Forget about education theories of the last 40 years—they no longer work.
With that message, the Fifth International Conference on Language and Development got under way Wednesday, with 250 participants from 30 countries attending the Phnom Penh event.
One speaker had a sobering message for them. There is a “new species of world kids” emerging on the planet, said Allan Luke, who has written and edited 12 books and numerous articles on language, literacy education and Asian cultural identity.
Through the Internet and the media, they are becoming “cultural hybrids,” part of a multicultural universe. Luke said trying to stop this trend is hopeless, and continuing to use old educational methods would amount to giving Cambodians a fantasy education disconnected from the global world they will live in.
“Preserving Khmer culture and language [by trying to isolate students from this] is like a fish swimming up stream,” Luke said.
“Language learning,” Luke stressed, “is about being able to participate in the global flow—learning to go with the flow, and against the flow and over the flow.” It’s teaching students to be critical about the information they get on the Internet, and to navigate at ease in a multicultural environment, he said.
Kao Sophal, national trainer for English-teacher trainers at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, said Cambodian students have the same thirst for knowledge as other young people. The Internet may not be accessible to all of them at the moment, he said, but “culture is borderless.”
Being part of this world requires knowing foreign languages as well as Khmer, which is why Cambodian students are encouraged to learn one or two foreign languages, Minister of Education Tol Lah said. At the same time, efforts must continue to develop a technical and scientific vocabulary in Khmer and to standardize the language.
Conference participants involved in Khmer-language education agreed with Tol Lah. Khmer still lacks a vocabulary adapted to the 21st century, said Jean-Michel Filippi, a linguist from the Royal University of Phnom Penh. There have been efforts to standardize spelling, but some fundamental issues need to be addressed such as grammar and the building of a databank to expand Khmer vocabulary, he said.
The need for standardization also applies to keyboards, which has presented difficulties for Khmer use on the Internet. It took 18 months to come up with a solution for the Web site that MobiTel will launch later this month, said Kim Gjemmestad, development manager at Interquess Enterprises.
Everyday.com.kh will offer the option of using English or Khmer. For Khmer, people will get a keyboard on the screen and be able to type either on the virtual keyboard or on their own keyboard, Gjemmestad said.
Thomas Clayton, from the University of Kentucky in the US, has written a book on language policy in Cambodia. He said that while studying foreign languages improves opportunities for university learning both inside and outside Cambodia, “I hope that within 10 or 15 years, Khmer will be used [for teaching] in higher education, at least at the undergraduate level.”