20.02.2013 -

Celebration of International Mother Language Day, 21 February 2013

@ICC - An indigenous man reading in his own ethnic language

If you are reading this, you are one of the 1.3 billion people who use English as a first or second language. Nonetheless, International Mother Language Day, is celebrated annually to remind us of the importance of all languages. This celebration promotes linguistic diversity and multilingual education and raises awareness of the importance of mother tongue education. While Khmer is the official national language of Cambodia and spoken by more than 95 per cent of the population, there are in total around 20 different languages spoken in the country.

The mother tongue is the foundation of cognitive development. Through it, we develop a sense of self and begin to explore the world. Children who are compelled to learn in a language that is neither their mother tongue nor a language they understand are educationally disadvantaged; they are more likely to repeat grades and less likely to go on to higher education. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is also the right of children of minority communities and indigenous populations to use their own language.

UNESCO and UNICEF with other partners promote bilingual and multilingual approaches in education so that children and youth can learn in their mother-tongue – an important factor for enhancing inclusion and quality in education. Past research shows that mother-tongue-based bilingual and multilingual education has a positive impact on learning outcomes for learners. We are supporting the Royal Government of Cambodia to develop a strategy for quality and inclusive basic education for all and to provide culturally relevant learning materials in the languages of the community. In addition, we provide technical assistance to develop educational policies and practices.

Cambodia is now working towards including ethnic minority languages in community education, which enables children and adults who do not speak the national language at home to access to education and to build bridges between the different ethnic groups in the country. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MOEYS) has supported several efforts to provide mother-tongue based bilingual education in the country throughout the last decade. These include the Non-Formal Education programmes in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri through the work of NGOs as well as primary bilingual education in cooperation with CARE through Highland Children’s Education Project (HCEP). To date, the Ministry has approved orthographies in five languages - Krung, Tampuan, Brao, Kavet and Bunong languages. In accordance with the bilingual education guidelines adopted by UNICEF in 2010, UNICEF, in partnership with CARE, has supported MOEYS in the material development, teacher training and implementation of bilingual education for both pre-primary and primary school levels in Bunong, Krung, Tampuan, Kavet and Kouy languages. To date, bilingual education package has been implemented in 20 community preschools and 34 primary schools, improving access and quality of learning for minority children in five provinces, Kratie, Mondulkiri, Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri, and Stung Treng. With these remarkable achievements mother-tongue based bilingual education is reaching minority groups who are in great need of education services.

The UNESCO global theme for the day this year is “Books for Mother Tongue Education”. Ms. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO states, “Books are a force for peace and development that must be placed in the hands of all. They are also crucial tools for expression that help to enrich languages, while recording their changes over time. In this age of new technologies, books remain precious instruments, easy to handle, sturdy and practical for sharing knowledge, mutual understanding and opening the world to all.”

As one of the example, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, in cooperation with International Cooperation in Cambodia (ICC) and UNESCO, developed a Bilingual Education Picture Dictionary in Brao language in 2011. The dictionary is being used in primary schools and non-formal learning centers in Ratanakiri where the majority of the people do not use Khmer at home. Ms. Van You a 17-year-old community librarian in Veang Chan village in Ratanakiri has witnessed its benefits. “Thanks to the dictionary with pictures”says Van You, “it is much easier and fun to translate words from Brao to Khmer and Khmer to Brao. The dictionary helps and encourages community people to read and write in their own languages”.*

It is estimated that almost half of over 6,000 languages used worldwide are in danger of disappearing. Because language is so strongly linked to culture, losing a language also implies the disappearance of a means of expression. Bilingual education is one way to maintain the cohesiveness of indigenous peoples' communities and their traditional linguistic and cultural practices. Mother language instruction is not only a right, but a powerful way to give voice and freedom of expression for the marginalized populations.

We call on the Royal Government of Cambodia and international development partners working in the field of education to accelerate their efforts in bilingual education to open up quality learning opportunities for all Cambodian people.

Anne Lemaistre, Representative of UNESCO Cambodia

Rana Flowers, Representative of UNICEF Cambodia

* The dictionary and UNESCO Advocacy Kit for Promoting Multilingual Education in Khmer and English on the UNESCO Phnom Penh Office website. http://www.unesco.org/phnompenh


<- Back to: UNESCO Office in Phnom Penh
Back to top