Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Bridging the language divide for ethnic minorities in Cambodia – One child’s story

By Anna Nordenrot

©UNICEF Cambodia 2015/Anna Nordenrot
 8-year-old Kreok Cheo in his home village in Mondulkiri province with his MLE-trained teacher Ms. Nhik Pika

MONDULKIRI, Cambodia, 26 May 2015 – There is much that sets Mondulkiri apart from the rest of Cambodia. The province is located in the northeast and, compared to the hectic city life of Phnom Penh, this is a sanctuary. Set in the mountains and surrounded by forests, Mondulkiri is much greener than Cambodia’s more southern provinces.

Here the soil has a deep red color and the air is cooler, providing a comforting break from the otherwise hot climate of Cambodia. Following a long and winding road in the mountains, we reach Pou Trom Primary School in Pou Trom village, Romonea commune. This is a small school: home to only 52 students and three teachers, it provides Multilingual Education (MLE) to Bunong children, an ethnic minority living in the area.

We meet Kreok Cheo at his house. The school is closed today: the teachers are participating in a full-day MLE training organized by CARE and UNICEF. Cheo is 8 years old; as a member of the Bunong ethnic group he does not speak Khmer at home (the official language in Cambodia). He is currently attending Grade 3 of the MLE Programme, which allows students to learn both in Khmer and in their mother tongue from Grade 1 to 3, before they switch to Khmer-only education. 

Cheo has a big family, which consists of 11 people in total. Both his mother and father are farmers; they grow potatoes, rice and bananas and sell them at the town market. Cheo has been part of the MLE Programme since Grade 1, when his mother was informed of its existence by the School Support Committee, a parent-teacher association in the local community. 

©UNICEF Cambodia 2015/Anna Nordenrot
8-year-old Kreok Cheo with his family in Pou Trom village, Mondulkiri province.

He is very happy to be able to go to school and tells me: “I like studying Bunong in school because the Khmer language is difficult for me. I have learned to write in Bunong, which I could not do before, but I am still struggling with Khmer.” Cheo is a very shy boy; he sits close to his mother and brother when I talk to him. He tells us that his class is just like the rest of the school: small. There are only six students in his grade and he is one of two boys. Luckily, though, the other boy is his best friend; during breaks they play Cheo’s favorite game: football. 

Language barriers

The family’s difficulty of not speaking Khmer as their first language becomes clear as we continue to talk; both Cheo and his mother have to be assisted with translation by Cheo’s teacher, Ms. Nhik Pika. Cheo’s father, Kroek Sam, tells us that before starting school Cheo could not understand anything in Khmer. This used to be a problem when the family went travelling and left the village to go elsewhere, where Khmer is the main language spoken. “Before, if we travelled somewhere, he would not be able to communicate with people. Now he can understand when people speak Khmer but he still cannot speak well himself. That’s why it is so good that he can attend the Multilingual Programme,” says his father. 

Cheo’s teacher agrees and stresses that, “It is really good that we have the Multilingual Programme here in our village. Since only 20 per cent of the children in this area speak Khmer at home, school is the best place for them to learn gradually. If they hadn’t this opportunity I believe that many of them would have a hard time participating in the life of the community, and this would ultimately affect their development. We have to keep expanding this programme and encourage ethnic minority students to keep both languages alive.” 

Multilingual education: a bridge between two languages 

The MLE programme was created in 2002 by CARE in collaboration with UNICEF, The International Corporation Cambodia and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MoEYS). In Mondulkiri, the programme has been active since 2006 and is currently conducted in 12 schools, allowing children to learn both in their mother tongue and in Khmer. Students take part in the programme for 3 years before they switch to Khmer-only education. 

“Because they are a minority, many parents do not want their children to study in Bunong and push instead for education to be taught in Khmer only, which is difficult for the children since often they do not understand,” says Mr. Chet Socheat, Chief of Primary Office in Mondulkiri. He continues, “We have to make parents understand that the programme creates an important bridge between the two languages. Most parents fear discrimination because they are Bunong and this is a problem that we have to address. The MLE Programme is one step in the right direction.” 

The positive effects of the MLE Programme become clear when meeting Cheo and his family, and listening to their story. Cheo’s parents tell us that attending school has helped Cheo overcome some language barriers and, even though he needs to keep working hard to improve his Khmer, he is happy. “We believe it is important to support our children to keep studying,” Cheo’s father says. Then he looks at Cheo and says, “I think he can grow up to become a very successful person. School will provide him with a good future.” 

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