Some of the oldest indigenous languages in Southeast Asia may soon
become relics of the past, but bilingual education programs could
reverse the slide
Participants at a conference on minority language preservation held at the Royal Academy of Cambodia in Phnom Penh on Monday.
THE languages of Cambodia's indigenous minorities - some numbering no more than a handful of native speakers - are under threat of extinction, prompting government efforts to bolster bilingual education in minority areas.
"A separate language contains the information, ideas, philosophy and beliefs that have been developed by communities for hundreds of years," said Austroasiatic languages professor Gerard Diffloth at a conference on minority language preservation held at the Royal Academy of Cambodia on Monday.
"When a language disappears, it is exactly as if a very special library was burned down, and nothing remains.... It is a disaster for all humanity."
Most of the Kingdom's highland minority languages belong to the Austroasiatic language family, an ancient group of Southeast Asian languages that also includes modern Khmer.
"The other languages - Thai, Burmese, Austronesian - came later," Diffloth said. "This is the original Southeast Asian family of languages."
But he added that some of these historic languages, such as Chuang, Chu-ung and Samre, are no longer being learned by younger generations.
"[The Chuang] language is almost dead already," he said. "Five old ladies remember the way it was when they used to speak it, but it is no longer spoken every day ... [and] none of the children speak it."
Royal Academy President Sorn Samnang said the only way to reverse the tide was to create scripts that allow minority languages to be recorded and easily passed on to younger generations.
"Indigenous people do not have written languages," he said. "So we have started teaching them how to write what they speak in the Khmer script."
To this end, the Institute of National Language, with support from NGOs and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, is conducting bilingual education programs in indigenous communities.
"Learning how to write indigenous minority languages in Khmer ... is a bridge for the indigenous people to continue higher education at public schools," said Iv Chan, director of the Institute.
He added that the programs were operating in Ratanakkiri among the Tampuon, Krung and Prov communities, among the Phnong in Mondulkiri, and among the Kuay populations in Kampong Thom and Preah Vihear.
"Hundreds of minority people have participated in the training," Iv Chan said.