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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ethnic minorities to receive bilingual education: gov’t

Jarai children beside a fire in Ratanakkiri province. The Jarai language is distantly related to Bahasa Indonesia
Jarai children beside a fire in Ratanakkiri province. The Jarai language is distantly related to Bahasa Indonesia, Tagalog and the language of Cambodia’s Cham Muslims. Sam Rith

Ethnic minorities to receive bilingual education: gov’t

The government affirmed its commitment to bilingual education for ethnic minority children in Cambodia’s northern provinces at a UNESCO conference in Bangkok last week.

Speaking at the fourth International Conference on Language and Education: Multilingual Education for all in Asia and the Pacific, Ton Sa Im, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) announced a five-year plan, to be signed off in December, that would expand Multi Language Education (MLE) initiatives for indigenous communities in Cambodia.

At the event, which ran from November 6 to 8, she said the ministry had decided to develop a plan to ensure smooth implementation of this expansion and hold a review of the current program to decide whether its quality needs to be improved.

The plan will decide how many languages will be added to the program, how many more schools it will cover and how many new staff will have to be trained.

Speaking from her Phnom Penh office after returning from Bangkok, she said that MoEYS will now discuss how to expand the MLE initiatives with other departments.

She said: “We will sit down together with the department elected to deal with the bilingual education program and we will discuss what we are expanding, in which locations and the finances.”

The government began cautiously implementing bilingual education models developed by CARE Cambodia, in 2007. Six years later, 4,000 ethnic minority children in 43 schools in Stung Treng, Mondulkiri, Ratanakkiri and Kratie benefit from the initiatives. Research has suggested the classes, which are taught by ethnic minority teachers and elders in the community, have substantial benefit to education.

Khath Samal, adviser to the Bilingual Education Committee, Provincial Office of Education, Youth and Sport, Ratanakiri, Cambodia, co-led a presentation at the conference on the development and implementation of bilingual education policy in highland provinces along with Pa Satha, the deputy director at the same office.

He said: “Bilingual education means that indigenous minority children experience learning both the language of their own local culture and the Khmer national language. They are therefore not excluded from mainstream life, and they have the opportunity to benefit from the country’s economic development and national unity.”

Jan Noorlander is program co-ordinator of the Marginalised Ethnic Minorities Programme at CARE Cambodia which, as a member of the Asia Pacific MLE Working Group, was one of the conference organisers.

He said he was impressed with how much, and for how long, the government has supported MLE policy: “It’s really supported in Cambodia compared with other countries. There’s a very strong political will to do this, which is remarkable because only 1.5 per cent of the country is indigenous. When you compare with other countries where there are many more indigenous people, it’s quite an investment for a small portion of the population.”

Speaking about the conference, Noorlander said: “In my opinion these conferences serve a valuable purpose. Children need to learn their mother tongue first in order to become good learners in other languages and all school subjects. There is substantial evidence of this. We need advocacy with communities, policy makers and implementing NGOs to inform them about this.”

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