Media Language Use in Cameroon: Implications for Information Dissemination on the COVID-19 Pandemic
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This study investigates the extent to which language choice in the media against the COVID-19 pandemic is efficient in Cameroon. It examines the language choice in the media for the dissemination of COVID-19 information in rural communities in Cameroon as well as the outcome of that choice of language of communication on the population. The study is guided by the Sapir-Whorf theory which stipulates that, every information passed down to an individual regardless of the channel used has to consider the subconscious agreement that individual has with his own language. It adopts a mixed- methods of research and 308 people were selected randomly from the communities of Batcham, Mbangassina and Mouanko. The study reveals that, the choice of language by the media highly influences the people’s adherence to the preventive measures of the COVID-19 pandemic. It therefore recommends the use of indigenous language for efficient communication with people living in rural communities.
Keywords: COVID-19, Indigenous languages, Media, Dissemination, Information.
The Corona Virus started in Wuhan, China in December 2019, and by March 11th, 2020, it was officially declared a pandemic in Cameroon (Ministry of Public Health, 2020). The minister of Public Health in the ministerial decree No 0824 of 9th April 2020 article 3, issued a series of measures to limit the spread of the pandemic and urged the populations to strictly observe the barrier measures recommended by the WHO that include but are not limited to the regular washing of hands, avoiding close contact with others such as shaking of hands, avoiding crowded areas, avoiding travelling through public transport, and the confinement measures that led to the closure of schools (Ministère de la Santé Publique Cameroun, 2020). On May 1st, 2020, Cameroon was rated the highest in Central Africa with several confirmed cases. Cameroon alone counted about 2069 confirmed cases with 448 death cases by the end of 2020 (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2021).
Though the government is hailed for the efforts put together to sensitize the population about the danger of the pandemic, it is rather unfortunate that all information is disseminated in English and/or French to the detriment of those who rely on their mother tongues or local languages for proper communication and reception of information. For, any effective communication must take into consideration the linguistic diversity of the country.
The Linguistic Situation of Cameroon
Simons (2021) and Sutton (2013) record the very rich linguistic background of Cameroon which counts about 280 languages. Some communities in the nation are defined and even identified by their language, others are not, and some languages go across community boundaries. Language experts over the years have seen the need to develop these multiple languages and use them in communication alongside the official languages for the purpose of a more effective and inclusive communication.
According to Chumbow (2010), only about (20-40 percent) of the African population is educated in official languages; the rural population of Cameroon was estimated at 1.17% in 2021, whereas the total rural population of Cameroon was about 11,339,005 (World Bank, 2022). Concerning the literacy rate, the education in Cameroon is rated almost 100% at the primary level, while the rate of secondary education is at 62% (Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2022). This is in agreement with the results reflected in this study.
Media Language Use in Cameroon
According to Burke (1999), media can help reach concrete goals. Through the use of media, stereotyped attitudes can be changed, people from every class in society can express their needs and opinions, as well as issues that are not raised in the public domain. Media play a very important role in people’s lives and in the community. It reflects society and serves as an auxiliary to the government; it stands as a bridge between the government and the people. The community on the other hand relies on the media to receive information on their social, economic, and political lives. Media facilitate the government’s task of explaining its policies to the population to mobilize the latter to participate fully in forging national unity, national integration, and development (Nyamnjoh & Fonchingong, 1996). They, therefore, stand as the most suitable means to reach the minds and hearts of the population.
With the advent of COVID-19, the population greatly relies on the media to receive current information. Providing the right information through the right language on the media helps people acquire proper knowledge and enable them to make informed decisions about their lives.
Because of the threat it represents, everyone without exception deserves to be informed about the COVID-19 pandemic in order to know how to stay safe from it. Unfortunately, English and French are the languages through which most information about the pandemic are disseminated on the Cameroon media landscape. As a matter of fact, very limited consideration has been ascribed to the use of the local or indigenous languages in Cameroon, in spite of the presence of over 280 of such languages in Cameroon (Sutton, 2013).
There cannot be any effective communication without the sharing of information.There is therefore need for information to be shared between the sender and the receiver. The information shared by the sender must be received and understood by the receiver who in turn has to respond or provide feedback. This ensures effective communication. Effective communication occurs when the desired outcome of information is attained (Velentzas & Broni, 2015). Effective communication serves the purpose for which it was planned. Some possible purposes of effective communication can be to elicit change, generate action, create understanding, inform or communicate a certain idea or point of view (ibid). To efficiently achieve this, there should be some talking and listening between different stakeholders.
Burke (1999), states that efficient communication should involve all stakeholders and therefore must be communicated from the top to the bottom, from the bottom to the top, and horizontally, among the people at the bottom. The absence of effective communication between stakeholders can give rise to an opposite outcome. Without effective communication, there will be a sense of continuous domination, misunderstanding, misinterpretation; this will result in a lack of collaboration and consequently underdevelopment (ibid). Through communication, people of the same community are linked together to aim at improving their living conditions. An initiative can succeed depending on the extent to which people feel involved, and this greatly depends on the efficiency of communication, not just the fact of giving out information.
Communication and COVID-19
The National Development Strategy 2020-2030stipulates that, in view to contributing to the development of healthy human capital, productive and capable of supporting strong, inclusive, and sustainable growth, the authorities intend to guarantee all sections of the population fair and universal access to health care and service (Dion, 2020). But there cannot be real access to health care and service without access to information about health care and service. Access to information and service on the other hand can only occur when a common language is used among the two parties. The common language used establishes the right pattern needed for successful and effective communication between the two parties. Considering the illiteracy level of people living in rural areas, the appropriate common language is the indigenous language. Community media should be involved and provide information in a language people identify with (Pradip, 2002).