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Enhancing English language studies in Cameroon: the mother tongue perspective

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1.  Introduction


Since reunification in 1961, Cameroon has implemented an exoglossic language policy based on the exclusive use of English and French as the languages of teaching and learning (Chumbow, 1990; Chiatoh, 2012). In adopting this policy, politicians preoccupied with the desire to consolidate national unity, completely ignored the eventual consequences of such an educational option on the critical question of educational quality. Today, 50 years afterwards, these consequences are surfacing with concerns being intensified about the falling standards of English language in particular and the decline in academic performance across the curriculum in general. A closer look at the present situation reveals that even though concerns about quality decline are genuine, their causes have not been properly diagnosed. Arguments tend to centre almost exclusively on peripheral areas such as linguistic interference, the training of teachers (Fontem & Oyetade, 2005) choice of pedagogic materials and teaching methods. As yet, only very passive attention has been paid to the central


question of proper choice of language of instruction which research and classroom practice have revealed to be the most fundamental factor in establishing the quality of educational provision. As such, half a century since the adoption of this policy, its application has still not been adapted to the realities of the Cameroonian classroom. Similarly, despite more than thirty years of experimentation of mother tongue-based bilingual education as an alternative to educational innovation (Mba & Chiatoh, 2000), government is still lukewarm towards integrating mother tongues into the educational system particularly at the primary level. Perhaps, it is worth noting that mother tongue education remains an experimental program in Cameroon despite more than 30 years of experimentation because the mother tongue is not yet part of a comprehensive language policy in which the place of indigenous languages vis-à-vis English and French are well-defined (Mbuagbaw, 2000:141).

In this paper, we contend that the standards of English language proficiency (as a second language in Cameroon) as well as overall academic performance depends fundamentally on the appropriate choice of language of instruction since this greatly determines not only the type and quality of curriculum contents but also the degree of effectiveness and efficiency of teaching methods and actual learning in the classroom. By language of instruction, we understand the medium of communication in the transmission of knowledge as opposed to language teaching itself where grammar, vocabulary and the written and oral forms of a language constitute a specific curriculum for acquisition of a second language other than the first language (L1) (Ball, 2010:9). The language or medium of instruction is thus the language in which children acquire their basic literacy skills. It is the language in which they learn different content areas such as reading and writing, numeracy, natural and environmental science, etc. We argue that so long as educational reforms continue to


ignore the crucial question of language of instruction, concerns about standards of English and quality education will remain a permanent worry in the country. After reviewing some of the positions on the necessity for mother tongue education, we present the Operational Research Program for Language Education in Cameroon (PROPELCA) as the Cameroonian model for providing permanent solutions to the educational dilemmas in this country.


2.  Legitimacy of the demand for quality education


The quest for standards and quality in educational provision is and will remain a permanent worry among nations concerned about development. However, the degree of genuineness of these concerns varies from one context to another. In third world countries in general and Africa in particular, these concerns take on even greater proportions. Education is not fully accessible to all and quality is more of a dream than a reality. The Dakar framework for education for all (EFA) captures these concerns about educational quality. As reported by UNESCO (2005:28), issues of quality are more specifically contained in 3 of EFA’s 6 goals, namely goals 2, 3 and

  1. As follows:


  • Goal 2: Ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities have access to complete and compulsory primary education;
  • Goal 3: Ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programs;
  • Goal 6: Improving all aspects of the quality of education and ensuring excellence of all so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life


Going by the first goal, a vast majority of children of school-going age in Cameroon can effectively be said to be learning in difficult conditions, because although they


speak and understand minority languages at the time they begin formal education, they are compelled to learn in foreign languages, which neither they nor their parents speak and understand. Concerning equitable access to learning, it is clear that the use of the learners’ mother tongue greatly improves access to learning, retention and continuity in school. All of these would culminate in the provision of excellence in the teaching-learning process. Commenting on the different dimensions of educational quality and referring to UNICEF’s (2000) quality approach, UNESCO (ibid, 31) notes:

[…] UNICEF recognizes five fundamental dimensions of quality: learners, environments, content, processes and outcomes, founded on the rights of the whole child, and all children, to survival, protection, development and participation.


Admittedly, all other dimensions are founded on the rights of the learner as a whole being and the child’s first language (mother tongue) is a fundamental aspect of the child’s evolution as a whole and dignified being. At the practical provision level, educational quality “arises from the interaction between three interrelated environments: policy, the school, and the home community” and should be “inclusive, relevant and democratic” (EdQual, 2010:1).

