Sgnoun Vita can’t communicate with most of her kindergarten students. She teaches them colours and numbers, but can’t understand their questions or chatter.
Most of Vita’s students at the Kater Primary School in Ratanakkiri’s O’Yadav district speak Jarai, one of Cambodia’s 24 ethnic minority languages.
“It is very difficult for me to teach these kids, because they cannot speak or understand Khmer,” she said.
Her school’s director added that many of the students drop out, unable to understand the lessons or their schoolbooks.
In Cambodia’s remote highlands of Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri, indigenous peoples make up the majority of the population, and most cannot read, write or comprehend the language spoken by up to 95 per cent of Cambodians.
The barrier has resulted in one of the lowest school completion rates in the country.
A study by International Cooperation Cambodia last year found that only 63 per cent of primary school students in Mondulkiri and 33 per cent in Ratanakkiri were attending some form of education.
“If the options are to take kids to the plantations to help work or to send them to a school where they can’t really understand the language, the choice becomes easy,” said Jan Noorlander, program coordinator at CARE International.
NGOs CARE and ICC have been working with the government to develop a bilingual primary school model since 2003. The project, which now operates 54 community schools in four provinces, started with just six schools in Ratanakkiri, instructing students initially in their own language and then slowly transitioning into fully Khmer lessons in grade four.
“Experience in both Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri has shown that simply building schools and sending out teachers to remote locations is not a solution,” said Mariam Smith, an education program manager at ICC. “Education must be culturally and linguistically relevant.”
In 2005, ICC created a written system for five of the indigenous languages, recreating written forms for languages that long ago lost their orthography, and translated the national curriculum.
“It is important to preserve the traditional culture and identity while also developing shared, mainstream knowledge of Cambodia,” Long Serey, director of Non-Timber Forest Products, said.
With bilingual education now reaching nearly 4,000 students and boosting indigenous primary school enrolment and completion rates, the Ministry of Education is hoping to further promote the program. Earlier this year, the minister of education announced a plan to expand bilingual education starting as early as next year.
“The completion rate of indigenous students is still much, much lower than the national average [87 per cent]. Many of the indigenous communities’ primary schools don’t have more than three grades,” Noorlander said. “There’s a solid policy framework in place, now it needs to be implemented.”