By Robert Carmichael
PHNOM PENH, Jan 13, 2010 (IPS) - One of Cambodia’s oldest languages – S’aoch – appears headed for extinction in the next decade. Other languages spoken by its minority people are lining up to take the place of the 6,000-year-old language in the most endangered category.
Dr Jean-Michel Filippi, a linguist who has studied the S’aoch language for a decade, has recorded 4,000 words of S’aoch and is preparing to write a grammar for the language. But even he holds out no hope for it. That is because just 10 people in a small village in southern Cambodia speak S’aoch fluently, and none of them uses it in daily conversation.
Filippi says the imminent extinction of S’aoch means his efforts to preserve something of it are critical. "That is because a language is a unique vision of the world," he says. "It’s very specific and a very peculiar classification of reality."
According to the United Nations’ cultural body the world’s remarkable diversity of 6,700 languages is dying out at the rate of one every fortnight. By the end of this century just half will remain, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) warns on its website.
The work done by linguists like Filippi to document dying languages is important for a number of reasons. Filippi says that long after it is gone, a language could have uses in diverse areas such as commerce, psychology or artificial intelligence. A case in point, he says, is Navajo, the Native American language that was used by U.S. forces in World War II in the Pacific to encrypt radio transmissions, and whose story was popularised in the film ‘Windtalkers’.
Blaise Kilian, joint programme coordinator of UNESCO in Phnom Penh, says there is inevitably more than one reason for language death. The most obvious is that too few people are fluent.
"But you also have the environment and the way people themselves – especially the new generation – react to the changing environment," says Kilian. "And how much they are interested in preserving and transmitting their own language."
Filippi says the imminent demise of S’aoch has less to do with the low numbers of people who speak it, and much more to do with the attitude of the people themselves.
"Survival depends on one thing: Does the minority want to protect and save its own culture?" he asks. In the case of the S’aoch, he adds, that desire is lacking.
That is because after the murderous Khmer Rouge regime was driven from power in Cambodia in 1979, the S’aoch people found themselves unable to return to their original village. Instead they settled in a village called Samrong Loeu near the port town of Sihanoukville in the country’s south.
But without fields to work, they faced enormous difficulties. Filippi says the impoverished S’aoch now aspire to the lifestyles enjoyed by their relatively wealthy Khmer neighbours, who have fields, motorbikes and houses. And so they have put their own language and customs behind them and adopted the language of the majority Khmer population.
"When you are put in a position of economic inferiority, you tend to reject your own culture," Filippi says. That rejection has gone so far that Filippi struggles to get the surviving S’aoch even to recall their folk tales or religious ceremonies.
The case of S’aoch is not unique to Cambodia, which UNESCO estimates has 19 endangered languages. Others in trouble include Somray and Poa, with around 300 speakers each, Samre, with 400 speakers, and So’ong, with 500 speakers.
But even minority languages with just a few hundred speakers face distinctly different outcomes. Filippi says the Somray language of south-western Cambodia is likely to survive several more decades at least even though it has just a few hundred speakers.
That is because the animist religion of the Somray requires that prayers are accurately rendered in their own language to be effective, a compelling reason for the villagers to ensure their children grow up fluent.
Some languages are much more widely spoken, such as Tampuon, P’nong, Kuong and Jarai, each of which has up to 30,000 speakers living in the country’s north and north-east. Provided their communities back the effort, the chances of language survival are much higher.
Kilian says the first step to revitalizing a language is to determine its chances of being saved, and then create an orthography – a specific writing system – for educational materials. Those materials can then be used in education programmes.
In the case of Cambodia, some of that educational work is carried out by non-government organisations such as International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC) and Care International.
ICC has produced highly regarded books in minority languages, some of which Care uses in a bilingual school programme that was started in 2003. ICC also runs adult literacy programmes and records folk tales and other cultural aspects of minority life in the country’s long-neglected north-east.
Ron Watt, Care’s education adviser, says the bilingual schools education programme now has 128 teachers using four languages and teaching in 25 schools. Last year around 1,900 children were enrolled, almost half of them girls.
"The education ministry is very keen on this and now they are replicating it, with three more schools set to open next year," he says.
Under the bilingual education system, children in Grade 1 use their own language for 80 percent of classes, with the rest of instruction undertaken in Khmer. The proportion of minority languages used drops over the following two years, and by the time Grade 4 begins, all teaching is in Khmer.
Watt admits that the programme is not perfect.
"People with a language development bent would say that this isn’t a classic language maintenance model, let alone a language development model," he says, explaining that he would prefer to see instruction in minority languages continue after Grade 3. But the current programme is "much, much better than doing nothing."
UNESCO’s Kilian says the Cambodian government seems broadly receptive to preserving cultural aspects of the country’s heritage, likely in part because of their tourism value. He points out that Cambodia is known to tourists for Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge, but little else. That means ensuring its cultural diversity is sensible.
But no matter what efforts are taken, Cambodia will certainly have lost some of its languages by the end of the century. For the doomed languages there is little that linguists can do other than record as much as possible of the language, folk tales and customs so that when tongues like S’aoch eventually die, something of what they represented still remains.