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Letter to the editor: Boun Sovicheth

Is “studying a foreign language” a mere culprit of Cambodian youth’s socially and culturally inapt behaviors?

I am writing in response to an article, “Modern youth almost forget their own language” written by Tong Soprach and published on July 18, 2012. I am very much impressed by Mr. Soprach’s concerns about the impacts of foreign languages (i.e., English) on the use of Khmer (Cambodia’s national language) among Cambodian youth.

Through my personal and professional experiences, I strongly echo the fact that certain aspects of behaviors and language use among Cambodian youth are matters of grave concern. Mr. Soprach’s observation of the culturally incongruous use of the term of address by some Cambodian youth is greatly laudable.

While the generic phrase, “Sour Sday Neak Teang Ars Knear,” literally translated as “Hello everybody!” may be socially and culturally appropriate in most Western contexts, it may not be so in most Cambodian contexts. “With the presence of older people” in formal situations such as “a national or international meeting”, this “informal salute” can manifest a lack of cultural sensitivity and awareness on the part of the speaker (i.e. youth) and can thus be considered “disrespectful.”

That said, attributing these unbefitting behaviors to studying a foreign language alone may not do justice to the latter. Thus, such a question as “why studying a foreign language changes so many young Khmers in the way they speak and behave?” may need qualifying. Is studying a foreign language a mere culprit of such behaviors? Does learning a foreign language do as much or more harm than good?

Is speaking Khmer with “softened voices and slurred pronunciation” necessarily a way of showing off and a sign of fluent use of a foreign language?

For all intents and purposes, I am by no means trying to argue against Mr. Soprach’s concerns about youth’s behaviors, all of which I find justifiably legitimate. However, identifying the causes of such behaviors should perhaps go beyond the wall of foreign language classrooms. For one, youth is the time of intense identity formation or, worse yet, crisis. Is it possible that the ascription to such behaviors bespeaks a sign or struggle of trying to fit in socially or linguistically, and should thereof be interpreted accordingly?

On another note, social media and online networking have in recent years gathered significant momentum in Cambodia, making exposures to western cultures by Cambodian youth unprecedentedly easy. More or less, this phenomenon can have significant social and cultural (and perhaps linguistic) impacts on Cambodians, and thus its constitutive roles in the changing behaviors among Cambodian youth—however (in)appropriate they may be— should not be taken for granted.

Until empirically proven, whether studying a foreign language leads to such socially and culturally inapt behaviors remain arguably debatable and untenable.

Boun Sovicheth
Language Educator
Currently doing a doctoral study in Culture, Literacy and Language in the United States



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