Migration and Linguistic Integration: An Investigation of Chinese Immigrants’ Language Learning Experience before Moving to Africa.

By Jocelyne Kenne Kenne and Adams Bodomo1

This policy brief draws from my sociolinguistic research to demonstrate the economic and social problems of insufficient linguistic integration among Chinese immigrants in Cameroon. According to some sources there are many as two million Chinese immigrants in Africa (Bodomo 2012). Since the ability to speak the language of the host country accounts for various forms of integration, Chinese immigrants limited competence of the host languages might portend social, economic, and political problems for both the Chinese immigrants and their host communities.

The escalation of Chinese migration in Africa

Since the early 2000s, Chinese presence in Africa has grown considerably. Many Chinese are active in commercial activities in various African cities. They are engaged in wholesale and retail, primarily selling goods they import from China, such as clothes, shoes, bags, decorative items for the home, children’s toys, and electronics, among others. Chinese immigrants also set up restaurants and open clinics where they practice Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Although language proficiency is a crucial driver of immigrant integration, many Chinese I interviewed, regardless of their length of stay and their job sector, barely speak the host languages of their new place. This leads to communication difficulties with locals, often manifested in regular disputes and high tensions. Furthermore, the Chinese immigrants poor command of the host languages was highlighted as the primary cause of their isolation.

An overview of language learning experiences of Chinese immigrants before migrating to Africa.

To increase immigrants’ level of self-reliance and to stimulate their social interaction and participation, many countries have made the proficiency in their national language a requirement for allowing adult migrants to enter their country or to be granted permanent residency or citizenship. For example, several western countries have language requirements, in line with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), for certain categories of immigrants. In France, immigrants need to demonstrate level A2 of French in order to be granted a 10-year residence permit. In Germany, medical professions are regulated and migrants have to prove that they have at least a B2 level. Again, Germany requires basic German knowledge for (non-EU) spouses joining their partners. This is to ensure that they can communicate in German from the moment they arrive in Germany and easily adapt to their new linguistic and cultural environment. Similarly, to migrate to Canada people who enter to work in an occupation are required by the legislation to demonstrate their language proficiency in English or French. Despite the increasing number of Chinese emigrating to Africa, there is still no emphasis on the language requirements that they should fulfill. These requirements should depend on the type of visa they are applying for and the duration of their stay. Paying little attention to the role of languages in policies for the integration of Chinese migrants might inevitably harm their linguistic integration in their new environment. I recently analyzed the linguistic practices of Chinese people living in Cameroon. Cameroon has a diverse linguistic profile. It has two official languages (French and English), 248 indigenous languages (Binam Bikoi, 2012), one contact variety as a lingua franca (CPE), and an urban youth code (Camfranglais). I asked 432 Chinese migrants whether they learned the Cameroonian official and/or national languages before migrating to Cameroon. The participants came from several economic sectors. Most of them were shopkeepers, others were doctors, teachers, businessmen, cooks, engineers, translators among others. Furthermore, the shortest stay of participants was less than a year, while the longest was 38 years.

The study found that no Chinese learned any Cameroonian national language before migrating to Cameroon. Regarding the Cameroonian official languages (French and English), a minority of participants (14%) attended French classes before traveling to Cameroon. Among them, only 4% said they attended French courses for more than a year, 2% indicated less than a year, and 8% for less than six months. Concerning English, only 22% of the respondents said they attended English classes before coming to Cameroon. Among them, 11% indicated that they learned English for less than six months, 3% for less than a year, and 8% for more than a year. The study found that the Chinese immigrants limited (or no) competence in the host languages harms their social integration in their new environment. Some Chinese interviewee stated that they do not take part to Cameroonian activities because they do not speak the host languages. Similarly, their inability to express themselves also limits their exchanges with their local customers, negatively impacting their economic activities.

Many Chinese doctors interviewed barely speak the Cameroonian official languages and have no competence in any of the Cameroonian national languages. Most of them hire locals who are proficient in Chinese to act as interpreters in their interactions with patients. During interviews with Chinese, some of them reported that they had not been requested to learn any Cameroonian official or national language or pass any language test before or after migrating to Cameroon. Similarly, other Chinese stated that they are not planning to take any language class because they are busy with daily business. Such statements show that little consideration is given to the competence of Chinese people in the languages of their host country. However, the knowledge of the host language could significantly influence their socio-economic and political integration.

Recommendations to improve Chinese interactions in African countries

As the acquisition of the host country’s language is an important factor in the integration of immigrants, language requirements have become a crucial element of immigration and integration policies in many countries. Accordingly, this paper recommends that Chinese and African governments reflect on language policies on Chinese applying for long-stay visa or seeking residency in Africa. Immigrants’ language proficiency can be impacted by immigration policies. This might occur due to different language requirements and the use of formal language tests as conditions for obtaining entry visas, residence permits, or citizenship. Similarly, to improve cross-cultural communication between Chinese and Africans, official and/or private initiatives should be settled to encourage the Chinese to learn the languages of African countries before migrating to those countries. Better language proficiency would help them in their daily dealings in the host country.

For the Chinese already living in African countries, centres providing courses can be set up to enable them to learn the host languages (and culture), which will help them for effective communication. Similarly, the learning of an African national language of the host country in which they reside should also be encouraged. Speaking a national language will likely positively impact their daily interactions and strengthen their relations with the locals.


Binam Bikoi, Charles (ed). 2012. Atlas linguistique du Cameroun. Inventaire des langues. Tome 1. Yaoundé: Centre International de Recherche et de Documentation sur les Traditions et les Langues Africaines.

Bodomo, A. (2012). Africans in China: A sociocultural study and its implications for Africa-China relations. New York: Cambria Press.

1 Jocelyne Kenne Kenne holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of Bayreuth, Germany. Adams Bodomo is Professor of African Studies (Chair of Linguistics and Literatures) at the University of Vienna, Austria.

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