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A language in crisis

A language in crisis


The Cambodian lang-uage is dying. The spoken language is either crude and earthy (to the point of offensiveness) or highly stylised (to the point of incomprehension); the written lang-uage is in crisis from carelessness and a lack of development, mummified from antiquity, rattled by modernity.  And no one is doing anything about it.

I am not speaking as a ling-uist, which I am not. Nor am    I speaking as a lawyer, which  I am.  (Both professions parse language for clarity.)

I am not even speaking as someone who is fluent in her native tongue.  I am, however, speaking as someone who has been acutely observing communication in the Khmer language for at least the past seven years, both spoken and written, and who is aghast      at the state of affairs.

Here are some general observations that should cause great concern for Cambodian educators and leaders:

1. Spoken Khmer:  The prevailing use (by adults and children alike) of crude, offensive language – “aign” for I/me, “haign” for you, “veer” for him/her/them (when its correct use is for “it”), “phoeum” for pregnancy (when the word is reserved for animals), and the myriad cuss words, many of sexual crassness that I cannot even write – needs to stop.  More than being impolite,    it’s dehumanising.

The matter careens to the opposite extreme in a formal setting, where the spoken Khmer is so stylised and   antiquated that its      meaning  is lost on listeners.

The speaker often takes more pleasure in using big words than communicating his or her message; sometimes, I wonder whether the speaker understands what   he or she is saying.

2.  Written generally:  The current written Khmer lang-uage is a nightmare, with great limitations when it comes to communicating complex ideas.

First, we lack a modern, comprehensive Khmer dictionary incorporating new words and uniform spelling.

“Sida, “Aids”, “Hiv” and “Untac”, for example, are used as words without an understanding of their background as deriving from foreign acronyms and their full meaning.

Second, we lack a modern, comprehensive Khmer-English (vice versa) dictionary     to accommodate the barrage of material produced from translation, as many thoughts and documents are first     written in English, not created in Khmer.

Third, many of these translated works have not been reviewed for accuracy or comprehension, so a lot of gibberish is entering the public square, often creat- ing more confusion than learning. 

At a guesstimate, only 50 per cent of the published translated materials are   accurate. I have worked with the best translators (meticulous, conscientious, deeply experienced)  in the country, and on average their works are only 85 per cent correct.

Fourth, Cambodia has,  until recently, relied on oral traditions.  Formal education was very late in coming.

For example, only 144 Cambodians had completed the baccalaureate (high-school diploma) by 1954, and there was no tertiary education in the whole country.

Fifth, all the above difficulties are contextualised by a Cambodia that has been mummified by 90 years of French colonialism and broken by years of Cold War instability: civil war, followed by genocide, occupation and now autocracy.

The current political leadership believes theoretically in education but lacks understanding of what education requires in practical terms.

It’s a leadership that keeps the population thinking only of survival, leaving little room for such things as clear communication, quality educat-ion, civility and social and national development.

3.  Written structure:  This makes for difficulty in communicating, even without   the added technical issue of typing and layout.  Written Khmer has words running into one another; the spacing of words and phrases is at    the discretion of the writer    or typist, and there are few standard guidelines.

It has no proper nouns, and  very limited punctuation – effectively only the period (khan), the question mark (often used with the khan), the double quotation mark, which vacillates between French and English versions, and the colon (again, vacillating between French and English versions and sometimes creating confusion, as the English colon is exactly like    a Khmer vowel).

If used at all, the comma is inserted with great reluctance because its function is not widely understood.

4. Typing Khmer: Two competing systems exist for typing Khmer: the pictorial system and the Unicode system.

By way of illustration, the act of typing “A” in the old (but still prevalent) pictorial system requires three keystrokes, as one is effectively drawing a picture of the “A”.

Consequently, the pictorial system is not conducive to searches and the internet.  The Unicode (universal) system allows for searches and internet usage, but presents more problems in doing layout for publication, with the “hair” and “feet” of the vowels and words jumping all over the page.

Why am I listing these lang-uage woes, which are really only the tip of the iceberg?  Because language is the foundation of education, which is the foundation of ideas, deep thoughts and clear thinking.

And because language is the foundation of communicat-ion, which is the foundation of relationships, which is the foundation of flourishing humanity, which is the foundation of societal well-being, which is the foundation of national development.

I see a lot of Cambodians who are unable to communicate clearly and precisely. I see a society lacking a veh-icle to communicate ideas and to build on them.

The key for all the woes we experience in present-day Cambodia – from educational failings to human-rights abuses – is missing. Or, if      not missing, it is broken.  

And that key is a living language.

Theary C Seng is the founding president of CIVICUS: the Centre for Cambodian Civic Education.


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