The United Nations says the 6,000 spoken languages spoken around the world are of immense importance to the planet and its people. Yet, it is estimated that 43 percent of those languages are in danger of dying out.
International Mother Language Day will be recognized this Sunday, February 21, and is a day for the world to celebrate how multilinguism can advance inclusion. Teaching someone in their mother language, or first language, has “complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education, and development.”
Because many endangered languages have no written counterpart, by teaching these we are protecting the diversity, traditions, and knowledge of an entire group. Keeping endangered languages alive ensures a culturally diverse world.
In honor of International Mother Language Day, we want to highlight the efforts of Non-Timber Forest Products Organization (NTFP), ProLiteracy’s partner program in Cambodia that is dedicated to keeping the indigenous language alive in the rural villages of the Ratanakiri Province.
In northeast Cambodia, one of the mother languages spoken by indigenous people is Kavet. But the country’s unofficial caste system means that being from an ethnic group with no written language is considered “uncivilized or backwards.” The NTFP’s Kavet Bilingual Literacy program, therefore, has played a critical role in helping indigenous people secure rights to their land and natural resources by enabling the people to gain literacy skills in their mother language.
In addition, NTFP’s literacy classes address the ongoing issue of poor health. In Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, villages face inadequate health care services, unsanitary environments, malnutrition, risk of infectious disease, and the lack of education and support systems. In six villages, a makeshift classroom serves as the community learning center. Classes, equipped with library books, promote literacy while incorporating health topics like drug prevention, clean water and sanitation, and, most recently, how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
By educating the indigenous people in their mother language, the program is empowering its students to safely and actively engage with their community.
In 2019–2020, Kavet Bilingual Literacy program had 434 participants, both male and female, in six communities. As these students advance, they are not only preserving the language, but they are able to become volunteer teachers as they continue to improve their own literacy skills. From there, they can become teachers within their villages.
NTFP was started to empower and equip ethnic minorities to have a better future and livelihood while keeping the mother language from dying out.
As part of ProLiteracy's international work, we are making mother tongue literacy materials available electronically to programs around the world. Original copies of literacy primers developed by Dr. Frank Laubach are available for download to ProLiteracy members. Learn more about our International Membership option and the programs and resources we offer.