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Keeping our languages alive

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Pupils at a bilingual community primary school supported by UNICEF in Mondulkiri province. Photograph: UNICEF

If you're reading this, you’re one of the 1.3 billion people who use English as a first or second language. But International Mother Language Day is celebrated annually to remind us of the importance of all languages.

This celebration promotes linguistic diversity and multilingual education and raises awareness of the importance of mother-tongue education.

Although Khmer is the official national language of Cambodia and is spoken by more than 95 per cent of the population, about 20 languages are spoken in this country.

The mother tongue is the foundation of cognitive development. Through it, we develop a sense of self and begin to explore the world.

Children who are compelled to learn in a language that is neither their mother tongue nor a language they understand are educationally disadvantaged; they’re more likely to repeat grades and less likely to
go on to higher education.

Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is also the right of children of minority communities and indigenous populations to use their own language.   

UNESCO and UNICEF, with other partners, promote bilingual and multilingual approaches in education so children and young people can learn in their mother tongue — an important factor for enhancing inclusion and quality in education.

Research has shown that mother tongue-based bilingual and multilingual education has a positive impact on learning outcomes.

We are supporting the Royal Government of Cambodia to develop a strategy for quality, inclusive basic education for all and to provide culturally relevant learning materials in the languages of the community.

In addition, we provide technical assistance to develop educational policies and practices.

Cambodia is working towards including ethnic-minority languages in community education, which will enable children and adults who do not speak the national language at home to access education and build bridges between the various ethnic groups in this country.

Over the past decade, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MOEYS) has supported several efforts to provide mother tongue-based bilingual education.

These include the Non-Formal Education programs in Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri provinces through the work of NGOs, as well as primary bilingual education in co-operation with CARE through the Highland Children’s Education Project.

The ministry has approved orthographies in five languages: Krung, Tampuan, Brao, Kavet and Bunong.

In accordance with the bilingual-education guidelines adopted in 2010, UNICEF, in partnership with CARE, has supported MOEYS in the  development, teacher training and implementation of bilingual education at pre-primary and primary-school levels in Bunong, Krung, Tampuan, Kavet and Kouy.

The bilingual education package has been implemented in 20 community pre-schools and 34 primary schools, improving access to, and quality of, learning for minority children in Kratie, Mondulkiri, Preah Vihear, Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng provinces.

UNESCO’s theme for today is Books for Mother Tongue Education.

 “Books are a force for peace and development that must be placed in the hands of all,” UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova says.

“They are also crucial tools for expression that help to enrich languages, while recording their changes over time.

“In this age of new technologies, books remain precious instruments: easy to handle, sturdy and practical for sharing knowledge, mutual understanding and opening the world to all.”

As an example, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, in conjunction with International Co-operation in Cambodia (ICC) and UNESCO, developed a bilingual education picture dictionary in the Brao language in 2011.

This dictionary is being used in primary schools and non-formal learning centres in Ratanakkiri province, where the majority of people do not speak the Khmer language at home.

Van You, a 17-year-old community librarian in Veang Chan village, has witnessed its benefits.

“Thanks to the dictionary with pictures, it’s much easier, and more fun, to translate words from Brao to Khmer and Khmer to Brao,” she says.

“The dictionary helps, and encourages, people to read and write in their own languages.”   

It’s estimated that almost half the more than 6,000 languages in the world are in danger of disappearing.

And, because language is so strongly linked to culture, losing a language implies the disappearance of a means of expression.

Bilingual education is one way to maintain the cohesiveness of indigenous peoples’ communities and their traditional linguistic and cultural practices.

Mother-language instruction is not only a right, but a powerful way to give voice and freedom of expression to marginalised populations.

Anne Lemaistre and Rana Flowers are representatives of UNICEF in Cambodia.
 

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