Cameroon’s language barriers


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

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


Subscribers only

Ithala fails to act against board chairperson over PPE scandal

Morar asked to settle with the state and pay back the profit he made on an irregular tender

Vodacom swindled out of more than R24m worth of iPhones

A former employee allegedly ran an intricate scam to steal 8700 phones from the cellular giant

More top stories

The EFF questions Dlodlo’s authority over the department of state...

Minister of State Security Ayanda Dlodlo denied allegations of incompetence over her handling of the Project Justice bombshell

We will find resources to ensure the Zondo commission completes...

Justice Minister Ronald Lamola says his department will ensure the state capture commission is afforded the financial resources to complete its work, despite the treasury’s uncertainty

Covid-19 variant may protect people against reinfection and other variants,...

The 501Y.V2 strain produces strong antibodies, but it’s not known how long immunity lasts, so being vaccinated remains essential

Tobacco industry calls Dlamini-Zuma’s bid to appeal ban a...

The minister could spend the state’s money on fighting Covid-19 and cigarette cartels, tobacco manufacturers argue

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…