With her widowed mother supporting her family by selling sweets on the streets of Phnom Penh, there was never any money for Sem Thida and her five brothers and sisters to go to school, Sem Thida said.
“I believe that no parents want their children to be illiterate, but poverty and financial crisis stand in the way,” she said.
Last month, a neighbor told her about a teacher who was looking for volunteers to test a new literacy method. She decided to join in.
“I never expected to get an education because I’m an adult,” the 17-year-old said.
The method to which Sem Thida was introduced uses a system of images known as pasigraphy to bridge the gap between spoken language and reading and writing.
The word “pasigraphy” is derived from Greek and means “the writing of everything,” said Khmer-language linguist Jean-Michel Filippi, one of two linguists experimenting with pasigraphy in Cambodia.
A pasigram can be a stylized image, such as a few lines to depict the top and legs of a table, or a detail that suggests an object—for example, whiskers to mean a cat, or a roof to mean a house, said Jacques Rongier. A pasigram can also combine two images to illustrate a word—for example, a stylized bed under a roof to mean “hotel.”
Since retiring in Cambodia three years ago, Rongier—who developed this particular pasigraphy method during 22 years of research in Africa—has been teaching postgraduate classes at the Royal Academy of Cambodia and has written a book on Kuoy, a Mon-Khmer language spoken in the northwest of Cambodia.
The 23-day pilot pasigraphy course, which started March 1, included three illiterate adult students and three children of various ages. The three-hour daily classes took place at the Ganesha Institute for the development of social sciences that Filippi opened last year.
For the pilot course, Rongier used a universal pasigraphy system, which he says makes it possible for people speaking different languages to read the same text, as long as they follow the subject-verb-object word order. At the class on Sunday, 33-year-old Som Sreymom read in Kuoy a text that Mao Srey Pich, 23, read in Khmer and Meak Sovan Borei, 11, read in French.
A second approach consists of adapting the texts to the structure of a given language. For instance, “How old are you” in English would require four pasigrams: “how,” “old,” “are” and “you.” The same question in Khmer would require six: “sir,” “have,” “age,” “how many,” “years,” and “already,” Filippi said.
The pilot program has shown that with this method, illiterate people can learn to read and write within three to four months, during which time the pasigrams are progressively replaced by Khmer letters, Filippi said.
As students learn, they develop the ability to think in abstract terms by connecting written symbols to objects and ideas, which is a major step toward writing, he said.
“The problem with writing is, in fact, abstraction, and not so much memory…. Jumping from a symbol on paper to the object or concept it represents may seem simple, but it is a huge stumbling block for people who can’t read or write.”
One other obstacle for people enrolled in various adult literacy programs in the country has been texts that are unrelated to their everyday reality, Filippi said. Since the majority of illiterate Cambodians live in the countryside, material for literacy classes should be tailored to rural areas, he said.
This is why Filippi and Rongier plan to open an experimental center in Prek Roka commune, about 30 km from Phnom Penh in Takeo province’s Bati district. There, they will develop manuals and teaching materials with texts on topics ranging from agricultural techniques to health and hygiene, which may help improve people’s living conditions as they learn to read and write, Rongier said.
Filippi and Rongier will present their system of adult literacy and the results of their pilot session on Wednesday evening at the Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Center at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Institute of Foreign Languages.
As for the students in the course, they left elated with the results.
“Some neighbors would laugh at me because I was illiterate,” said Mao Srey Pich. “Now I want to teach my parents and sister because I don’t want my family members to be illiterate forever.”