Monday, June 15, 2015

Language can unlock access to education. Here’s how.

By Anna Nordenrot and Martina Tomassini

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Anna Nordenrot
Long Sreynet, 13,  attends the UNICEF-supported Multilingual Education Programme at Sangkom Primary School, in Kratie province.


KRATIE, Cambodia, 15 June 2015 – It is early morning; Kratie is just waking up. Villagers are getting ready for their day, fetching water and preparing breakfast. In the surrounding green fields, cows and water buffalos are quietly grazing, ignoring the morning hustle and bustle coming from the roads nearby. Inside the houses, children are getting ready to go to school. So is 13-year-old Long Sreynet.


© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Anna Nordenrot
By the east side of the Mekong River lies Sangkom village, in Kratie province, where schools have started implementing multilingual education.

In Kratie province the majority of the population are Bunong, an ethnic minority who do not speak Khmer, Cambodia’s national language. Sreynet is one of them. “In the past I could not attend school because all classes were in Khmer and I could only speak very little of it, so I was afraid I would not understand,” she says. Today she is one of the 79 students attending Sangkom Primary School, where classes are taught both in Bunong and in Khmer.  

“Before coming to this school, I mostly spoke Bunong but I could not write it. Now I can speak Bunong and Khmer and I can even write in both languages!” explains Sreynet. Located in Sangkom village, the school has been running a Multilingual Education Programme (MLE) for almost three years. This programme allows students to learn both in Khmer and in their mother tongue from Grade 1 to 3, before they switch to Khmer-only education. 

 © UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Anna Nordenrot
Long Sreynet, 13, with her cousin Boun Sokphoas, 12, reading in her multilingual education class in Sangkom village, Kratie province.

 “Because this school started teaching in Bunong less than three years ago, I am only in Grade 3,” explains Sreynet. She says she really likes going to school and, when asked what her favourite subject is, she replies, “Literature! Both in Bunong and Khmer.” 

In Cambodia, the national curriculum is taught in Khmer and this poses a challenge for the linguistically diverse societies in the north-eastern regions of the country. 

To deal with the learning challenges associated with the 20 ethnic minority groups in Cambodia, CARE piloted the MLE Programme in 2002 – in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MoEYS), The International Corporation Cambodia and UNICEF. Since then, MoEYS has expanded the programme, which is now active in five provinces: Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Preah Vihear, Stung Treng and Kratie.

Learning in your own language is important to ensure children’s understanding, prevent marginalization and achieve universal primary education. “I am very happy to be able to learn in both languages. If this school had not opened here, I would not be able to do the things I can today. I would not be able to read, write or see all my friends every day,” Sreynet says happily.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Anna Nordenrot
At Sangkom Primary School in Kratie province children from the Multilingual Education Programme play during their break.

In Kratie’s Sangkom Village, 60 per cent of the population belongs to the Bunong minority, which is the reason why this area was targeted for the MLE Programme. Sreynet is currently attending her last year in the programme (Grade 3); next year she will study fully in Khmer. Her 10-year-old younger brother, Long Near, her best friend and cousin, Boun Sokphoas, 12, are also in the same class. 

Normally students are meant to reach Grade 3 by the time they are 8 years old but, because of lack of education opportunities in Bunong until a few years ago, this has not been the case for Sreynet and her peers.

At home Long Sreynet is the fifth child, and only girl, in a family of eight. She currently lives with her mother, Bun Sao, and her two younger brothers aged 9 and 10 in Sangkom Village, only a 10-minute walk from the school. Life at home is challenging. Her father passed away four years ago; since then Sreynet has had to take on a lot of responsibility at home, while her mother is working collecting cow manure, which she later sells as fertilizer. 

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Anna Nordenrot
Long Sreynet, 13, at home with her mother Bun Sao, 46, and her brother Long Thea, 9 (left), and Long  Near, 10 (right) in Sangkom village, Kratie province.

 “Every day I get up at 4 a.m. to help out with housework. I need to go fetch water from our shared well and cook breakfast. After school I need to help out with lunch and take care of my siblings. Because my mother has to work, I have to be responsible at home,” she explains. When asked if she finds time for her homework, she answers with determination, “Yes. I always do my homework in the evening.” 

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Anna Nordenrot
Long Sreynet, 13, washes the dishes after lunch at her home in Sangkom village, Kratie province.

Being able to attend school has improved Sreynet’s life significantly. Even though there are many challenges ahead, both she and her mother are convinced that, with education now available, she will go far. “When I grow up I want to become a doctor and help other people who are sick. With school now available for me, I believe my dream will come true. If I try to study hard and make it all the way to university, I will be able to transform my life. It will be a struggle but I will do everything I have to do; with the support I get from my teachers and family, it will be possible,” she says.

Even though she has only attended school for little less than three years, Sreynet is making progress really fast. “She has gone from not being able to read and write to being the top performing student in her class,” her teacher, Ms. Hor Dina, explains proudly. Ms. Hor is Bunong herself and grew up without the possibility to study in her mother tongue, so she knows the struggles faced by minority children in school all too well. 

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Anna Nordenrot
Ms. Hor Dina, 23, teaches Grade 3 in the Multilingual Education Programme at Sangkom Primary School, in Kratie province.  

Together with CARE, UNICEF supported the development of teacher training and student learning materials in the five MLE languages approved by MoEYS (Brao, Kavet, Kreung, Bunong and Tampuon). In addition, UNICEF provides support with the initial training on methodology and administration for all new MLE teachers, and all teachers receive quarterly refresher training during the school year. 

To further strengthen the role of MLE teachers, UNICEF provides financial support for them. In Sangkom village, teachers receive an additional 140 000 Riel (approximately USD 35) every month. 

Sreynet is grateful that she has been given the opportunity to learn in Bunong: “Most of my older siblings were not been able to attend school for very long. They only studied until Grade 5 and then dropped out because it was too difficult to learn in Khmer, so they decided to work instead,” she explains. 

The MLE Programme gives children from minority groups a chance to get an education: it creates a bridge for them to be able to take part in the life of the wider community while, at the same time, preserving their own culture and language. Currently more than 4,000 ethnic minority students across Cambodia are benefiting from the programme.

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