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Cameroon:Law On Official Languages Will Yield Results If Embraced By All-George Ngwane

March 22, 2020

Following the promulgation into law on the promotion of Official Languages (English and French) on the 24th December 2019 by the President of the Republic, the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism is heralding a nation-wide mission aimed at exchanging views with targeted professionals on the merits of this law on Bilingualism. The Sun newspaper’s Managing Editor Wasso Norbert Binde caught up with a scholar on Language Commissions, prolific writer and conflict management panAfricanist Mwalimu George Ngwane to shed some light in an interview on some of the black and white provisions found in the law.

The added value is that this law now transforms our official languages from a state policy to a citizen policy action instrument, says Mwalimu Ngwane

Mwalimu, first of all thank you for accepting to grant us an interview on the law of Official Languages in Cameroon. As a scholar on Language Acts and  Commissions,What is the novelty in this law?

Thanks for inviting me to engage your readers about this law. As you may know this is the first time in the life of our country to have a law on bilingualism. Granted that Article 1 sub 3 of our constitution stipulates that English and French are of equal status and granted as well that there exist a plethora of legal instruments that make bilingualism in Cameroon a state policy. I must also add here that barely in its two and a half years of existence the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism has been associated with the conception of such a law. So for me the added value is that this law now transforms our official languages from a state policy to a citizen policy action instrument. In other words the law on bilingualism can be seen as an important step on the journey to upscaling the language rights of Cameroonians especially those from the minority official language community. It is now the responsibility of all public entities to make bilingualism a more robust user-centered and citizen-friendly activity.

But certain sections of the law have come under criticism right from the time the bill was sent to  Parliament

That is true and I am sure you are referring especially to Section 19 and Section 26 which on the surface are controversial with regard to those of us who come from the Anglophone regions of the North West and South West. Just to refresh the minds of your readers Section 19 says Official correspondences between public entities shall be written in either of the two languages while Section 26 says English and French shall be used indiscriminately in ordinary law and special courts. Now these two Sections can be examined through the Language Commission prism of Inference and Interpretation. By Inference we may jump into the conclusion that correspondences or court communication in the Anglophone region may be rendered in French even though the language community is predominantly English-speaking- something which the Anglophone lawyers fought against as from 2015.  But by Interpretation, at least from the perspective of any language body it must be made clear that laws on Official Languages focus on the principles of proportionality and specificity. Proportionality means Official language used is reflected by the proportion of language users in that community while the principle of specificity is informed by the historical and linguistic specificity of the language community. More so Section 26 sub 2 says court decisions shall be done following the language choice of the litigant. One can replace the legal term “litigant” with the global term “user” to mean that oral or written communication in any situation must respect the language choice of the user. This is what is called the principle of active offer. However with regard to official written correspondences served in either of the two languages it would have also been ideal to write both languages side by side as it is the case between Welsh and English in the United Kingdom or one language above the other as it is with some other bilingual communities.

While there are still some grey areas, Mwalimu Ngwane believes that the law marks significant progress

Let us take the case of our courts, what do you do if the Magistrate or Legal personnel does not speak or understand the language of the litigant?

I am told that the courts normally have Interpreters even though complaints have been made about some of them in relation to their mastery of oral translation. But this is an area to be examined seriously so that our courts and other public entities have Interpreters whose integrity and performance cannot be questioned. Secondly there is a need for public servants at a certain level and in this case Magistrates and others of their rank to be sufficiently bilingual. So the recommendation to your specific question is that bilingualism is something which all professional schools must henceforth take more seriously. Our government and I am sure this is within the purview of the Commission on Bilingualism should be working on what Canadians call the Public Service Official Languages Appointment Regulation or what we may simply call the Bilingualism Proficiency Appointment Charter. This is a Charter that places premium on appointment to certain positions in the public service based on the individual’s bilingual capacity. Third, team spirit is very important in the dispensation of bilingual communication so having less bilingual and more bilingual personnel or two from different language communities working side by side is an option to also consider. And this should be from the front desk workers like mail officers, secretaries, janitors, security guards etc to the highest working level.

