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A story of hope for Indigenous culture and language in Cambodia

Indigenous communities in Cambodia often face multi-faceted challenges to educate their children owing to a lack of appropriate primers. Photo: CARE Cambodia

Indigenous communities in Cambodia often face multi-faceted challenges to educate their children owing to a lack of appropriate primers. Photo: CARE Cambodia

Nang Chhok* is nine years old. She attends a multilingual primary school in the O’chum district, Ratanakiri province, in Cambodia, where she learns in both Khmer and her Indigenous Krueng language.

“Kreung people have some special traditions and activities,” she says. “We do ceremonies like rice offerings, village offerings, special weddings, and Kreung New Year. When we have these events, everyone in my village plays traditional music like Gong, Chapey Klok, Tror, and wears traditional clothes.”

Cambodia is home to 24 minority language groups. For many young Indigenous people, these types of traditions have been relegated to their home and community lives but excluded from their official educations since they speak their own Indigenous languages, but many do not have good command over the national language, Khmer.

However, for Nang and many other Indigenous children who are taking part in programs like CARE’s Education and Work project, that’s changing.

"When I grow up, I want to become a teacher. I'll teach the children in my village to read and write both Kreung and Khmer languages, just like I do. They'll have good work in the future too!" says Nang. Photo: Phal Chansathya/CARE

CARE’s program primarily focuses on bridging the gaps in multilingual education by ensuring inclusive education for Indigenous people. This approach recognizes that many children in remote areas come from communities that speak languages other than Khmer, and, given this language barrier, ethnic minority students often drop out or never enroll at state schools.

As a result, they’re often unable to find suitable jobs, access government services, exercise their rights, or become eligible for benefits.

Sopheak’s story

“If I graduate and return home to teach in my mother tongue,” Sopheak, an Indigenous teacher trainee, says. “I will feel proud. I think I can help develop our community and preserve our culture and language. It is important that we do not forget our own language and cultural identity.”

One of the reasons Sopheak took up teaching was to help create more learning opportunities for the future generation. Photo: Katherine Hawtin/CARE

Sopheak is from one of the largest indigenous groups in Cambodia, the Bunong.

As a child, Sopheak had difficulty understanding textbooks, lectures, and instructions in Khmer, a language that seemed foreign to him. Khmers are the largest ethnic group in Cambodia, comprising around 90% of the total population.

“Back when I was in school, our teacher was Khmer, so we only used the Khmer language. At first, when I started school, I found it very difficult, I only knew Bunong, so I couldn’t understand my teacher very well, and I was afraid to speak up in the class,” says Sopheak.

CARE’s multilingual curriculum covers early childhood and primary education, as these years are crucial for a child’s mental development. Photo: CARE Cambodia

Mother tongue

“I think there will be more students coming to school if I teach them in our language because they can use whichever language they feel most comfortable speaking,” says Mean, an Indigenous Jarai teacher trainee from Ratanak Kiri, Cambodia.


Mean, a teacher trainee from Ratanak Kiri, sees multilingual education as pivotal in “protecting, promoting, and advancing cultural identity.” Photo: Katherine Hawtin/CARE

CARE’s work with Indigenous communities in Cambodia for many years, including over 20 in education, has shown that learning in their own languages allows children to interact more effectively and learn better.

And once on this path, they are more likely to continue their education beyond primary school. A CARE evaluation from 2019, for example, showed that 87% of the students of Ratnak Kiri, mostly girls [whose first language was not Khmer], dropped out after finishing primary education.

CARE Cambodia plays a critical role in supporting the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport in its efforts to improve the quality of education. As a technical advisor, CARE Cambodia provides support to the Ministry to implement its policies and programs aimed at enhancing the teaching and learning of mother tongue-based multilingual education.

CARE’s success has already seen the approach adopted by the Cambodian government and replicated in state schools across the country’s northeast region.

As part of CARE’s continuing endeavor, CARE, in collaboration with UNICEF, conducts Professional Certificate courses on Multilingual Education that prepares teachers to address cultural, cognitive, and linguistic diversity. The course is designed to recognize, support, and promote the professional, cultural, and social status of multilingual education teachers.


The MLE program can help students “not to forget their Indigenous language and not to give up on education,” says Mean. Photo: Phal Chansathya/CARE

“I like that I can speak to my friends at school in Kreung; we talk about lessons together, play during breaks, and use the same language, which makes us happy,” says Nang. “And it makes it easier to talk to each other!”

“We also learn in Khmer and I like how our teacher explains things clearly. Reading, speaking, and writing in Khmer is good too! I enjoy reading books in Khmer and learning about the culture and traditions of the Khmer people.”

CARE Cambodia provides technical support to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport in the implementation of its policies and programs aimed at enhancing the teaching and learning of mother tongue-based multilingual education. This story is presented in celebration of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. 

*Name changed

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