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The Continual Use of Pidgin English on Campus by Students of the University of Buea, the Case of Level 500 English and French Students

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Qualitative research
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Descriptive statistics
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Pidgin English appealed to the Cameroonian landscape long before the adoption of English and French as the official languages. Not being an official language or a language of instruction, there is a ban on its use on the University of Buea campus. This research set out to investigate why in spite of the ban students obstinately go about speaking pidgin on campus and to investigate if speaking Pidgin English really affects one’s aptitude at learning Standard English. It started by the observation of students to find out if they do speak Pidgin English on campus, then proceeded to the distribution of questionnaires to sample students (40) of level 500 reading English and French: -the choice of the sample being because they are language students and have even more reasons to steer clear of pidgin. The results show that Pidgin English is more representative of local realities and therefore the tendency to go for it rather than Standard English. It reveals equally that the use of Pidgin English has a negative effect on the learning and efficient use of Standard English.



Background to the study

In the course of a Bachelor’s Degree program at the University of Buea, UB, an Anglo- Saxon university in the Regional headquarter town, Buea, of the South West Region of Cameroon, students are initiated into research. These students are then called upon to carry out a research study on diversified topics within their degree program. This research, which is done in partial fulfillment for obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree, is written down in a document under the supervision of a lecturer in the concerned department as a long essay. Its essence is to get the student apt in carrying out research without being designed to resolve a particular problem. It is usually descriptive research: the student has no control over the variables and only reports what has happened or is happening.

In a bid to obtain a double honors degree in English and French, I will be writing a long essay on the “Continual Use of Pidgin English on Campus by Students of the University of Buea”, in spite of numerous notices forbidding its use. Pidgin English is considered a form of bad English and therefore impacts badly on the proficiency of non-native English speakers. lt is quite interesting to note that what actually started as a “contingency language” between the white merchant, who later turned into colonial masters, and their black traders has now become “an elitist campus language” spoken among the teeming population of the UB students. In other words, pidgin which, Quirk et al. (1985:28) have described as “the traditional interference used chiefly by the prosperous and privileged sections of a community”, represented by the unskilled and illiterate class of society is now being proudly spoken by students of tertiary institutions on campuses. Pidgin English is formally banned for use on UB campus especially by students. However, it is still very much in use.

This work intends to examine the use as well as find out why Pidgin-English is used by UB students on campus. The variables like domains of use, sex, status (Anglophone/francophone) among other relevant ones will be considered. lt will investigate the status of Pidgin English in the University of Buea, its frequency of use, and probe into why it is still being used despite the ban. The study cannot cover the whole university, given the time available and the vastness of the institution.

Level 500,‘English, and French5 students will constitute a sample group for a case study and an extrapolation can then be made to cover the whole university. The study compares their frequencies of use of Pidgin English, in their fourth year in UB with the past three years, level 200, level 300, and level 400.

What is Pidgin?

According to Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (third edition 2008), pidgin is a language that has developed from a mixture of two languages and is used for communication between the speakers of the two languages who do not understand each other’s languages. It usually starts out as a trade language.

Decamp (1987:175) describes pidgin as an incidental communicative language within a multilingual setting which “is the native language of nobody”. Its vocabulary according to Decamp, is donated by the socio-politically dominant language “in the original contact situation”, most especially, with the European imperialists. Pidgin is therefore an amalgam of the main, foreign, or superstrate language and the indigenous or substrate language. Stockwell (2002) observes that because of the overwhelming colonial expansion of the British imperial power, “around a quarter of all pidgins and Creoles have English as an element” (p.18). A pidgin having English as a superstrate is Pidgin English.

The origin of the word pidgin is not very certain. It first appeared in print in 1850 and is widely accepted to be coming from a poor Chinese pronunciation of the English word business.

Another etymology that has been proposed is the word pigeon, a bird that was sometimes used for carrying brief written messages, especially in times prior to modem telecommunications, understandably because the language serves to carry messages across.

Pidgin Development

For a pidgin to develop there should be;

Prolonged regular contact between different language communities » A need to communicate between them « The absence of a widespread, accessible interlanguage

Keith Whinnom (in Hymes 1971) suggests that pidgins need three languages to develop, with one (the superstrate) being clearly dominant over the others.

Linguists sometimes posit that pidgins can become Creole languages when a generation of children learns a pidgin as their first language, a process that regularizes speaker-dependent variation in grammar. Creole then replaces the existing languages that brought about the pidgin which evolved to become the native language of the community. This is the case with the Chavacano language in the Philippines, Krio in Sierra Leone, Mungaka in Bali Nyonga (Cameroon), and Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea. A pidgin may however die out before this stage and so never become a Creole. An example of such a pidgin that died out is the Mediterranean Lingua Franca.

Evolution of Pidgin (English)

Pidgin begins as an intermediary language between two different language communities that come in contact and have to communicate. Pidgin English in Africa (Cameroon) came about as a result of contacts between English traders and the native Africans and was used for trading between these communities. However, with time, given the numerous different languages on the continents, natives began communicating amongst themselves using Pidgin English. If a pidgin survives long enough, and if there is inter-native use, it gradually evolves into a Creole language, becoming a new generation mother tongue in replacement of the original native languages. Increasingly standardized and structured, Creoles become more rigid over time, developing into a standard language very different from the original loose pidgin from which it evolved.

Pidgin English has very much evolved and is well recognized around the globe especially in West Africa and Oceania. It is even spoken by the English royal family: in 2012, on the occasion of the celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Prince Charles visited Papua New Guinea and introduced himself as “the numbawan pikinini bilong to misis kwin” – number one child belonging to Mrs. Queen (Alastair Kane).

