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The Policy of Bilingualism and the Identity of the Professional Translator in Cameroon

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Cameroon is a multilingual country, endowed with about 286 local languages (Ethnologue 17th edition). According to Zé Amvela (1999:137), present day Cameroon is largely a German creation. It is thanks to treaties signed with the French and the British that the boundaries were fixed between the German Kamerun and the British colony of Nigeria on the one hand, and the French colonies of Central and Equatorial Africa on the other hand.

Ngoh (1996ː107-108) recounts that after World War I, Cameroon became mandated to France and Britain under the League of Nations, following the signing of the treaty of Versailles in July 1, 1919. Four-fifths of the former German colony came under the French, one-fifth under the British. Unlike France, which established a separate administration for its sector, called “Cameroun”, Britain further divided its sector called “Cameroons”, into two parts: the Northern and Southern Cameroons. Each sector was administered as part of a region of Nigeria until 1954 when Southern Cameroons acquired an autonomous status in the Nigerian Federation. Throughout this period, the French and English languages were not in contact within the same national boundaries.

 Cameroon was among some of the African countries which started striving for its independence after World War II. However, apart from the demand for independence, Cameroonians also wanted reunification and a return to boundaries of German Kamerun.

On January 1, 1960, French speaking East Cameroon became independent while on February 11, 1961, following a Plebiscite, Southern Cameroons voted to join the Republic of Cameroon instead of remaining with the former British colony of Nigeria.

The Federal Republic, which resulted from the reunification of the former French and English speaking Cameroons as United Nations mandated territories, led to a unique linguistic situation of two official languages coexisting within the same national sphere.  The constitution of the Federal Republic of Cameroon was fixed on in its initial shape at a conference of representatives of the British, the Cameroon, and the Southern Cameroons governments, when they met in Yaounde in August 1961, and in October 1961: The Federal Republic of Cameroon came into existence. The 1961 Federal Constitution decided on the use of the two official languages. English remained the language of administration and education in the federated state of West Cameroon while French did same in East Cameroon. Thus, English and French were bound to be in contact on a daily basis, and the problem of their coexistence then became a reality.

Sem (2011: 3) recounts that the Federal Republic of Cameroon, which resulted from the reunification of the former French and English speaking mandated territories of the League of Nations, led to official bilingualism and adoption of English and French as the working languages in the country. Following a referendum code –named ‘Peaceful Revolution’ organized on May 20, 1972, the fusion of East and West Cameroon into a unitary state gave birth to the United Republic of Cameroon, which also accepted the previously chosen official languages and opted for the promotion of bilingualism in the whole country. Adopting these two languages, Cameroon instituted a policy of bilingualism, whereby all Cameroonians were expected to be bilingual. This policy aims at promoting unity and social integration, which is an attempt to unite both French and English speaking Cameroon.

Several measures are taken to see to it that this policy is respected and practiced both at the level of education, social integration and even employment. In the 1960s we witness the rise and increase in the number of government bilingual schools in the country. The first government bilingual secondary school was opened in 1963, known as Bilingual Secondary School Man- O- War Bay in Victoria and was later on transferred to Buea, where it now bears the name Government Bilingual High School Molyko. The second government bilingual secondary school was opened in 1965, Lycée bilingue de Yaoundé. The first bilingual university in Cameroon was opened in 1962 and was called the Federal University of Cameroon (present University of Yaounde 1), and one of the first government bilingual primary schools, Government Bilingual Primary School Bastos Yaounde, was opened in 1991. In 2008, the Government initiated a new bilingual immersion programme aimed at rendering young Cameroonians perfect bilinguals capable of working and learning with ease in both languages.

The creation of the Advanced School of Translators and Interpreters (ASTI) in 1985 came in to reinforce this effort to make Cameroon bilingual, Eban (2008: 39). Since 2000, many private schools have also adopted this bilingual educational system both at the university and primary and secondary school levels in both parts of the country. One of such examples is the Government Bilingual High School Kumba.

 Apart from the educational system, we also see other initiatives being taken to enforce bilingualism in the country, especially in television and radio stations such as, STV 1 and 2, Equinox TV, DBS to name a few, which try to broadcast programmes in both official languages. This effort has yielded fruit over the years. For example, in the past, anglophone civil servants were posted to francophone parts of the country and vice versa; and they worked successfully, thanks to their level of bilingualism.  According to the Government, Cameroonians had to mix and both languages had to be spoken everywhere (Tchoungui, 1983ː 181).

Because of our linguistic background and the various measures taken to strengthen it, one observes an increase in the number of Cameroonians who grow up to be bilingual. However, this attractive picture is not without its imperfections.


People translate every day for one reason or the other. To most people, the translator and the bilingual are one and the same person (Delisle 1978). There appears to be no difference in what they do, as both help in bridging communication gaps.  This confusion makes people recruit bilinguals as translators and this has repercussions on the output. Hence, what are the prominent reasons behind this confusion?

1.3            OBJECTIVES

The objectives of this study are as follows:

  1. To clearly highlight the difference between a translator and a bilingual person by demonstrating that

1.1 Bilingualism is not an equivalent term for translation

1.2 The translator’s task and training is different from that of a bilingual person. 

         1.3 To change people’s notion of a translator’s competence

1.4            HYPOTHESES

This study is based on the following hypotheses:

  1. The ignorance of the difference existing between a professional translator and a bilingual person creates confusion in policymaking.
  2. The confusion of roles originates from the conflicting objectives of bilingual and translation programmes in universities in Cameroon
  3. A translation unit is not only made up of translators, but equally of linguists, revisers and bilinguals (Eban 2008: 76).
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