/ 25 April 2020

Cameroon’s language barriers

Graphic Cameroon Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)


Prospective candidates for the International Relations Institute of Cameroon, an institution of the University of Yaoundé, are required to write an entrance exam.

I took this exam in 2012. I almost did not pass.

There are two official languages in Cameroon: English and French. I grew up speaking English, part of a sizeable minority of Cameroonians who do so. But the dominant language in our government and institutions is French, and this can lead to unfortunate — and sometimes dangerous — misunderstandings.

In my exam, the essay question had been set in French, and translated into English. But the translation did not really make sense. I checked the French version, and realised the original question was different to what had been translated.

I was fortunate that I understood enough French to spot the mistake. I passed the exam, although I did not gain entrance to the institute in that particular round.

I succeeded later that year, and found myself studying in French for the first time. I had completed my undergraduate degree in journalism at the University of Buea, where English is the medium of instruction.

Believe me, it was difficult to adjust. After my first lecture I cried. But thanks to some good friends and plenty of determination, by the second semester of the first year I was managing. The International Relations Institute did make an effort to translate some exam questions into English but these translations were never reliable — if you could not refer to the original French question, you could go seriously off topic.

In 2016 I completed my studies, and started working professionally as a journalist. We often receive official communications in both French and English but I have learned to rely on the French version — because often these translations are not done professionally and the two texts do not always agree with each other.

There is no reason why these official communications should not be professionally translated. Cameroon has plenty of trained translators, as well as the highly-respected Advanced School of Translation and Interpreters. So why are citizens not receiving accurate information in both official languages?

As the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, the importance of accurate translation is paramount. Effective communication with citizens, both English-speaking and French-speaking, is vital. So far, I have received health promotion messages from the ministry of public health only in French. This is not good enough. Where have all the translators gone?

Cameroon’s divisions between English and French speakers manifest in other, more sinister ways. The Anglophone sections of the country feel marginalised by the predominantly Francophone government. In 2016, these tensions spilled over into protests and conflict, which has developed into a full-blown civil war which has killed thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands more displaced.

A new government initiative — the commission for the promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism in Cameroon — has done little to bridge these linguistic divides.

Gina Sondo is a journalist and writer from Cameroon