th of July 2003. The paper was delivered during National Bilingualism Week in Cameroon. The paper was one of the daily political commentaries I delivered on the 6.30 a.m. prime time national and world news on Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV), Yaounde, between 2002 and 2005.
It is a well-known fact that Cameroon’s status as a country using the two languages French and English, as official languages is both unique and enviable throughout the world. Cameroon is arguably the only country in Africa with such an asset, and even when one considers Canada as another bilingual country; Cameroon is still miles ahead in terms of the bilingual integration of its various communities. It is to be noted that unlike Canada, Cameroon grapples with over two hundred ethnic.
As if that blessing was not enough, we again live in a country that much to the amazement and perplexity of foreigners uses daily, over 230 other languages of its own. Such a state of play leaves the average Cameroonian speaking something like four or five languages, which to the foreign visitor looks like magic.
Some of our compatriots while abroad have used their linguistic prowess to great profit. One senior civil servant who migrated to America found himself making a living by serving as a translator-interpreter. Yet he never trained as such. What enabled him to do the job was his intimacy with French and English while actively in the civil service of his nation. Another Cameroonian, an Anglophone, who moved to the Republic of South Africa, exploited his talents in a similar way, yet his previous formal linguistic qualifications were limited to a degree in English obtained form the University of Yaounde. Another Cameroonian, still an Anglophone, who obtained a degree in English from the University of Buea, found himself employed in the French-speaking Republic of Burkina Faso, to teach, not English as one might expect, but French!
In the same vein, Cameroonian Anglophone children who have moved to schools in Britain, have systematically outclassed their mates not just in French which is supposed to be a `foreign` language to both them and their British counterparts, but also in the English language, and of course most of the other subjects. This level of performance lends credence to the theory that bilinguals are cognitively more versatile than monolinguals.
In a bid to promote not just our numerous languages but first and foremost, official bilingualism, government has taken a number of steps among which is the enshrinement in the constitution of the Republic, of the two official languages. Furthermore, the President of the Republic, some years ago, issued instructions to state officials clearly indicating that official communication texts must be prepared, signed and published in both French and English. Shortly after, the Prime Minister Head of Government wrote to ministers decrying the fact that documents were still being published in only one of the two official languages (French), despite the provision of professional translators to those ministries. That was then.
Even so, the implementation of official bilingualism in Cameroon leaves a lot to be desired. Far too many important official announcements continue to be made in only French, to the detriment of those who speak English and are poor at French. Too many official sign boards all over the country are written in only a single official language. This generally applies to the eight predominantly Francophone provinces as far as French is concerned on the one hand, but also to the two predominantly English speaking provinces on the other hand as far as the English language is concerned. What happens is that almost daily, at least one public notice from a ministerial department or parastatal is hurriedly sent off to either the National Radio Station or the state daily newspaper, Cameroon Tribune, without due care being taken to make the text available in the other language. Sometimes even when prior thought is given to translation; some texts translated from French into English are very poorly translated. A typical example is that of the certificate technical examination for secondary schools whose questions appear to be set in French and then are poorly translated into English.
One way of making official bilingualism functional and more meaningful would be to review its structural reorganization. One of the main reasons for the lapses is the fact that translation as such does not really have a parent ministry. Although for years it has been controlled by the Presidency of the Republic, the latter seems to be more interested in deploying translators in its own services than in the external services. Perhaps now is the time to set up a ministry in charge of translation and the promotion of official bilingualism. Such a ministerial department could also be linked to the promotion of Cameroon’s 230 and more national languages. In such a case, related bodies such as the National Association of Language Committees (NACALCO), the Operational Research Project for Language Education in Cameroon (PROPELCA), the Association of Bible Translators (CABTAL) and SIL, the American NGO which teaches Cameroonians how to read and write their own languages, could greatly benefit from the experience.
If such a ministerial department were to be created, it would no doubt have equal rights with existing ministries. It would also be able to run its own decentralized services in the regions, divisions and sub divisions, all of them providing translation, interpretation and the promotion of national languages.