How Language Holds Back Chinese Migrant’s Integration Into African Society

By Jocelyne Kenne Kenne and Adams Bodomo1

This policy brief draws from my sociolinguistic research to show the economic and social problems caused by of insufficient learning of local languages among Chinese immigrants in Cameroon. According to some sources there are many as two million Chinese immigrants in Africa (Bodomo 2012). The inability to speak the language of the host country has knock-on effects on migrants’ ability to integrate. We found that Chinese immigrants’ limited competence in English, French and local Cameroonian languages cause 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. It also leaves them increasingly isolated.

Do Chinese immigrants study local languages before moving to Africa?

Knowing local languages is key to increasing immigrants’ level of self-reliance and to stimulate their social interaction and participation. For this reason, 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. Germany also 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 move to Canada for work, migrants are required to demonstrate English or French proficiency.

Despite the increasing number of Chinese emigrating to Africa, there is still no emphasis on the language requirements that they should fulfil. 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 harms these migrants’ ability to function in their new country, as I found in speaking with Chinese communities in in Cameroon. Cameroon is linguistically diverse. It has two official languages (French and English), 248 indigenous languages, as well as merged languages used among youth and to bridge gaps between language communities. 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. Their time in Cameroon ranged from less than a year to 38 years.

The study found that no Chinese learned any local Cameroonian languages before migrating to Cameroon. Regarding the Cameroonian official languages (French and English), a minority of participants (14%) attended French classes before moving. 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. Only 22% of the respondents said they attended English classes before coming to Cameroon. Among them, 11% 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 language competence harms their social integration. Some interviewees told me they do not take part in 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 businesses.

Many of the Chinese doctors I interviewed barely speak English or French and have no competence in any of the Cameroonian local languages. Most of them hire locals who are proficient in Chinese to act as interpreters in their interactions with patients. Some pointed out that language study or passing a fluency test isn’t required to move 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

Learning a host country’s language is an important factor in the integration of immigrants. For this reason, language requirements have become a crucial element of immigration and integration policies in many countries. Following our study, we recommend that Chinese and African governments reflect on language policies for Chinese applying for long-stay visas or seeking residency in Africa. Improved policy will directly affect immigrants’ proficiency via 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 could encourage them 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 Chinese nationals already living in African countries, centres providing courses can be set up to enable them to learn the host languages and cultures, which will improve communication. Similarly, the learning of local African languages should be encouraged. Making friends and making money both become easier when one speaks the language.


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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *