Following a research trip to Cameroon in April 2012, during which I investigated the interface between language and identity in a corpus of young urban adults, I travelled to an international conference in St Petersburg in November where I disseminated my findings to an audience of social anthropologists and sociolinguists.
The conference was hosted by the European University and the Linguistics Institute. The Russian Federation and the CIS are regions of tremendous ethno-linguistic diversity, and many of the papers dealt with language endangerment and concomitant cultural attrition in Siberia and the Russian Far East, amongst ethnic groups such as Even, Ket and Tundra Yukagir. My own study was prompted by my previous work on language attitudes in Gabon, and by the lack of specific attention to identity in current literature studies on Cameroon. While certain findings arising from my research corroborated those of existing studies, others challenged them. The research confirmed a widely documented regional trend away from the use of the local languages in parent-child discourse. It also showed that a quarter of all respondents construed the official languages, French and English, as indigenous ‘Cameroonian languages’, and 10% explicitly stated bilingualism to be a defining characteristic of Cameroonian national identity, despite the proportion of respondents who regarded themselves as bilingual being very low. The survey also revealed a strong sense of national unity, a surprising finding in view of previous claims of a nation riven by an Anglophone-Francophone social schism. More than a quarter of respondents regarded knowledge of a local language as central to identity construction, and as a prerequisite for ethnic group membership. However, when they were asked to describe their identity using four tiers, ethnic group was placed third overall behind race (African) and nationality (Cameroonian), but before anglophone/francophone. This calls into question a widespread theory in existing literature that being anglophone or francophone is central to a Cameroonian’s identity. My findings suggest that the respondents’ actual perception of the importance of ethnic identity is limited, which in time could cause attrition of minority local cultures in Cameroon and hence their corresponding languages. This could in turn lead to ethno-linguistic levelling whereby only majority languages will survive. In a global age it is vital to consolidate ethnic and racial awareness and encourage young people to reflect on the values underlying their own identity: indeed a number of the respondents here stated that the questionnaire had given them an increased insight into their own attitudes. Language preservation initiatives in central Africa are however severely impaired by political indifference and public apathy, and while scholars can identify problems and propose solutions, the fate of endangered languages and cultures is entirely in the hands of the speech communities themselves.