OAKLAND/THE MOTHER TONGUE/Cambodian children studying Khmer to bridge languagegap, preserve their culture

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Nov 1 15:53:33 UTC 2006

Forwarded from Edling <edling at ccat.sas.upenn.edu>

 Cambodian children studying Khmer to bridge language gap, preserve their

Monday, October 30, 2006 (SF Chronicle)
Vanessa Hua, Chronicle Staff Writer

   Cambodian children in Oakland chanting the alphabet in the ancient
language of their ancestors one recent afternoon were helping build their
community -- and their own futures.  To preserve their culture and help
children communicate with their families, Cambodian Community Development
Inc., a nonprofit service provider, began offering a free Khmer language
class this month to a dozen students, ages 4 to 13.  "Cambodian youth are
already struggling to communicate with their parents," said director Ratha
Chuon. "One of the ways to tackle this issue is for them to learn the
language."  Chuon, 26, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and grew up
in the Tenderloin. As a child, she studied Khmer for two years before her
San Francisco school closed. "It would help so much for kids of the next

   If the program takes off, she plans to offer classes for adults on
reading and writing the language, spoken by up to 21 million people in
Cambodia and communities abroad. From 1975 to 1979, during the reign of
the Khmer Rouge -- the bloody government that killed an estimated 1.5
million people -- officials destroyed much of the Cambodian literary
heritage, burning books and closing schools and libraries.  Alameda County
is home to about 4,300 Cambodians, part of a larger Bay Area community of
13,098, according to a report by the Asian Pacific Legal Center in Los
Angeles that analyzed U.S. census data from 2000.  Many Cambodians living
here escaped the Khmer Rouge or left their homeland during the earlier
years of the U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia. More than a
third of Bay Area Cambodians live in poverty, and most did not graduate
from high school.

   The class meets at Oak Park, an affordable housing development that
houses many Cambodian families. Lemongrass and other Asian herbs and
vegetables grow in the community garden.  When class began, the seven
students stood with palms together, bowed their heads and gave Buddhist
monk Him San, 27, the traditional greeting for elders.  The boys wore
baggy jeans and oversize shirts and football jerseys, the girls wore pink
jackets and dangly earrings, but for an hour, they were immersed in
Cambodian education.

   Clad in a saffron robe, the monk wrote the first few vowels, with
swoops and feathers and curls, on the chalkboard and asked the class to
copy and to repeat after him. The Khmer alphabet has 24 vowels and 32
consonants in total.  "That's good, you remembered," he said in Khmer to
the class.  Him San pointed at his lip when he wanted them to enunciate
each sound.  The class clapped when Brian Tan, 7, read the vowels
confidently and then grinned.  The children read pages photocopied from a
children's textbook Him San, a recent immigrant, brought from Cambodia.
The young monk, ordained at 12, has a lot of teaching experience and was
available to volunteer.  Three staff members moved among the students,
making sure they understood.

   When Alena Kim's turn came around, she buried her head in her arms,
giggling.  "I don't get it. It's too hard," said Alena, 11, before she got
through the vowels with the prompting of the monk.  Jasmine Nhep, 12, of
Oakland said she likes everything about the class, from writing to
speaking.  Kob Kong, 12, said he has learned more about Cambodia. Before,
he imagined the houses were tiny, but he has learned that some are very
large.  "I want my daughter to grow up and know her culture, instead of
losing it," said Saroun Ek, 30, who enrolled her 4-year-old daughter,
Emily. Ek does not know how to read or write the language herself. "I want
my daughter to know it better than me."

Copyright 2006 SF Chronicle


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