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School Fights Language Loss in US

Buddhist monks and educators in San Jose, Calif., have noted a growing concern in Khmer communities regarding the loss of the Khmer language in the US and the linkage it offers to Cambodian culture and traditions.

A community of Cambodian volunteers has been running the Cambodian Literacy School of San Jose for 20 years to prevent this.

The school aims to bring Cambodian children back to their cultural roots and encourage them towards education and better communication with their parents, through language lessons and cultural programs.

Kas Thon, a senior teacher and adviser, has helped transform the Khmer Literacy School with a new structure. He said the projects are now designed to provide services that bridge the intergenerational gap between Cambodian parents and their children.

“Since early 1989, we have been serving hundreds of Cambodian and non-Cambodian students, aged 7 to late twenties, throughout the county of Santa Clara. When we first started, we had 300 students, and we did not have enough rooms for them. We opened another location. Parents, with continuous support, kept bringing children to classes regularly.”

The program begins with speaking and listening activities based on experiences with which children are familiar. Reading is introduced through simple stories that feature familiar situations. Exploring words and letters leads to the beginnings of writing.

The school is run by a team of Cambodian teachers, parents and volunteers and offers free literacy classes every Saturday, from 10 am to noon for children, and 10 am to 1 pm for adults. The school is located at the Tull Community Branch Library and at the Khmer Buddhist Temple of Khemara Rangsey in San Jose.

Srey Tha came to the US in 1989 at the age of 16. She did not know how to read or write Khmer when she lived in Cambodia. Srey Tha now brings her 17-year-old daughter to the Khmer Literacy School every Saturday, and she has learned to read and write herself.

“I have come to this school for more than four years,” she said. “Now I can read and write Khmer. I want my daughter to speak and read Khmer and learn Khmer culture and traditions.”

Sambun Boun, a volunteer teacher, said his class has three different levels. Some students can read and write, some can only spell words, and others have just begun.

“I want the students to make more progress in learning Khmer,” he said. “We, the teachers, will have a program to meet the parents of students. We will explain to them that they to be involved; they can make a difference. If children see the mother and father reading and writing Khmer on a daily basis, they tend to do that, too.”

Many Cambodian children transition to using English and attain only limited skills in Khmer, becoming less interested in traditional activities. Many children and young adults are beginning to lose their mother tongue.

Meanwhile, generational differences and conflict in language use often develop in the homes, as children use English and their parents and grandparents speak Khmer, diminishing their ability to communicate with each other.