Speaking as One: the Inevitability of Language Policy Hurdles


From February to April this year, Cameroon’s central authority placed the Anglophone Southern Cameroons under siege with an internet shutdown. Directing the measure at "extremists, secessionists, and enemies of the state", one might not think that the Communications Minister had nonviolent proponents of the English language in mind. But Cameroon’s official language is French (the divide a result of arbitrary post-colonial border drawings), and since absorbing the region the government has strived to put the republic under a single language.

Officially, the need for linguistic unity justified cutting 20% of the population off from the internet, and the lasting damage done to most of the nation’s technology start-ups (many of which are based in the region). We might think this disproportionate, but a survey of the influence that language policy can have on economic development better places us to understand why such a measure seems so attractive. Many nations have gone to great costs to ensure that an official language becomes a national language, the latter with connotations of unifying a large majority of the population. Those implementing such measures see a removal of linguistic autonomy as a fair price for the breaking down of what is arguably the largest barrier to a single cohesive labour market. What governments such as Cameroon fail to accept is that where linguistic difference is indicative of demographics such as a heterogenous population, the road to linguistic unity (and accompanying benefits) is fraught with either friction or failure.

As is often the case with 20th Century economic miracles, the paradigm of language policy and its rewards is China. The mandate of Putonghua (Standard Chinese) as the primary language of education and public o ce across the nation began before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and continues today (the first official policy of exclusivity being in 1956). Beyond creating a single social identity in the wake of civil war, Putonghua (“common speech”) facilitated the shifting of individuals across what was a culturally, economically, and socially uneven landscape. The previously immense barrier of language was removed for the resident of rural Yanqing to move to Beijing proper. People collected in the cities, providing vast pools of labour centred around industry to fuel the economic miracle that was to come in the 1970s. The rest is history.

No wonder so many other states have pursued similar aims, particularly as a single language policy allows governments to pursue social cohesion and economic development without trade-off. The Republic of Korea, after regaining sovereignty, revived and subsequently mandated the Korean language across the nation. Once more, language was used as a clear signalling mechanism as to the social identity of “Korean” that citizens shared. At the same time, it is no coincidence that the Republic’s “Miracle on the Han River” during the latter half of the 20th Century took place in the wake of such reforms. A common language facilitated an employer’s ability to “treat employees like family” (a motto coined by ex-President Park Chung-hee that is credited with increasing productivity in the Korean workforce) by establishing an underlying commonality. Citizens had no trouble investing in heavy chemical industry on a wide scale, where the economic infrastructure used to achieve this was mutually intelligible.

The unity facilitated by a common language greatly contributes to economic development. Governments instituting these policies envisage a nation in which law is published in one language alone. We might even say that they see a nation where every child could grow up and move to the capital, working in the central authority – although this is somehow less intuitive. That is because whilst language exists as a significant barrier to the integration of peoples across a nation, it is by far not the only barrier. Our intuition that authorities do not simply wish for common language to result in an amalgamation of all people across social divides is correct as we recognise the existence of these other barriers, and that they do not fall with language. These are factors dividing a populace ex post language reform.

Governments often recognise these ex post factors, and legislate to integrate, after language policy, in ways that specifically allow for a harmony of peoples (e.g. anti-discrimination legislation). Those nations such as Cameroon, however, err in not recognising the significance to which these same factors can act ex ante – they inhibit the promulgation of the single language. This is clearest in countries with fundamentally heterogenous populations, such as India.

The Indian Constitution (part XVII) declares Hindi as the official language of government, but carves out the widely applicable (and widely used) exception that any language with “official” status may be used by the regions of India. The Constitutional language policy, contrary to popular belief in its endorsement of linguistic pluralism, should be read as a concession – resistance to Hindi implementation began in 1937, long before the framing of the Constitution. The first Indian National Congress government introduced compulsory Hindi teaching in schools of (then) Madras, which was immediately opposed by the opposition in the state. The following two years were marked with large-scale demonstrations, fasts, and over a thousand “agitators” brought into police custody. We begin to see more of a likeness to the Southern Cameroons’ crisis.

The Hindi policy exposed much wider divides than mere language. Tamil speakers interpreted the policy as not only an impo- sition of a population based in the North (ethnic divides), but also as an imposition by Brahmins of their culture and influence (caste divides). Part XVII of the Indian Constitution bows to the hurdle that the central authority was unable to surmount in promulgating a single national language: It represents a concession to the resistance by those not identifying with the cultural and ethnic identity of the Hindi-speaking legislators.

Faced with the historical struggles of Hindi implementation policy, and the modern dilemmas facing countries such as Cameroon, it might seem like there is no method whereby language policy can overcome high ex ante barriers. There is, however, a clear exception, though one with limited empirical evidence pertaining to an entire nation. I term this the “buy-in” exception: Where individuals from fundamentally different backgrounds actively take steps to move towards a cohesive national identity, they “buy-in” to an identity and the central authority might designate a single language to cement this identity. We see this mechanism working on a smaller level when nations such as Sweden note extremely high attendance at the free (but optional) community elementary Swedish classes.

To find a comprehensive national single language policy succeeding solely on the basis of a heterogenous population “buying in”, we need a population with x substantial cultural/ethnic groups (each with their distinct language), where at least x-1 of these groups implicitly accede to the policy. The x groups need not be at all similar. In fact, in one clear success story, x represents Anglo-European, South Indian (primarily Tamil), Malay, and Chinese. This success story is Singapore.

The buy-in of Singapore’s population stems from the fact that it is a nation whose national identity is founded on the back of migration. Only in the 1930s did native births in Singapore overtake net immigration. What is more, native-born Singaporeans, whilst espousing a “Singaporean identity” (demonstrated nominally by policies of single citizenship and National Service) hold close cultural ties with the nations from which their families emigrated. This is demonstrated by the bilingual education policy mandating second-language education in the language of one’s cultural/ethnic group. Immigration can be seen as a vesting of at least part of one’s cultural identity in the target State. Thus, this nation of migration is founded on the very buy-in mechanism that made it possible to mandate English education to bridge social divides for economic progress. The number of students registering for English-language schools rose from 50% to 90% from the 1960s to the 1970s. The buy-in mechanism is the only explanation for this growth without friction in a pop- ulation fervently divided along ethnic and cultural lines.

This is our lesson for Cameroon. The French/English language divide is not arbitrary: It is the result of the Southern Cameroons existing as a British Mandate for forty years, and the population developing a cultural identity in response to this. The rest of the Republic existed as a French territory, undergoing integration with the French economy and social value alignment by the central authority at the time. It goes without saying that the people of Britain would have the French language pressed upon them with a degree of resistance matched by the French with English. Without the people of the Southern Cameroons “buying in”, why would we think their situation different?