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Scholar Who Documented Endangered Cambodian Indigenous Language Gains Recognition


​Dr. Sylvain Vogel is a professor of Sanskrit and linguistics at the Royal University of Fine Arts, and an independent researcher on Bunong language. (Courtesy of Peter Maguire)

Sylvain Vogel, a native French and German speaker who grew up in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, has written and published four books about Bunong.

The stoic professor taught Sanskrit and linguistics some 20 years ago to students who became Cambodia’s most accomplished linguists.

He spent months in Cambodia’s most sparsely-populated province, over a period of years, to document one of the country’s minority languages, Bunong.

Sylvain Vogel, a native French and German speaker who grew up in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, has written and published four books about Bunong while the language’s sustained existence in northeastern Cambodia is threatened by modernization and encroachment by a growing population.

Dr. Sylvain Vogel is talking to Bunong people in Mondulkiri. (Courtesy photo provided by Peter Maguire)
Dr. Sylvain Vogel is talking to Bunong people in Mondulkiri. (Courtesy photo provided by Peter Maguire)

Vogel has spent most of the past 25 years in Cambodia studying, researching and teaching, and helping anchor the fledgling re-birth of a culture of scholarship in this Southeast Asian country following the repressive and anti-intellectual Khmer Rouge rule of the 1970s.

In the 1990s, Vogel worked at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in the linguistics department, where he taught and worked in the classroom with Chan Somnoble and Chhom Kunthea, now two of Cambodia’s top linguists. He began researching the Bunong language in the mid-1990s.

​Today he teaches linguistics and Sanskrit in the archaeology department at the Royal University of Fine Arts and is preparing to travel to Mondulkiri province later this year to spend weeks with the most experienced speakers of the Bunong language.

Vogel’s scholarship and independent research in Cambodia recently received a boost when it was recognized by a US organization. The Fainting Robin Foundation, newly formed to support independent scholars, announced in March that Vogel would be the first recipient of a “distinguished scholar” award.

Chan Somnoble, one of Vogel’s first Cambodian students, is now the deputy director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia and head of the prestigious National Council for Khmer Language.

“He [Vogel] is a resource that is very important to Cambodia,’’ said Somnoble, who earned a PhD in linguistics in 2002 from Université Paris Nanterre.

Dr. Chan Somnoble, deputy President of the Royal Academy of Cambodia and head of National Council for Khmer Language. (Courtesy photo from Facebook)
Dr. Chan Somnoble, deputy President of the Royal Academy of Cambodia and head of National Council for Khmer Language. (Courtesy photo from Facebook)

​In 1998, Somnoble and Vogel began a process to start a master’s program in the linguistics department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The program was launched a couple of years later with Somnoble as its head and Vogel as its program coordinator.

Somnoble said Vogel was demanding of his students.

‘’He made me study linguistics harder until I became who I am today,” said Somnoble, who also fondly recalled 25 years ago teaching Khmer-language grammar to Vogel. ‘’I am very happy to be his student, being taught by him.”

Vogel was slightly intimidating as a teacher, Kunthea recalls.

“When he entered the class, no one dared move or talk,” recalled Kunthea, who earned a doctorate in linguistics last year in France and is now the director of the Preah Norodom Sihanouk Museum in Siem Reap. “I liked his classes, both linguistics and Sanskrit, because he explained the lectures clearly. When we did not understand, we asked him, and he tried to explain until we fully understood.’’

Kunthea attributed her enthusiasm for linguistics and the study of Sanskrit to Vogel’s instruction. She credited him for helping secure her a place on a master’s course in India. She continued to study Sanskrit at one of the top research universities in France, École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, becoming the first Cambodian since the Khmer Rouge era to earn a PhD in Sanskrit.

“[Sanskrit] is God’s language,’’ Kunthea told VOA Khmer in a recent phone interview. ‘’It explains or advises people a lot about Dharma. In addition, the language is special for the Khmer language because it is related to the Khmer language for thousands of years. [We] should know both Khmer and Sanskrit to fully understand our Khmer history.”

Vogel arrived in Cambodia in 1991 to work with the French Embassy. He earlier had spent more than 10 years conducting research and studying Pashto in Afghanistan. He earned a PhD in linguistics at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1984.

After years of living in Cambodia, Vogel’s passion became the language of a forest people who still lived in remote hills and plains in clans and extended families, much as they did 200 years ago, capturing and taming wild elephants up until 30 or 40 years ago.

Becoming a Bunong Researcher

Vogel first visited the remote northeastern province of Mondulkiri, which abuts Vietnam, in 1994.

He met members of the indigenous Bunong community and became intrigued by the unwritten language and the rich folklore which was passed on orally from generation to generation.

Few researchers were studying the Bunong language and culture and Vogel understood he could make a positive contribution with his research.

