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Losing our mother tongue

Losing our mother tongue

130208 17
Language shift: even primary-school children are embracing English. Photograph: Nina Loacker/Phnom Penh Post

When writing in foreign languages such as English, French or Chinese, Cambodians pay careful attention to grammar and phrasing. Some even carry a dictionary with them and constantly refer to it.

But when writing in Khmer, which is their native tongue, no one seems to care about accuracy. Even if the dictionary of Patriarch Chuon Nat is installed on their computer, they never bother to open it.

This is presumably because they think they know everything there is to know about the Khmer language. But is using a Khmer dictionary such a bad thing?

Some countries in the ASEAN community are experiencing a similar trend and are trying to halt it.

The Thai government has voiced concern that children attending international schools, or schools in which only English is used, often cannot write and speak Thai properly. Some even choose not to speak Thai at all.

On official documents and in the school curriculum, dates, months and years are still determined according to the Thai solar calendar, indicating the Thais care about their traditions and their mother tongue.

In Indonesia, the government has announced that the teaching of English in primary schools must cease from July this year. This step is being taken solely to strengthen the national language.

Although there is no English program in Cambodian primary schools, a lot of private schools use only English.

Today’s Khmer parents are apparently quite happy to hear their children speaking English more than their native tongue.

Some are proud of how well their children speak English, but they rarely say their children are good at the Khmer language.

Is this because English is popular in society, just as French was during King Sihanouk’s era?

Sometimes they begin with English instead of Khmer, such as “Hello, everybody!” rather than saying Som chumreap suor lok, lok srey, lok pou, neak ming, bang ph’oun taing aohs khnea chea ty rab an (“Hello, ladies and gentlemen”; “Hello, uncle and aunt”; “Hello, dear friends”).

Some young people seemingly pretend to be unable to speak their mother tongue. Listening to them is an affront to one’s ears.

This attitude of trying to ignore their own language is the opposite of that displayed by children of immigrants, who are trying to learn Khmer and practise it so they can speak, read, write and listen very well.

Sometimes, this trend offends the eyes as well as the ears. Khmer people working for private companies and NGOs often write official letters to state institutions purely in English.

Government officials should return such letters to the senders with a note encouraging them to write in Khmer, or simply refuse to accept them.

Several factors make it unlikely that young Cambodians will improve their command of the mother tongue:

  1. Fewer documents for study and research are published in Khmer than in English. The situation is different in Thailand and Vietnam, as the government employs teams to translate such documents into their own language for students.
  2. Tardiness in disseminating new terms, in addition to deficiencies in the Khmer dictionary of Patriach Chuon Nat, which contains only about 20,000 words. (According to Dr Vong Meng, director of monitoring and inspection at the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s National Council of Khmer Language, the council is compiling a new dictionary that will expand and update the work of Patriarch Chuon Nat. It will contain more than 40,000 words.)
  3. Carelessness in reading and writing Khmer by some people who have never really acquired the habit of reading.
  4. The vocabulary of some local Khmer-language newspapers is very limited, and there are many mis-spellings, so some people choose to read English-language papers instead.
  5. Job markets are widely open to foreign languages, and some companies or organisations use English, French, or Chinese in job advertisements.

This prompts some people to learn foreign languages so they will have better employment opportunities.

In short, learning foreign languages — particularly English, as it is used globally— is a good thing, especially when it comes to the ASEAN community’s integration by 2015.

Each of us tries hard to learn English like the people of Singapore, a tiny country that is campaigning for English education in the interests of economic growth and an even higher international profile.

Singapore, however, doesn’t have its own language. Its population is made up of many races, with Chinese the majority. This is quite different from Cam-bodia, which has a single mother tongue.

Khmer citizens must know the national language clearly, in both oral and written form, to ensure it survives.


Tong Soprach is a social-affairs columnist for the Post's Khmer edition.

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