Cham Language At Risk As Use Declines

Children from the Cham community sit in for Cham language and script learning. Photo: Leb Ke

PHNOM PENH – The Cham language is in danger of becoming extinct as fewer of the ethnic group use it, experts say.

Cham people prefer Khmer in their daily lives and their native language is used less often in books, mosques and daily activities.  

Sales Salas, an ethnic Cham, said he fears for the future of the language. It would vanish when Cham people stop studying and speaking it.

“I remembered that in Phnom Penh ten years ago, during Friday’s prayer at mosque, they were using Cham language to​ preach to the people, but now they are using Khmer language instead,” said Salas, who is pursuing a PhD in education management at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

He hoped that the language that has survived for generations would not be lost in his generation or his children’s.

Lep Ke, a Cham culture advocate and expert, said all Cham lovers worry about the future of the language.

Ke completed his master’s thesis on the phonetics and phonology of Western Cham language at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and is in France studying for a doctorate at INALCO, the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations.

“Nowadays, the trend of giving up speaking Cham seems to be on the rise,” he said.

He said it is difficult to find Cham who speak the original language since they also words loaned from other languages, including Malay.

A 2019 survey found that 300,000 people spoke the Cham language. However, it did not say whether they speak the original language or the one with borrowed words. The original Cham language is called Kak Khak in Cham script.

The lack of Cham language experts, non-use of Cham language at work, and less use of the language among Cham are main factors driving it edge of extinction.

“I used to talk with some villagers. They said when they learn Cham language, they could not find a job as Cham language is not an official language and there was a lack of Cham language specialist,” Ke said.

A young girl student learns to pronounce words in a Cham language class. Photo: Leb Ke 

Cham youth community representative Math Maisam said that there is not enough material when studying the Cham language and it’s difficult to use in society.

They learn Cham language to communicate among family and community, he said.

The government provided Khmer Islam teachers in 2015, but these teachers specialize in Islam religion and are not Cham language specialists, Ke said.  

Ke said it is not known how many Cham people are in Cambodia. He said that Khmer Islam are not all Cham people. The word Khmer Islam refers to people practice Islam in Cambodia, including Cham, Javanese, Malay and Khmer of Cham decedent.

Ke said the future of the Cham language depends on all Cham not an individual. The Cham language should use the Cham script, not in the Arabic or Latin alphabet. If Cham people no longer need it, it will surely melt away.

“Cham youths should try to learn, to read and write their Cham language again, no matter what their circumstances,” Ke said.

“If it cannot be used officially, at least it should be used in the language that shows the identity of Cham people.”

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