©UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Charles Fox

Early learning is making a difference for children from ethnic minority communities

What happens when you teach young children in a their native language? The results go beyond the obvious.

This is rural Ratanak Kiri — Cambodia’s most remote province in the far north east of the country. Many families here rely on farming, and it’s normal for children to help their parents in the fields, sometimes to the detriment of their education.

©UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Charles Fox

Today though, pre-school teacher Chey Nita, 21, has a classroom full of enthusiastic youngsters. And she teaches them in Kreung — an indigenous language spoken by the Kreung ethnic group.

Cambodia has more than 20 ethnic groups, most of whom live in the country’s isolated, mountainous region in the northeast. Many children from these ethnic groups struggle to learn in Khmer — the country’s official national language — which is different from what they speak at home.

©UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Charles Fox

Nita, has seen firsthand the difference that can be made through multilingual education in pre-schools. She has also seen the impact that early education, both for her students and her family.

“My nephew went straight to Grade 1 and he repeated for three years. But my younger brother and sisters went to pre-school and they didn’t repeat.”
©UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Charles Fox

Early childhood is the most significant time for children’s development. That’s why preschools are so important, giving children vital learning and development opportunities in their early years. Preschool attendance also means children are more likely to start primary school at the right age and to do well once they get there. Yet, only 35 per cent of children aged 3 to 5 years in Cambodia were enrolled in pre-school in school-year 2014/15.

Multilingual education allows children from ethnic minority communities to start their schooling in their own mother tongue, while Khmer is gradually introduced. When Nita’s pupils progress to primary school, they will continue their multilingual studies for a few years until they are ready to learn exclusively in Khmer.

©UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Charles Fox

During break time, Nita explains how different education was for her compared to her three-year-old daughter, who is one of the students in the class. “When I was young I studied two years in Grade 1 and two years in Grade 2. In Grades 1 and 2, I couldn’t understand anything! Only in Grade 3 did I start learning a little.”

Nita is happy that her daughter does not have to go through the same difficulties. “It’s better now! It’s easier — we can help children to understand their mother tongue and Khmer.”

©UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Charles Fox
“It’s better now! It’s easier — we can help children to understand their mother tongue and Khmer.”

UNICEF works with the Government of Cambodia and other partners to ensure that more children can benefit from early childhood learning and multilingual education.

Written by Sam Waller