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Bilingualism is a sociolinguistic phenomenon that has received much scholarly attention, not only because of its importance in communications but also because of political and demographic considerations that have led many sociologists to brand some languages as major and others as minor in multiliguistic settings. This classification forces African languages into subordinate positions on the grounds that only a few of them have been codified, and fewer still are used in instruction; hence the superiority of European languages in Cameroon, where the term “bilingualism” immediately brings to mind a mastery of English and French. In this wise, handling the topic “bilingualism” becomes a difficult task to the African mind as it has to grapple with the decision whether or not to consider local tongues in the study.

 On the other hand, the definition of the term has also been a subject of much debate. The dimension of this debate is clearly shown by two definitions which could best be considered as being polarised: while Bloomfield defines bilingualism as “a native – like control of two languages”, Diebold gives a minimal definition when he uses the term “incipient bilingualism” to mean “the initial stages of contact between two languages”. These two definitions imply that we are forced, in studying bilingualislm, to consider it as something entirely relative because the point at which the leaner of a second language becomes bilingual is either arbitrary or difficult to determine.

 It goes without saying, however, that sociolinguists are interested in all languages. In addition, speakers of a particular speech community are always made up of many groups; with the speech of the members of each group reflecting their age, place of origin, professional interests, and educational background, among others. This renders it difficult for one speaker to internalise all the variants; thus the difficulty in determining how perfect language use by a speaker is. It is on the basis of these two considerations that in its attempt to discuss the notion of bilingualism, this paper will include both local and foreign languages; and consider bilingualism as the alternate use of two languages (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary). Given the complexity of the Cameroonian context, a bilingual in this paper will refer to (1) a speaker of a national language plus an official language, (2) a speaker of two official languages, and (3) a speaker of two national languages.

 Furthermore, the paper will, among others, attempt to examine bilingualism mannerisms and attitudes towards it.


To understand the process of bilingualism, it should first be understood that human beings inherit the ability to speak, though they do not inherit the ability to speak a particular language. A child therefore learns to speak the language of those who bring it up from infancy. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica points out that these, in most cases, are its biological parents, especially the mother. But one’s first language is acquired from the environment and learning. Adopted infants, whatever their race and whatever the language of their actual parents, acquire the language of the adoptive parents who raise them just as if they had their own children.

 The learning of a second and any subsequently acquired language is quite a different matter. Except in case where the child’s parents / foster parents are bilingual, or from different linguistic backgrounds, learning a second language becomes either a deliberate activity or one imposed on the child by extraneous social, political or religious factors acting on him.


At both the individual and societal levels, the need for bilingualism might variously arise from the following reasons:

  1. Geographical Proximity: Geographical proximity of two communities naturally leads to the need for communication among their members for purposes of trade as no community, it is usually said, is an island. Since language might pose as a barrier to effective communication, members of the two communities each learn the other’s language. This inevitably leads to bilingualism. Furthermore, this proximity occasions exogamous marriages leading to the creation of bilingual families.
  2. Historical Factors: Historical events such as conquests and colonialism made the newcomers wield much influence in all spheres of life. Since “the most powerful groups in any society are able to force their language upon the less powerful” (Romaine, 1955:23), all official transactions were done in the foreign language. This is evident in most African countries where colonial masters bequeathed their language as “official” languages in a multilingual sub – Saharan Africa. With her historical contortions, Cameroon ended up with two foreign languages as official languages, which are learnt in schools.
  3. Migration: Either collective or individual migrants fleeing from war or searching individual attainment have settled in foreign linguistic communities. For purposes of communication and job hunting, they have been compelled to learn the languages of host communities, thus becoming bilingual.
  4. Religion: Some religions like Islam consider the language of their sacred scriptures pure and holy. As such, clerics in such religions have to learn the language in which the sacred books were originally written.
  5. Public / International Relations: In multilingual countries like Cameroon and Nigeria, need soon arises for citizens to interact at the national level, implying the inevitability of a lingua franca. Whereas some countries have adopted African languages along European ones for communication purposes, others have maintained those of their colonial masters, which must be taught in schools. Nigeria, for instance, has Yoruba, Hausa and Ibo as well as English to facilitate personal relationship within the country. Similarly, relations between countries have also become indispensable, demanding of politicians, traders and diplomats a mastery of Languages of Wider Communication (LWD). This has necessitated the elaboration of many language teaching programmes within countries. In Cameroon, programmes exist for the teaching of English, French, Italian, Spanish, German and even Chinese.

