Cambodia plans to expand the number of multilingual pre-schools from 55 to 64 and primary schools from 80 to 108 by the end of 2018, Minister of Education, Youth and Sports Hang Choun Naron announced yesterday in Kratie province.
About 1.5 per cent of the Kingdom’s population belongs to indigenous groups who speak 24 different ethnic minority languages.
Multilingual education allows children who don’t speak the national language to learn in their native language and gradually transition into Khmer. It was first introduced in some classrooms in 2003, and about 5,500 students currently benefit from such education.
Under the expansion, officials expect to reach 10,000 students by the end of 2018, with the number of trained teachers doubling to 300 during that time period.
The expansion will mainly target the northeastern provinces, such as Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri, Stung Treng, Kratie and Preah Vihear, where a large percentage of the population is from an ethnic minority, according to officials.
Experts, such as Jan Noorlander, with CARE Cambodia, said the government was taking a positive step, but needed to be cautious with the expansion.
“With a large scale, there’s always the risk of loss of quality,” he said on Monday.
Sourn Butmao, executive director of the Minority Rights Organization, applauded the expansion.
“It is a good step for ethnic minority and indigenous minority [students] to understand both their mother tongue and Khmer language, and reach a [good] understanding of the Khmer culture, civilization, and current situation in Cambodia through reading and listening,” he said via email from Bangkok.
Prom Jeab, a 37-year-old from Mondulkiri with three of five children in school, said he has seen the benefits of such education.
“We are able to preserve our language, because we speak our language to our children at home,” he said.
Teachers are able to help his children in school when they don’t fully understand something in Khmer, he added.
Currently, the ethnic language is phased out by fourth grade, but studies have shown that it’s better to delay the phase-out until sixth grade, which was among one of three recommendations made by CARE Cambodia to government officials, Noorlander said.
A pilot program doing just that will be implemented in four schools in Ratanakkiri province, he said.
But delaying the phase-out for every student in multilingual education would mean that more teachers and more schools would be needed. That would be a challenge considering Cambodia’s $10 million annual budget to build new schools, said Education Minister Chuon Naron.
Another recommendation by CARE is to increase the number of minority languages taught. At the moment, only five ethnic minority languages are currently used in the country’s multilingual education program.
So far, two more have been approved, Noorlander said.