During my first assignment in Cambodia I visited a school in a remote Pnong village in Mondolkiri Province. I was told that the official enrollment at this school numbered twenty-five children, but on the day I visited there were four of them — and only one of those had any books! I was also told that what I was witnessing was not uncommon.
There are many factors that contribute to low attendance in schools in this part of the world, but in this case I learned that a significant factor was language — not the inability to speak it but the inability to read or write it. Although the Pnong language can be written, the only writing system developed for it was in neighboring Vietnam. Like modern Vietnamese script it is based on the Roman alphabet. The use of the same script, for what is essentially the same language, in Cambodia is controversial since the official language of that country, Khmer, has a very different writing system. So, in Cambodia, Pnong is effectively a pre-literate language.
As I traveled north into Ratanakiri Province and visited schools in villages of other indigenous peoples I learned that pre-literacy is an equal contributor to low school attendance there. But I also learned of programs that were beginning to develop writing systems — based on Khmer script — for many of the indigenous languages of that province. I even witnessed some of the very first results of these programs when I attended a lesson for teachers in Tampuan schools using the written form of the Tampuan language.
Four years later I returned to Cambodia and again visited many indigenous villages in Ratanakiri Province. Among them was a Kreung village that was the first with a school using instructional material developed, during my absence, and written in the Kreung language. Of all the factors that contribute to low school attendance, the existence of the written form of the Kreung language was the only one that had changed in four years. On the day I visited attendance was 100% and every child had pen, paper and books.
The Kreung are featured in our documentary, Indigenous Peoples of Southeast Asia.
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