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Sociolingüística internacional
Winter 2001

Plurilingual competence. A concrete example: Cameroon, by Mònica Molina

In this article the autor focusses on the sociolinguistic situation in Cameroon, with special emphasis on the co-existence between different languages which either have different status and functions, as well on the creation and use of new linguistic varieties within a plurilingual context.



0. Introduction

1. Official and foreign languages
1.1. Official languages
1.2. Languages at school

2. Domestic languages
2.1. National languages
2.2. The official language as a language of intercommunication
2.3. Popular variants of official languages
2.4. Birth of new varieties

3. Conclusions

0. Introduction

Increasingly in our society, when we talk about bilingual or trilingual individuals, we are simplifying a reality that incorporates a wide range of uses of the first language (L1), second language (L2) and foreign languages (FL). (1)

For example, let us consider the daily presence in the mass media and information technology of other languages, referred to, thus far, as foreign, to indicate that they are not of our medium. Or the plurilingual situation of schools, where children who habitually live with both Catalan and Spanish share their classroom with others who use languages such as Arabic, Tagal, Urdu, Chinese and a number of European and African languages at home.

Thus, the terms first, second and foreign language must be understood in their widest sense so that they include the description of the linguistic knowledge of the speakers of a specific community in which a number of languages coexist.

For many African peoples, the fact of living with different languages since childhood is a normal situation. A very specific case of this type of plurilingual society is the one that we shall now present. I had the opportunity to work in this society for two years (2000 – 2001) as a Spanish teacher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Yaoundé (a training school for future secondary-school teachers).

Cameroon is located above the Equator on the west coast of Africa, representing what many have termed "Little Africa", due to the variety of its ethnic groups, cultures, geography and languages. In Yaounde, the capital, every neighbourhood and every street is a true example of this variety.

In the Mvog Ada neighbourhood, people greet each other in Ewondo or Bulu, whilst in Chinga they do so in Bamileké. In Briquetterie, on the other hand, people usually speak in Fulfulde. Taxi drivers can also speak French and English – the country’s two official languages – and, if they recognise that you are from Spain, they can also greet you in Spanish. Here, there are restaurants called Paloma Blanca and Paquita, and the bar nearest the football stadium is called Camp Nou.

Thus, all of these languages and more appear during the everyday life of many Cameroonians to varying degrees, both in terms of the frequency of their use and of the social situations in which they can be used. We shall now take a look at these languages and the most common ways in which they are used.

1. Official and foreign languages

1. 1. Official languages

The official language of the vast majority of African states is still the language of the colonising country, although there is a dominant national language in some cases. The indigenous tongues of the territory delimited as a nation are considered to be national languages, as opposed to the official languages (French and English), imposed by the Constitution. (2)

The authority of this language over others, be it for political, economic, demographic or cultural reasons, comes down to its use as a language of intercommunication between the country’s different groups, who often speak to one another using very different languages. In some cases, this national language has official recognition (Sango in Central Africa, for example), whereas in others, it does not (Wolof in Senegal). (3) In countries such as Cameroon, it is unlikely that any of the native languages will appear as the dominant one, simply because there are so many.

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