Multilingual Education
A special session at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Conference

Abstract for "Learning to Read in Ratanakiri: A Case Study from Northeast Cambodia"

Marilyn J.. Gregerson, Ph.D.
AAA Council on Anthropology and Education
SIL International

The UNESCO program Education for All has been a catalyst in helping educators around the world glimpse the reality of groups of people in their respective countries who do not speak or even understand the national language. These educators who face the task of educating ethnic minority children and adults often make the mistake of assuming that if the students are to eventually become proficient in the national language, they must have all of their education in the national language. However, the study done by Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier in the United States, (1997) School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students, gave incontrovertible evidence that the most successful minority language students spend a period of years doing academic work in their mother tongue.

Attendent at one of the local language village libraries in the province of Ratanakiri
(photo provided by Marilyn Gregerson)

In Ratanakiri province, northeastern Cambodia, the majority of the local people are native speakers of one of several indigenous ethnic minority languages. These people, mostly subsistence farmers, use their own minority language to communicate with other people in their villages. A baseline survey taken in 1998 in five villages showed that more than 95% of the people in those villages could not read and write any language.

Between 1997 and 2003 educational materials were prepared in four of these languages using (whenever possible) symbols for similar sounds in the national language. The paper describes and evaluates the non-formal education program used in Ratanakiri from 1999 and continuing until the present which begins with the mother tongue of the students and leads the students into also learning to read and write Khmer, the national language of Cambodia.