“I know Bunong is in the family of Mon-Khmer language,’’ Vogel said. ‘’As a linguist, I had to learn Bunong to compare Khmer and Bunong languages.’’

He gradually immersed himself in the Bunong community, its distinct way of life and a positive relationship took root. He stayed in remote villages for days and sometimes weeks at a time, eating Bunong food and drinking rice wine.

​Dr. Sylvain Vogel, left, professor of Sanskrit and linguistics at the Royal University of Fine Arts, and independent researcher on Bunong language. (Courtesy photo of Peter Maguire)
​Dr. Sylvain Vogel, left, professor of Sanskrit and linguistics at the Royal University of Fine Arts, and independent researcher on Bunong language. (Courtesy photo of Peter Maguire)

Vogel, who is an avid hunter and martial arts specialist, enjoyed the work.

“I don’t think it was hard,’’ Vogel said. ‘’If it was, I would not have done it. I do it because I like it.”

Vogel noticed over the years that the Bunong’s way of living in the rolling hills and jungle was impacted significantly by globalization. Bunong communities for generations were led by local elders and now are managed by administrative officers such as district governors and village chiefs, Vogel noted.

Bunong children now are encouraged to attend school taught in the Khmer language, and increasingly are studying English and using computers. Vogel voiced his concerns over the potential loss of the Bunong language and traditions.

“Bunong language is not used much, the society is changing a lot, so I am afraid that Bunong language will disappear,” Vogel said.

Yun Lorang is a native Bunong and he also worries that his language is deteriorating.

“I am quite worried because language is related to identity,” Lorang, secretariat coordinator of Cambodia Indigenous People Alliance, told VOA Khmer by phone. “In a crowd, they [Bunong people] rarely speak Bunong, they speak Khmer.”

Vogel’s first book about the language translated Bunong grammar into the international phonetic alphabet. It was published in 2006 in French. Vogel has written two other books about the grammar and aspects of oral literature, such as epics, songs and chants, and one book about Bunong culture.

Lorang thinks that having the Bunong language and culture documented in a written and published form can help prevent it from disappearing.

“History is very important for us to recover our own spirit, values, and identities,” said Lorang, who lives in Sen Monorom town, the capital of Mondulkiri province.

​Most of Vogel’s research over the years about the Bunong language and people was carried out at his own expense, said Peter Maguire, chairman of the Fainting Robin Foundation.

“It was a project that took close to 20 years, with no outside support, with no support or minimal support,” said Maguire, an author and historian who set up the foundation in Wilmington, NC, to assist independent scholars.

Maguire has known Vogel for years and spent some time with him in Mondulkiri province. He praised Vogel’s dedication to studying a language that had received little attention from established researchers and academic institutions, Cambodian or international.

​Dr. Sylvain Vogel, left, professor of Sanskrit and linguistics at the Royal University of Fine Arts, and independent researcher on Bunong language. (Courtesy photo of Peter Maguire)
​Dr. Sylvain Vogel, left, professor of Sanskrit and linguistics at the Royal University of Fine Arts, and independent researcher on Bunong language. (Courtesy photo of Peter Maguire)

Vogel’s work as a Sanskrit and linguistics professor, whose instruction helped nurture respected Cambodian scholars such as Kunthea and Somnoble is another key reason the foundation recognized him, Maguire said.

“As long as I knew him, he taught linguistics five days a week, and he taught in Khmer,’’ Maguire said. ‘’He didn't teach in English. He didn't teach in French. He made a huge effort to learn the language, to learn it well, to learn it grammatically correct, and to learn how to read it and write it. That's a level of commitment very few scholars have.’’

Shortly after arriving in Phnom Penh, Vogel came to believe it would be more worthwhile for his Cambodian students if he taught Sanskrit and general linguistics rather than French because of historical ties between Khmer and the ancient language.

“I started to teach Sanskrit to my students so that they know other families of languages, in addition to Mon-Khmer,” Vogel said.

Vogel said not many Cambodian students wanted to study Sanskrit but that “even one” was enough “because more Sanskrit inscriptions may be discovered in the future’’ in Cambodia.

“If there are Khmer experts on Sanskrit, they can work with international researchers to translate Sanskrit inscriptions which belong to Cambodia,” Vogel said.

He remembers Kunthea, between 1999 and 2001, as an outstanding student. She was interested in the links between Sanskrit and Cambodia and its language, Khmer.

“Only one student was interested in Sanskrit, and studied very hard, so I had to help her,” Vogel recalled.

To help her prepare for graduate school abroad, Kunthea said that Vogel tutored her in Sanskrit free of charge on weekends at cafes. She said Vogel helped launch her career.

Fifteen years on, she successfully defended her dissertation last year in France on ‘‘the role of Sanskrit in the development of the Khmer language: an epigraphic study from the 6th to 14th centuries.’’

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