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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Minority tongues face grim future

Minority tongues face grim future

Specialists say the languages of Cambodia's once-isolated highland minorities are being eroded by global forces beyond the control of government initiatives designed to revive them

Photo by: Tracey Shelton

A group of ethnic Phnong gather to collect food donations in Mondulkiri's O'Raing commune earlier this year.

Minority populations

  • Kuay 30,000 (Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Kratie, Stung Treng, Thailand, Laos)
  • Tumpuon 24,000 (Ratanakkiri)
  • Kreung 23,800 (Ratanakkiri)
  • Phnong 20,000 (Mondulkiri)
  • Jarai 20,000 (Ratanakkiri, Vietnam)
  • Stieng 4,000 (Kratie, Mondulkiri, Vietnam)
  • Kacho 4,000 (Ratanakkiri)
  • So'ong 500 (Kampong Speu)
  • Samre 400 (Koh Kong)
  • Poa 300 (Preah Vihear)
  • Somray 300 (Pursat)
  • Sa'och 150 (Kampot)


DEVELOPMENT and economic integration are pushing the languages of Cambodia's highland minorities towards extinction, according to language specialists, who are concerned some native tongues may be beyond the reach of government programs aimed at reversing the slide.

"You could compare it with burning down a library. When it disappears, centuries of experience are just wiped out," said Gerard Diffloth, a retired professor of Austro-asiatic languages, a language family that includes modern Khmer as well as languages in India, Myanmar and Malaysia.

"This is not special to Cambodia. Everywhere in the world has the same problem: National languages are eliminating all the small ones."

Jean-Michel Filippi, a linguistics professor at the Royal University of Cambodia, said that where communities could once exist in isolation, demographic pressures and economic integration mean that notions of literacy are transforming, threatening the predominantly oral traditions of the country's highland peoples.

"Now, someone who does not know how to write or read is going to be more and more marginalised," he said.

Filippi cited Unesco statistics showing that if current economic and social trends continue, the next century will see the extinction of half the languages on earth.

"There will be a loss of human patrimony, and this loss shares a common point with the [loss of] fauna and flora: It is irretrievable," he said, adding that a number of native minority languages were unlikely to survive into the next generation.

Samre, a language from remote Koh Kong province, is already functionally extinct, while several more - including Sa'och and Poa, with populations that number in the hundreds - are beyond saving.

Mother tongues

The Department of Ethnic Minority Development at the Ministry of Rural Development estimates that 1.5 percent of Cambodia's population - around 220,000 people - are highland minorities, concentrated mostly in Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri, Preah Vihear and Kratie provinces.

But despite boasting rich oral traditions, the country's dozen highland languages all lack written scripts. In the 1920s, French missionaries devised Romanised scripts for some minority tongues in Vietnam's Central Highlands - traces of which can still be found in Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri - but made no concurrent efforts inside Cambodia.

"[These minorities] have only spoken languages, and they make conversation with each other according to what they remember," said Toun Sa Im, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.

"But if things remain like this for too long, their spoken language will be destroyed."

Shun Vave, an ethnic Tumpuon from Patang village in Lumphat district, Ratanakkiri, said his village's literacy in the local language was next to zero, even though a number of local people had been educated in written Khmer.

"I have never known that Tumpuon had a written language," he told the Post. "Nowadays, people in my village only know how to speak in Tumpuon, not how to write it."

Education officials said that in order to achieve the ministry's aim of Education for All by 2015, it was making efforts to introduce bilingual education in minority villages as a bridge to literacy and further education in the public school system.

Bilingual education

Phann Phirun, director of the Ratanakkiri Provincial Education Department, said the government was working with Unicef, CARE and International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC) to provide education in around 20 Tumpuon and Krung minority communities in the province.

Since 1995, he said, nearly 3,000 children have attended schools supported by ICC, and another 1,000 children in schools supported by Unicef and CARE.

"We are trying to teach the mixed languages for three years. After they have participated for three years in their villages, they can continue studying in grade four at public schools," he said, adding that three or four children from each village were progressing on to public school once they reached grade four.

Iv Chan, director of the Institute of National Language, said that in addition to the programs in Ratanakkiri, similar programs had been introduced amongst Phnong communities in Mondulkiri and in Preah Vihear, home to more than 30,000 Kuay people.

"We teach them how to write their languages in Khmer in order for them to increase their knowledge and to read other documents written in Khmer," he said.

"The Khmer language will help them to preserve their language, customs and traditions over a long period."

Svay Thoeurn, 44, a Kuoy community representative from Pal Hal village in Preah Vihear province's Roveang district, said many ethnic Kuoy - who make up around 45 percent of the province's population - had achieved literacy in their language as a result of bilingual education programs.

"Nowadays, most of the Kuoy minority people in Preah Vihear province can write their language in Khmer script, [and] about 50 books have been written about our folk stories, history, tradition and customs," he said.

"Now some of the young generation have attended public school up to grades 11 and 12."

But Ven Sokim, an ethnic Kreung from Tangkropu village in Ratanakkiri's O'Chum district, said that the community had become reliant on the help of government and NGO programs, regressing when support was removed for the education of around 50 local students.

Photo by:
Tracey Shelton

Mondulkiri province is home to an estimated 20,000 Phnong.

"This year, the school in my village got no support to continue teaching Kreung language," he said.

"In my village, there are only about three or four people who can write in Kreung."

Filippi said that bilingual education was complicated by a series of factors, the first being that the protracted process of devising new scripts based on Khmer orthography was not justifiable for small populations.

"To describe the language, make the script and test it [can take] a minimum of three years. It's a lot of work," he said. "Most of the languages for which there has been a script created are spoken by more than 50,000 people."

Even once scripts are created and introduced into the education system - as is the case with the Tumpuon, Jarai, Kuay Phnong and Kreung languages - whether the language flourishes depends largely on factors beyond the government's control.

"We don't know if the use of these scripts is going to be restricted to school, or if it is going to have a wider community usage," Filippi said, adding that it was often dictated by the viability of village institutions.

"If you take, for instance, the Tumpuon, Jarai and Kacho - they are all different languages - you will find a very strong community structure.

It means that those people themselves play an active part in the creation of the script," he said.

For instance, Teo Chew, a language from China's Guangdong province spoken by around 181,000 people in Cambodia, had proven durable since it enjoyed the benefit of being a language of economic exchange.

While Filippi said he was "very impressed" by the quality of Tumpuon community institutions, experts working with the Phnong in Mondulkiri reported that they "had never faced strongly structured institutions", and that language training faced challenges.

Diffloth agreed that there were limits to what could be done to bring endangered languages back from the brink.

"The crucial point is whether or not the children speak among themselves," he said.

"When they play together, do they speak the language? If they do, then the language will go on. If they don't, it's just a matter of time."



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