Though bilingualism may be classified according to the pairing up of the languages spoken, Weinreich (1963) discussed three types bilingualism in terms of the ways in which it was thought that the concepts of a language were encoded in the individual’s brain (Romaine, 1995). The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, however, identifies two main types, which have adopted here. These are:

a)      Coordinate Bilingualism: In this type, the person learns the languages in separate environments, and words of the two languages are kept separate with each word having its own specific meaning. An instance of this is seen in a Cameroonian child learning English at school. This may also be referred to as subtractive bilingualism.

b)      Compound Bilingualism: Here, the person learns the two languages in the same context where they are used concurrently, so that there is a fused representation of the languages in the brain. This is the case when a child is brought up by bilingual parents, or those from two different linguistic backgrounds. This is additive in nature.

It is worthy of note that the above classification has given rise to several models of bilingual education programmes. Larsen and Long (1994) distinguish two main types:

i. The model devised to help students continue to grow in their first language while acquiring a second language, and

ii. The immersion programme permitting native speakers to receive all of their initial education in a second language. After early grades, more and more content courses are taught in the target language.


Bilingual people are known to show some of the following dominant traits, which are themselves subject to different interpretations.

a)      Interference: This occurs in a case where a speaker consciously or inadvertently brings in pronunciation, sentence formation and vocabulary of the source language while using a target language. Ruke – Dravina has argued that interference is always present in bilingualism, especially when the two languages are closer in their phonological, syntactic and morphological features. It affects pronunciation as can be seen when Francophone students pronounce the “ch” as “chicken” as “sh”, and might include whole sentences syntactically as in * “John is come here” for “John has come here”. This occurs in the intralingual stage when Francophones misapply rules binding the use of auxiliaries in English.

b)      Code-switching: This occurs when a speaker drops into his target language a word or phrase from his source language. This sometimes makes up for inadequacies, especially stylistic, in the first language. This can be seen when the Franco-English bilingual wishes his guests “ Bon appetit”, an expression considered absurd by users of English.

In Cameroon code-switching may result more often than not from language group influence or occasional lapses which speakers want to fill. It may also be prompted by the bureaucratic influence of the dominant language. Hence, most civil servants prefer “dossiers” to “files”; and gendarmes have a habit of asking for “identities”.

c)      Translation: Since a bilingual person masters two mutually incomprehensible languages, he becomes a translator. The problem with translation is that any translated version must lose something of the author’s original intent. Especially in poetry, the translation is sometimes said to be a better work than the original and, in such cases, one is actually dealing with a new, though derived, work and not just a translation. Hence, the justification of the Italian epigram: “Traduttore traditore” (The translator is a traitor).

Many writers have examined various attitudes towards bilingualism in multilingual situations. It has been agreed that in the final analysis, some language groups end up viewing bilingualism with suspicion or contempt. These negative attitudes are based on one or more of the following reasons:

(a)    Linguistic Basis: Monolinguals often consider bilinguals as proud. For the most part, language purists view certain bilingual behaviours like code-switching and interference as impure admixtures and detest them because they lead eventually to language shift and eventual death of minority languages, especially as relexification is often a threat to the structural integrity and maintenance of the minority languages. This happens to be true if,, after introducing certain structures into a target language, initiators of these structures maintain them; thus creating pidgins, Creoles, hybrid or mixed languages. According to Romaine (1995), these substratum interferences result from imperfect group learning during language shift. It can be found when a group of speakers shifting to a target language fail or refuse to learn the new language perfectly. From this, one can validly contend that what is commonly referred to as “Francanglais” qualifies for substratum interference which, allowed to grow, threatens the structural integrity of Cameroonian English, considering that most of those perpetuating it cannot express themselves in grammatically acceptable structures.

