The Highland Community Education programme in Ratanakiri province has been running since 2002 by CARE International, with some government support.
The bilingual method of teaching not only ensures local children retain their ethnic mother tongue, but also help them gain proficiency in the national Khmer language.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Jan Noorlander, program coordinator for CARE International Cambodia
NOORLANDER: In the north-east of Cambodia, many children belong to an ethnic minority group, and they don't speak the national language of Cambodia, Khmer. So when they go to a state school, they will meet a state school teacher who only speaks Khmer, and when they go into a class room and the teacher starts teaching in Khmer, and these children have no idea what the teacher's talking about.
So in our bilingual model, we start with the mother tongue of the children - so they go to school in their own village, and they're met by a teacher from the village, from their own ethnic group. For example, a Tampuen child will go to grade one, and in grade one, when it starts, the teacher is a Tampuen teacher. At the end of grade one, we start introducing the Khmer language, the national language. And in grade two, we increase the level of instruction in Khmer, and we decrease the mother tongue in the curriculum.
LAM: In other words, you're gradually easing the children into the Khmer language?
NOORLANDER: That is correct, but we keep their own mother tongue as well, because when they start learning more abstract things, it's very complicated for them to understand that in a second language. Therefore, we keep using the mother tongue for three years. Only until they go to grade four, will they be taught completely in the Khmer language.
LAM: There are many different ethnic groups in Ratanakiri province, many of whom as you've pointed out, do not speak or write Khmer. How do you ensure fair learning, that no one ethnic group is missing out? Are all the ethnic groups covered?
NOORLANDER: Now, there's a challenge, because when we started the programme, only five languages of five enthnic groups had been written down, and there are many more, at least ten more. And it takes a long time to write down the scripts for these groups. So at the moment, we have these five officially-approved languages of the (Education) ministry, textbooks and schools for five languages only - so there's still more work to be done.
LAM: Are you seeing your project bear fruit - are you turning out a new generation of educated youths from Ratanakiri province?
NOORLANDER: Yes, I can say that. First of all, we're seeing many more children go through schools. We've started projects in areas where there were no formal education. Now, children are going to secondary school and a very small group is already going onto tertiary education, at teacher training college. Another very impact is that after a number of years, the Ministry of Education in Cambodia was very impressed with the results, and they've taken over the model. So they're now scaling up this model into four other provinces.
LAM: And your programme is also heavily focussed on girls as well, to ensure they don't miss out. Can you tell us about that?
NOORLANDER: Yes, research shows that girls benefit alot from bilingual education because girls more than boys are restricted more to staying at home, so they're less in contact with other people who speak other languages. Boys are more in contact with other language groups. So when they go to school, they benefit especially from bilingual education. Another issue is that girls in a cultural context in north-eastern Cambodia, they're quite shy, because it's promoted by elders for the girls to be shy. So the girls have a lower self-esteem. So if they're able to speak in their own language, the teachers and especially the female teachers, they feel much more comfortable, and we can see that their results are much better as well.
It's also important that they (the girls) don't migrate away from their own area, but that they stay and come back after tertiary education, and help their own communities, which they're very keen to do. And the Ministry of Education is keen to deploy them again in their own communities because they are very good role models, and well-equipped to be teaching in their own community. We have seen also girls take up positions in local government. Like recently, we had the first female commune police officer, who has gone through this (bilingual) programme and who is now working in her own commune as a police officer.
LAM: And how have local communities responded to this bilingual education?
NOORLANDER: The programme works very closely with the indigenous elders, and they're involved in the programme by organising to build the schools, they've been giving advice on the textbooks we produce, they're selecting the teachers who're teaching in the schools, they look after the attendance of the children in their schools. And by working closely with them, you get the sustainable results. The schools are owned by the community and they have been playing a very important role in these schools.