Despite the foregoing, one observes that in Africa, where the need for quality is acknowledged; the redemptive measures taken, quite often ignore the language factor and so cannot produce the desired results. In most situations, there seems to be a lack of understanding that “low achievement in African schools is partly due to the languages of instruction. Consequently, although demands for standards and quality are real and legitimate, we usually turn to the wrong direction for solutions.

Since 1953, it has become clear within research and educational circles that quality education in Africa cannot be achieved through the maintenance of the status quo. In


fact, it has become axiomatic that mother tongue education is a necessary tool in the achievement of quality in our schools. UNESCO (1953) clearly outlines three levels at which the mother tongue is beneficial as a medium of instruction to the learner in the following words:

“Psychologically, it is the system of meaningful signs that in his mind works automatically for expression and understanding. Sociologically, it is the means of identification among the members of the community to which he belongs. Educationally, he learns more quickly through it than through an unfamiliar linguistic medium”.


In recent times, similar concerns have been widely articulated by researchers across the world. For instance, Commins (2001) argues that schools should build on the experience and knowledge that children bring to the classroom and that instruction should promote children’s abilities and talents. Thompson (2003) concurs that children with more background knowledge and life experiences have more to draw on to help their learning whilst those with limited knowledge of their mother tongue and limited life experience and background have a very weak base for the development of the second language. Benson (2005) on her part, contends that pedagogically, the use of the mother tongue or a strong lingua franca provides the basis for comprehensible content area instruction and literacy skills upon which competence in a second or foreign language can be built. In sum, within research circles, the mother tongue is widely acknowledged as a classroom resource in overall learning in general and in the learning of a second or foreign language in particular.

Observably, the use of the mother tongue is an issue of great concern in Africa where most children learn in languages that they neither speak nor understand. The medium of instruction is always a foreign official language. This notwithstanding, mother tongue education remains a highly contentious and quite often contestable


subject of discourse within public and private spheres. In Cameroon, the situation has not been any different. We have two strong opposing currents that do not usually agree. On the one hand, we have proponents of official language use in education and on the other hand, we have supporters of mother tongue-based bilingual education. The former advance many arguments, considered within research circles as fallacious (Chumbow, 2005; Obanya, 2004) to demonstrate the relevance of maintaining official languages as media of instruction. Within this camp, mother tongue education remains a wild dream because it has no future in an age of rapid globalization where world languages have a clear advantage over minority mother tongues. In Cameroon, attitudes towards national languages have been shaped by similar opinions and which have given the false impression that national unity is only achievable through foreign languages. In this respect, Mono Ndjana (1981:184) submits:

Les politiciens demandent le développement des langues nationales et l’alphabétisation dans ces langues … Je pense dans l’intérêt de la nation, il faut mieux ne pas souligner ce problème de langue nationale. L’anglais et le français ne nous aident pas mal à nous entendre déjà. C’est essentiel. Il faut seulement créer d’autres centres d’intérêt pour l’idée nationale.



In Mono Ndjana’s view, the protection of national interest is best guaranteed through the use of English and French. Admittedly, it is not beneficial to bother about national languages since English and French already help Cameroonians to understand one another. Here the insinuation is that while English and French are integrators or unifiers, national languages are rather disintegrators and so should be avoided. A similar opinion is expressed by Bouba (1995) as follows:

Actuellement, que vous soyez Ewondo, Boulou, Bassa, Douala, Toupouri, Maka, etc…, vous pouvez vous déplacer n’importe où au Cameroun ; si vous parlez français, vous serez compris, même au


fin fond de nos villages. Pourquoi alors revenir en arrière au moment où les Camerounais commencent déjà à s’entendre ?


Like Mono Ndjana, Bouba is of the opinion that national languages are irrelevant in the Cameroonian context since even in the most remote corners of our villages, people speak and understand French and that advocating for national languages means taking the country backwards at a moment when Cameroonians are beginning to understand one another. Misleading as these views are, though, they have come to represent an ideal position within educated and non-educated circles. In fact, during a discussion with a colleague (linguist) not long ago on whether or not Cameroon Pidgin should be included into the educational system, he was emphatic in his dismissal of any such eventuality because according to him, Pidgin English is doing enormous disservice to the English language by negatively influencing the oral and written use of English. As can be seen from all these views, going straight for English or French seems to be the ideal for many Cameroonians.

