A Khmer proverb – “If the culture dies out, so does the nation and if the culture spreads out, the nation also grows ” is often used to teach all Cambodian people to love, maintain and spread their culture so that their nation will be heard and seen by the world.
To achieve this goal, a nation needs letters and language, one of the most important parts of a culture, to represent the identity of the nation, said Soeung Phos, a member of Khmer Language Committee and a former Khmer language lecturer of Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP).
“We use letters to make a record of everything like history, speaking, religion, and to leave them for younger generations to learn and practice.”
Cambodia has had its own letters and language since 611 AD, as was evidenced by the discovery of a Khmer inscription found in Prey Kabas district in Takeo province. For the past 14 centuries, the Khmer language has been passed from one generation to the next, facilitating the cultural, social and financial exchanges that define Cambodia today.
While Cambodia’s history has been written and spoken in Khmer, foreign languages have an expanding presence in the Kingdom. Today’s labour market requires that applicants be literate in foreign languages and this has attracted many foreign language institutes to open in Cambodia.
Some parents send their children to study foreign language beginning in kindergarten so that their children will be able to meet the requirements of future jobs, Soeung Phos said.
“They are forgetting and killing their own language.”
Sok Chan, a former Khmer literature student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, says that he loves Khmer language, but that he gave up his studies in the field because he did not see any future opportunities in it.
“I changed to media because it is taught in English and there are more opportunities for me to find job in the future.” Sok Chan explained.
“I see most job advertisements require candidates to be able to write and speak in English.”
Many Khmer people, particularly those involved in development, are using foreign language to communicate, and they seem to ignore Khmer language, Soeung Phos said.
“This is really shameful to our ancestors who worked very hard to create letters and language for us and we do not give the value to them.”
The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport plays a crucial role in encouraging the use of the Khmer language. So far, the Royal Academy of Cambodia created the National Commission of Khmer Language to maintain, develop and update Khmer language.
However, this committee alone cannot preserve a language that seems to be in decline, Soeung Phos said.
“All Cambodians have to wake up and work together to promote our language, our culture and our nation.”
He suggests that parents send their children to Khmer school and all Cambodians use Khmer language at the workplace, especially when speaking with other Khmer people.
Tea Phuoyngim, a Khmer literature student at RUPP, said that every Cambodian can help preserve Khmer language by valuing its remnants – for example, by not selling or destroying antiquities such as inscriptions and templates, which are the first representations of Khmer language and letters.
“If we lose them, we are losing our culture as well,” she added.
When parents send their children to foreign language school, lessons on Khmer culture will be replaced by lessons on foreign cultures, explained Tea Phuoyngim
“This makes them forget the identity of their nation. And this is how we will lose Khmer culture.”