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Bilingual Education Preserves Kam Language

Of the 2.5 million Kam people of China (known inside China as Northern Dong and Southern Dong) about 40 percent speak only Kam, 32 percent speak only Chinese and 28 percent speak both languages. Over the last two decades, Chinese education has taken root in Kam villages and television has become common even in many remote areas. This has prompted a trend for young people to learn Chinese, leave Kam villages and forget Kam. In the 1990s many left Kam villages, fueled by educational opportunities and hopes of better living conditions. This pattern will gradually erode the Kam culture.

Professor Long Yaohong, Vice-Director of the Nationality Languages Department of the Guizhou Institute of Minorities, and one of eight Kam representatives at the Annual People's National Congress in Bejing, was concerned about this tendency. He discussed it with SIL literacy consultants Dr. Dennis Malone and Dr. Susan Malone and conceived the idea of bilingual education among primary school children.

In this creative program, culturally relevant materials were written in the romanized Kam script for pre-school students. Well-trained teachers, selected to teach four classes in Zaidang village as a pilot project, began instruction in September 2000. Parents of preschoolers are enthusiastic over the project, expressing willingness to study Kam themselves so they can help their children.

The spoken Kam language and curriculum form the basis of two years of preschool education. Spoken Chinese will be introduced towards the end of the second year. When students begin primary school, Chinese character writing will be gradually introduced, while Kam will continue as the medium of instruction. By the third year of school, Chinese studies will exceed Kam studies.

The Kam bilingual education program provides an example of how language communities can take steps to keep their languages and cultures from becoming endangered.