Obanya (ibid, 16) finely encapsulates the quality insufficiencies inherent in an educational model that uses an unfamiliar language as medium of instruction as is the case in Cameroon today, in the following submission:

…, the prevailing situation has resulted in a linguistic dilemma, a situation in which the learner (at least at the end of the basic education cycle) is proficient neither in the first language nor in the official language. The learner’s linguistic failure has also given rise to academic failure. Even in cases in which official examinations have been passed, learning has been mainly by rote. Deep learning has not taken place, and consequently there can be no qualitative improvements in learner behaviour. Worse still, learning becomes not a pleasure but drudgery. The habit of learning how to learn that the knowledge economy demands thus becomes difficult to inculcate.

Admittedly, the general decline in English language proficiency and academic failure observed in Cameroon is only the resulting effect of a system that turns


learning into drudgery rather than a pleasure. In line with this, Heugh (2000:7) while deploring the lack of scientific validity of arguments in favour of the exclusive use of foreign languages; summarizes the benefits of mother tongue-based education over foreign language education in the following terms:

In other words, the economic common sense notion that the earlier and greater the exposure to English coupled with a proportional decrease in the use of the mother tongue will result in better proficiency in English does not hold up to scientific scrutiny. Rather, the less use made of the mother tongue in education, the less likely the student is to perform well across the curriculum and in English. In a multilingual society where a language such as English is highly prized, there is only one viable option and this is bilingual education where adequate linguistic development is fore grounded in the mother tongue while the second is systematically added. If the mother tongue is replaced, the second language will not be adequately learnt and linguistic proficiency in both languages will be compromised.


In line with the above, it is clear that in a multilingual society such as Cameroon, an educational system that ignores the use of the learner’s mother tongue in the teaching-learning process is inherently deficient and so is bound to be plagued by insufficiencies in standards. It means that the foundation on which the system is built is weak and that it cannot guarantee quality standards. In other words, such a system is fundamentally flawed because it is founded on a wrong premise. In this type of context, the teaching and learning of English as a second language is also bound to suffer. This is the type of system that has been promoted in Cameroon over the past five decades. Wolff (2000:23) warns us of the dangers of reliance on such a system when he writes:

Any educational policy which in consequence deprives children of their mother tongue during education – in school and possibly even at home, for instance, by well-meaning parents making a fetish of English – and particularly in environments characterised by social marginalisation, cultural alienation and economic stress as is true for many communities in Africa will, most likely,


produce an unnecessarily high rate of emotional and socio- cultural cripples who are retarded in their cognitive development and deficient in terms of psychological stability.



This view greatly contrasts with current practices in the country that seem to suggest that the quality of the English that children learn is determined principally by the number of contact hours and by the teacher’s methods and strategies in the classroom. Contrary to popular opinion, therefore, the use of an unfamiliar language of instruction rather than enhance learning, instead hinders it as aptly articulated by Kioko et al (2008:18-19):

On the other hand, learners who do not receive education in their mother tongue, but instead are instructed in a new language from the start of schooling, experience delayed or ineffective fluency especially in reading and spelling in the new language. They are also found to be slow in acquiring reading and speech accuracy, speed and comprehension in the second language. Their ability to demonstrate learning is inhibited by their initial difficulties in expressing themselves in the new language of the school.


This view very well captures the Cameroonian situation. At all levels of the educational system, children demonstrate very low levels of control of the medium of instruction (English) (Obanya, 2004:16) language particularly in the area of spelling, speech accuracy and comprehension. Chiatoh (2011) thinks that low academic and second language performances have their roots in the very early years of education. As an illustration, he presents some of the problems encountered by university students and concludes that with these low levels of mastery of the English languages, students tend to be more of listeners or consumers than active participants in the teaching-learning process and that this negatively affects their general academic performance. Among the very common mistakes noticed are the following:


Some university students’ common mistakes

Students’ version

Standard version

Problem level


do not

Word boundary


does not


can not*




in terms














to realised*

to realise

Use of infinitive/Grammar

to lost*

to lose


decisions that is*

decisions that are

Subject-verb agreement

policy that exist*

policy that exists


Source: Chiatoh (2011)


Students who face these problems unquestionably suffer from a general feeling of linguistic insecurity that makes them lose confidence in their learning abilities, thereby, making them passive rather than fully active participants in the teaching- learning process. The overall effect is, inevitably, high failure and dropout rates. Although school dropout rates generally go unnoticed, class repeating rates cannot escape the attention of both parents and educational authorities. In Cameroon, such rates are quite high as indicated in the table below.

Class repeating rate (%) by sub-system and by grade (2002-2003)










– CL7

Francophone system







Anglophone System
















Source: MINEDUC (2003)


Although the frequency of class repeating is high in all the classes of the different cycles, it is particularly high in some of them – the first class of the primary cycle on the one hand (34%) and the last classes of the secondary (MINEDUC, 2003:113).

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