Cambodia: Lao minority fight to retain their language
Um Simeng is the only person in her family who doesn’t speak the Khmer language.
“When I need to run an official errand I have to take a translator with me,” says the 55-year-old ethnic Lao woman, resting in the shade beneath a small wooden hut in Kok Lao village, Ratanakiri province. “Usually I take one of my sons.”
In her village, a remote constellation of stilted houses embedded in the jungles of northeastern Cambodia, most people no longer read or write the Lao language. Although both of her grandparents could read and write Lao, she never learned. Lao children cannot study in their native language in Cambodia and Um Simeng fears that over time they will stop speaking it too.
“I really worry about the next generation because when the old people pass away maybe they will not speak Lao anymore,” she says. “There is no Lao school here, so over time maybe fewer and fewer people will speak Lao.”
The script is now only taught at their local pagoda, where it is common for young boys to novitiate as monks. But for girls, there is no such opportunity.
“Among the older generation we all speak Lao together, so this is very important to conserve,” adds her niece, 45-year-old Chan Lorng, who speaks both Khmer and Lao.
“Even though we cannot write the Lao language we still speak it together because we want the next generation to know that we are Lao people – we are originally from Lao.”
Lao people make up roughly 20,000 people among Cambodia’s population of over 15 million. Kok Lao village hosts 94 families, the descendants of ethnic Lao who migrated to modern-day Cambodia over a hundred years ago.
The Lao are among dozens of other minorities and indigenous groups scattered across the country, speaking some 20 languages in total. But the Cambodian government only offers formal education in Cambodia’s official language, Khmer, spoken by 96.3 percent of the population.
UNESCO has warned that 19 minority and indigenous languages face extinction unless swift action is taken to preserve them. During the brutal Khmer Rouge era, minorities were prohibited from speaking their native tongues, accelerating the rate at which Cambodia’s languages have been depleted.
Cambodia’s Lao minority shares the same script and most of the same vocabulary with the dialect spoken in neighbouring Lao PDR. But myriad other minority languages, including Brao, Kreung, Tampuan, Kavet and Phnong, are traditionally oral languages with no written script.
The UN agency has been working with the Cambodian government to protect the country’s rich linguistic heritage and to boost educational opportunities for the non-Khmer population. They currently run three small pilot programmes in five of Cambodia’s northeastern provinces offering bilingual education for indigenous communities.
But Lao is not yet on the curriculum.
“I don’t think the government will offer Lao schools to us, but we really want to conserve our language and alphabet,” says Um Simeng. “We don’t know who can help us. We only have the pagoda.”
Anthropologists agree that the preservation of minority languages is key to understanding the history and cultural evolution of each community – and in some cases could even provide crucial insight into humankind’s early migratory movements throughout Southeast Asia.
“If the Lao language disappears, we will lose our tradition, we will lose our religion, beliefs and culture,” says Um Simeng.
But she has not lost hope.
“Many children still speak Lao at home – they only speak Khmer when they go out,” she says. “So hopefully we can keep the language alive.”
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