You just talked of translation and we find poor translation in some of our official documents, billboards and public notices; what is the problem?

I am happy you said some of… because frankly the bulk of our translation is fantastic. Cameroon has about the most talented professional Translators and Interpreters in the world. They are found in most continental and world bodies, ample testimony that our Schools of Translators and Interpreters meet up with global standards. When the Commission on Bilingualism visited the various Ministries and parapublic institutions they discovered that most of them have Translation units. So the problem with some of the poor translation you are referring to cannot be due to a lack of professional Translators. Could it be that some of the Translators are not functionally empowered, could this arise from the erroneous notion that a minimum knowledge of the two languages can just qualify you as a Translator or could it just be a neglect of the fundamental role professional Translators play in our society? I am sure members of the Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters can best answer your question.

Now, let us come back again to the law proper, what do you consider as some of the strong sections in this law?

I am sorry I cannot quote all of the positive sections by heart. However I know of one that stipulates the right of every citizen to freely communicate in the language of their choice so expressions like “je ne comprend pas ton Anglais la” or “ you are even speaking Mbouda French” should now be stigmas or pejoratives of the past. Another section also talks of the state providing incentives for greater proficiency or what is called bilingualism bonus. I also have in mind I think it is Section 16 that encourages code switching which means using both languages alternately in the same official speech.

And which are the dark areas or sections?

I prefer to call them the grey areas because they are a little loose ended and open to subjective implementation. We have already talked of Sections 19 and 26 although I must add that other public entities like the health sector where  diagnosis and prescriptions are made by the medical practitioner to a patient in a language the patient does not master. How about the notion of bilingual colleges today/ How about the monolingual medium of instruction in some professional schools including those in the Anglophone region?  Yet and on a very personal assessment I feel  much has been covered in our bilingualism journey from the time I was arrested and locked up in March 1990 just for writing and questioning the validity of our bilingualism state policy to today where state officials use both languages effortlessly. Thirty years after it is both a personal vindication for me and a linguistic paradigm shift for the government. Of course we have not yet arrived but we are on track.

A key proposal from Mwalimu Ngwane is the government working on the creation of Bilingualism Proficiency Appointment Charter similar to what the Canadians call the Public Service Official Languages Appointment Regulation

Finally what sanctions are written in the law for those who violate these provisions?

Well, sanctions have not been implicitly built into the law.  We all wish they were because implementation is a problem with especially state officials. But my take is that first those who do not implement the law expose themselves to self-sanctions because they limit their chances on career upward mobility. Second I think it must be Section 27 of this law that says the state shall ensure the monitoring and evaluation of the law through an Advisory body. That Advisory body I am certain is the Commission on Bilingualism which has the role of receiving complaints or petitions from the public on the violation of their linguistic freedom or abuse of their language rights. It has already been doing this through its webpage and telephone hotline 1518. Most language commissions prefer the tongue rather than the teeth approach to sanctions. By this they carry out investigations, send reports to other state bodies like Human Rights or Parliament, call the violator to order through oral or written means or sometimes do a kind of name and shame report on the violator.

Any final word Mwalimu?

No law is static and when it comes to law on languages it is always prone to revisions and amendments based on public feedback and contestations. The Welsh Language Act of 1993 has been revised so many times and already in 2015 they have a new language law called the Wales Measure. I was privileged thanks to the Commonwealth Professional Fellowship offered me in 2016 to have understudied the Welsh Language Commissioner in Wales. Other Official Language Acts in Northern Canada, Belgium, Spain and Ireland have been subjected to revisions and amendments after being tested on the field.  It is therefore advisable for governments to be sensitive to citizen response to the law on languages. But before then let us give the language law a chance to be tested on the field for like it is said in French “le macon sera connu au pied du mur”.

Thanks Mwalimu

My pleasure Sir

*Culled from The Sun Newspaper. Photo Illustrations by PAV

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