Structure of Pidgin English

Each pidgin is specially constructed to suit the need of its users which means that it has to have the terminology and constructions needed in whatever kind of context.

The simplicity and resilience of pidgin are always perceived differently by people. The positivists (e.g. Akinnaso, 1989; Adegbija, 1994) see these qualities as an asset and a boost to the easy acquisition of the language. On the other hand, others (e.g. Brann, 1985; Elugbe, 1995) view the language contemptuously and describe it as a debased form of language.

Like other pidgins and Creoles, West African (Cameroonian) Pidgin English took the majority of its vocabulary from its target language (English) and much of its sound system, grammar, and syntax from the local substrate languages (native languages).

The English that served for the development of the West African (Cameroon) Pidgin English was not the standard British educated class language but rather nautical English spoken by British sailors who manned the slave ships that sailed to Africa. Nautical English contains words from British regional dialects as well as specialized ship vocabulary.

Being a pidgin developed for trade purposes, Pidgin English has a loose structure with sentence construction based mostly on the speaker’s mastery of its constitutive languages. Phonologically, there is usually a vowel added at the ends of most words due to the fact that most West African native words end with a vowel.

Historical Impact

Pidgin English spoken today differs from that trade language that was spoken some two hundred years ago -new words having been incorporated from different more languages. During the colonial days when Germany annexed Cameroon, they used Pidgin English to communicate. Pidgin English then spread all over the country such that after being divided between Britain and France after the First World War and gaining independence some forty years after, Pidgin English is spoken even in the French-speaking section of the country Cameroon. To be able to reach out to the masses, more and more religious literature are published in Pidgin English. The Jehovah Witness journals, Awake and Watch Tower, which used to be produced in English and French only, in Cameroon, are now being published in pidgin too.

Pidgin English becoming almost if not, the first language to some students and having no standard form is more adapted to the socio-cultural environment of the students. It is thus easier to express oneself in pidgin on some local realities than in English. With Cameroon being a bilingual country having French and English as the official languages, Pidgin English is gradually incorporating French words as well such that the Pidgin English spoken in the French-speaking part of the country is different from the one spoken in the English speaking part,

The French speaking part of Cameroon being considered as more civilized than the English side, speaking Pidgin English with an iota of French is pride; it shows that the speaker has been to or comes from the civilized part of the country and is therefore civilized. Camfranglais, a French base pidgin is getting more and more mixed with Pidgin English on campus.

Origin of Pidgin English in Cameroon

Cameroonian Pidgin English is an English-based Creole language. About 5% of Cameroonians are native speakers of the language, while an estimated 50% of the population speaks it in some form, ( Mbufong’s (2001)).

Many speakers are unaware that this language is different from English proper. It is a variety of West African Pidgin English spoken along the coast from Ghana to Cameroon. It is a vehicular language that has been inactive use in the country for over 200 years. It came into being in the Slave Trade Years (1440 to the early 1800s). It preceded English in Cameroon: the first Baptist missionaries, who arrived in Cameroon in 1845 and introduced formal education in English, had to learn Pidgin. A few decades later during the German annexation period (1884-1914), Pidgin resisted a German ban. It took flight when it became a makeshift language used in German plantations and undertakings by forced laborers who were drawn from the hinterland and who spoke different indigenous languages. With time, it invaded the market place and was adopted by Baptist missionaries as the language of their evangelical crusade. For many years, it has been used on school playgrounds and campuses and in political campaigns, and today, it is forcing its way into the spoken media scene (Kouega 2007 and 2008)

The inability of Cameroonian to speak the European language correctly produced a simplified form of English not respecting English syntax for the most part and incorporating native words. This pidgin served as a lingua franca between Cameroonians and the European traders and between Cameroonians themselves, given the diversity of languages in Cameroon.

The English language became the official language of part of Cameroon after the First World War when Cameroon was handed over to Britain and France as a trusteeship territory. English language could be spoken only by a privileged few Cameroonians who could go to school while the majority spoke a corruption of English and native languages, -Pidgin English.

Etymology of Pidgin

Opinions differ on the etymological genesis of the word “pidgin”. Edwards (1994) first traced the word to Portuguese “Ocupacao” which means “business” or “pequeno” “baby talk” or simply “baby”. He said the word could as well be linked to the Amerindian “pidian” which means “people”. He reported that some scholars claim that the word originated from Hebrew “Pidgin” or “pigeon” which means “barter” or “a bird”, respectively. Hence, from the foregoing varying conceptual opinions, Edwards deduced this definition of a pidgin as: “-a baby-like and rather a superficial repetition associated with trade communication” (p. 42)

The word pidgin, which was formerly also spelled pigion, Bakker (1994:25), was initially used to refer to Chinese Pidgin English. Later on, it was generalized to refer to any intermediary language that develops between two languages and serves for communication between two peoples. If a pidgin becomes the first language to a people, it becomes known as Creole. Speaker of Pidgin English refers to it simply as pidgin when speaking English.

A pidgin may start out as or become a trade language such as Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea. Trade languages can eventually evolve into fully developed languages in their own right such as Swahili in East Africa, distinct from the languages they were originally influenced by. Trade languages and pidgins can also influence an established language’s vernacular, especially amongst people who are directly involved in a trade where that pidgin is commonly used, which can alternatively result in a regional dialect being developed.  

Objectives of the Study

Cambridge Advanced learner’s Dictionary (3rd ed, 2008) defines objective as “something which you plan to do or achieve”.

The objectives of this study are;

  • Shed more light on the existence of Pidgin English on the University of Buea campus.
  • Find out if speaking Pidgin English by students really interferes with their mastery of the English language.
  • To find out why students speak Pidgin English on campus.
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