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ABC Radio Australia

Live Radio Panel Discussion on this commentary

A Language in Crisis

2:30 p.m. Friday, 28 Aug. 2011

. . .


A Language in Crisis

By Theary C. SENG


The Cambodian language is dying: the spoken language is either crude and earthy (to the point of offensiveness) or highly stylized (to the point of incomprehension); the written language is in crisis from carelessness and lack of development, mummified from antiquity, rattled by modernity.

And no one is doing anything about it.

Here, I am not speaking as a linguist, which I am not; nor am I speaking as a lawyer, which I am. (Both professions parse language for clarity.)

I am not even speaking as someone who is fluent, but only proficient, in speaking her native tongue. However, I am speaking as someone who has been acutely observing communication in the Khmer language for at least the past seven years, both spoken and written, and who is aghast at the state of affairs.

Here are some general observations which should cause great concern for Cambodian educators and leaders:

1. SPOKEN KHMER: The prevailing use (by both adults and children alike) of crude, offensive language—“aign” for I/me, “haign” for you, “veer” for him/her/them (when its correct use is for “it”), “phoeum” for pregnancy (when the word is reserved for animals), and the myriad cuss words, many of sexual crassness which I cannot even write, etc.—needs to stop. More than impolite, it’s dehumanizing.

The matter careens to the opposite extreme in formal setting where the spoken Khmer is so stylized and antiquated that comprehension is lost on the listeners. The speaker takes more pleasure in using big words than communicating his/her message; sometimes, I wonder if the speaker him/herself understands what s/he is saying.

2. WRITTEN GENERALLY: The current written Khmer language is a nightmare with great limitations for communicating complex ideas. The written Khmer lacks clarity.

First, there lacks a modern, comprehensive Khmer dictionary incorporating new words and uniform spelling. For example, “Sida", “Aids”, “Hiv”, “Untac” are used as words without understanding their background as deriving from foreign acronyms and their full meaning.

Second, there lacks a modern, comprehensive Khmer-English (vice-versa) dictionary to accommodate the barrage of material being produced from translation, as many new thoughts and documents are first written in English and not originated in Khmer. Much of the translated works have not been seriously reviewed for accuracy nor for comprehension; thus, much gibberish are entering the public square, which oftentimes create more confusion than learning.

To guesstimate, on average only 50 percent of the published translated materials are accurate; I have worked with the best translators (meticulous, conscientious, deeply experienced) in the country, and on average their works are only 85 percent correct. On top of that, for those reading these translated materials, deduct another 25-30 percent from comprehension, as they are reading the Khmer text without the aid of the English original.

Third, Cambodia has been, until recently, relying on oral traditions. Formal education had been very late in coming. For example, according to historian Ben Kiernan, only 144 Cambodians had completed the baccalaureate (high school diploma) by 1954, with no tertiary education in the whole country.  Prof. Steinberg put the figure higher at approx. 5,000.  The point remains: broad formal education only came after Cambodia's independence in Nov. 1953 (or for non-Sihanoukists, in 1954 at the signing of the Agreement).

Fourth, all the above difficulties are contextualized by a Cambodia which has been mummified by 90 years of French colonialism and broken by years of Cold War instability: civil war, followed by genocide, occupation, and now autocracy.

The current political leadership believes theoretically in education but lacks understanding of what education requires in practical terms; it is a leadership which keeps the population thinking only of survival, leaving little room for any other thoughts, e.g., clear communication, quality education, civility, human flourishing, social and national development.

Related, we are currently a society which values form over substance.

3. WRITTEN STRUCTURE: The Khmer written structure makes for difficulty in communicating, even without the added technical issues of typing and layout. Written Khmer has words running into each other; the spacing of words and phrases are at the discretion of the writer/typist, with little standard guidelines.

It has no proper nouns, with very limited punctuation—effectively only the period (khan), question mark (often times used with the khan), the double quotation marks (“s”, but not ‘s’) vacillating between the French and English versions, and the colons (again, vacillating between the French and English versions, sometimes creating confusion as the English colon is exactly like a Khmer vowel, srak).

If used at all, the comma is inserted with great reluctance or inconfidence because its function is not widely understood.

4. TYPING KHMER: Currently, two competing systems exist for typing Khmer – the pictorial system (best exemplified by Limon) and the Unicode system. By way of illustration, the act of typing “A” in the old (but still prevalent) pictorial system requires three key strokes, as one is effectively drawing a picture of the “A”. Consequently, the pictorial system is not conducive to searches and the internet.

The Unicode (universal) system allows for searches and internet usage, but presents more problems in doing layout for publication with all the “hair” and “feet” of the vowels and words jumping all over the page. One almost needs another pair of hands with another set of fingers to type Khmer in any of the two systems. Additionally, there is little harmonization of the fonts within each system, as well as little harmonization between the systems to each other.

And on some computers, saving a word document to transfer from one computer to another can lead to words and phrases mixing into gibberish nonsense, a phenomenon we, at CIVICUS Cambodia, encountered recently in saving, transferring, printing a draft Khmer curriculum we have been working on for a workshop in Siem Reap!).

Why Does It Matter?

Why am I listing these language woes, which are really only the tip of the iceberg? Because language is the foundation of education, which is the foundation of ideas and deep thoughts and clear thinking.

And because language is the foundation of communication, which is the foundation of relationship, which is the foundation of human flourishing, which is the foundation of societal well-being, which is the foundation of national development.

I see a lot of frustrated Cambodians due to their inability to communicate clearly and precisely. I see a society lacking a vehicle to communicate ideas and to build on ideas for deeper thoughts and clearer thinking.

The key is missing for all the woes we are experiencing in current-day Cambodia—from educational failing to human rights abuses. Or, if not missing, the key is broken.

And that key is a living language.

Theary C. SENG
, Founding President
CIVICUS: Center for Cambodian Civic Education

. . .






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