(b)   Political basis: Conflicts involving language are usually not about languages but about fundamental inequalities between groups which happen to speak different languages. A language can become or be made focus of loyalty for a minority community that thinks itself suppressed, persecuted or subjected to discrimination.That staunch SCNC(Southern Cameroon National Council)* members abhor hearing French spoken in especially Anglophone Cameron well illustrates this fact. To them, Francophone administrators, French signboards, and documents published in French are all tantamount to symbols of colonial masters in conquered territory. This has not stopped Francophones (the majority) from using their numerical strength to devise means of obtaining high posts, businesses and landed property in these parts, thus justifying to a certain extent the apprehensions of the SCNC.

Secondly, a language may become a target for attack or suppression if the authorities associate it with what they consider a rebellious group. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is just one of the many examples.

(c) Educational basis: Bilingualism in Education is generally a matter of public policy. Many critics, however, usually hold that children brought up bilingually perform poorly in other subjects, as a greater amount of mental effort has to be expended in the mastery of two languages. While the Cameroon government viewed its introduction of French at the primary School Leaving Certificate Examination as a move towards national integration, Anglophone critics regarded it as a move to assimilate them by confusing their children.

(d)   Religion: Although Islam to a certain extent promotes bilingualism, it also inhibits its practice on the grounds that translation makes a text lose something of the author’s original intent. The Qur’an, for instance, is written in a form of Arabic that Muslims consider pure. Consequently, it is considered blasphemous to use its translated version for prayers and other rituals. This makes many Muslims, especially extremists, regard translators of the Qur’an with disdain.

12. CONCLUSION: We live in a universe of linguistic diversity accounted for by the biblical tradition of the Tower of Babel. Since the recent attempts at globalisation necessitate high-level human transactions, present strides towards bilingualism are justified. We have examined not only the factors that usher in Bilingualism and those that militate against it,but also their reasons for doing so. Political and religious thinking may make us loathe bilingualism; but that it is a treasure sought by all is relevant. Acquiring “the compound state of mind with two grammars” (Cook: 2003) still remains an ideal attained by relatively few individual (even in a “bilingual” country like Cameroon), but this does not mean that there are few bilinguals, for this paper holds the view that bilingualism is a continuum ranging from mastery of the official languages to the mastery of two national languages.

It will not suffice to end without remarking that African languages validate all criteria for making any vocal system quality for a language. Since no language serves as a measuring rod for another, denouncing bilingualism in them is sheer inferiority complex, for learning them requires the same effort as dues any European language.Jacobson (1953 [Cf: Romaine, 1995]) wrote: “Bilingualism is for me the fundamental problem of linguistics.” It really is, given the linguistic reality that all languages are equal in complexity and in mastery.


1.      Cook, Vivian (2003): Effects of the Second Language on The First. Multilingual Matters Ltd, Clevedon. Pp 168-214

2.      Larsen-Freeman, Diane & Long, Michael H. (1994): An Introduction to Second Language Acquisition Research. London. Pp 1-5.

3.      Romaine, Suzanne (1995): Bilingualism. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford. Pp 1-5, 9-11, 183, 205-291.

4.      Spolsky, Bernard (1992): Conditions for Second Language Learning. OUP. Pp 131-146

5.      The New Encyclopaedia Britannica

6.      Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. G & C Merriam Company, Springfield.


* An Anglophone movement now striving for the independence of the English-Speaking part of Cameroon.

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