Keeping Khmer Alive in Long Beach

Video by Sarah Bennett

It’s 10AM on a Saturday morning and Bryant Sokphanarith Ben is about to begin his class. Ben’s students range from elementary-school students to 85 year-old Wallace Craig, a retired engineer who drives all the way from Fullerton to attend class at the Mark Twain Library in Long Beach.  

Ben teaches Khmer language as part of a joint program between the library and the Long Beach Neighborhood Services Bureau. He started the program six years ago because he wanted Cambodian parents to utilize resources at the library—which holds the largest collection of Khmer language books in the United States.

Khmer (pronounced “kuh-my”) is the primary language spoken in Cambodia, but outside of Cambodia, Long Beach is one of the few places where Khmer can be considered a major language. Here, community events, voting ballots and school newsletters are presented in Khmer, a testament to the approximately 50,000 Cambodian residents that call the city home. Long Beach is believed to have the largest single population of Cambodians outside Cambodia and the city is home to Cambodia Town, a mile-long stretch of Anaheim St. between Junipero and Atlantic avenues. 

Though Ben has taught students of different ages and races, the majority of his students are second-generation Cambodian-Americans–the children of refugees who escaped the Cambodian genocide committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. With second and third generation youth growing up in Long Beach, the Cambodian community is now facing a language issue. 

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Bryant Ben teaching Khmer at the Mark Twain Library. Photos by Sarah Bennett.

Refugees struggling with limited English proficiency now have English-speaking children and grandchildren who must fight to preserve the language of their elders and ancestors. 

Malin Ouk, 17, lives in Central Long Beach with her mother and grandfather, who are both survivors of the Khmer Rouge. Like many older refugees, Ouk’s grandfather speaks little English, so Ouk often translates for him at banks, the doctor’s office and pharmacy. Ouk’s mother’s primarily language is Khmer, though she can speak English with an accent. 

Ouk often gets compliments about how well she can speak Khmer. Though Ouk was born in America, she says elders sometimes think she was born in Cambodia because of how fluently she can speak in Khmer. 

“I guess when you’re a baby it’s easy to learn,” said Ouk, who learned to speak Khmer before she learned English. Though she excels at speaking Khmer, she can neither read nor write the script. When she began school, English took over as her primary language and she has had to work hard to keep from losing her native language. Ouk takes time each day to converse with her grandpa and even listens to Khmer music.  

khmerlanguage2Juny Keo, 15, is also the child of Cambodian refugees. On a scale of one to ten, she rates her Khmer language skills as a three or four. She knows how to say greetings, basic phrases like “thank you,” and the names of Cambodian dishes. She lives with her siblings and mother, who speaks only Khmer. Keo’s conversations with her mother are always bilingual, she understands Khmer but responds in English, while her mother understands English but responds in Khmer.  

Keo knows her mom wants her to know Khmer. “When she talks she wants me to hear her” said Keo, “[Language] keeps me in touch with my roots and where I came from.”

Keo’s story is not uncommon, as more and more youth are forgetting the language of their parents and grandparents. 

“I see a trend of losing the language,” said Darith Ung, who teaches Khmer class at Wilson High School, ”Less and less students speak Khmer.”  

The first waves of Cambodian refugees arrived in the United States in the mid ‘70s and early ‘80s.  Some of today’s students have parents who grew up in America, which further diminishes the likelihood that the language will be passed on.

Ung’s class at Wilson High School is the only high school Khmer-language program in the nation where students can study it for up to four years and fulfill their language requirements for high school.  

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Students at Khmer class at Mark Twain Library

During the 1990s Long Beach Unified School District implemented a Khmer bilingual program–similar to a dual immersion program that is currently in place for many Spanish-speaking students–at Lincoln and Whittier elementary schools. Teachers taught in both English and Khmer so that students would learn both languages. The program ended in 1998 when Proposition 227 abolished bilingual education in most California schools by mandating that English learners be taught in English-only classes unless 20 or more parents of students at the same campus in the same grade request a program in the same language. So far, the District says they have not yet received the minimum amount of parent-exception waivers at from any campus to reinstate Khmer bilingual education classes.

“Instead of spending extra time outside of the school hours, kids can learn Khmer during their school day and that’s the main advantage,” said Ung about the importance of the Khmer language program at Wilson. 

Ung’s class focuses on getting students like Keo (who understand the language but can’t speak fluently) to proficiently speak, read and write in Khmer. The language is written in Khmer script, which evolved from the Brahmi script of India, and can be found on many storefront signs in Cambodia Town. In some cases, students in Ung’s class become more literate in Khmer than their Khmer-speaking parents. Because the Khmer Rouge targeted people with high education, many survivors of the genocide came from rural countryside with low literacy rates.  

“I want to learn to read and write,” said Ouk. “If there’s a Cambodian newspaper I want to be able to read it so I can catch up on the news. I’d [also] get exposed to new words I don’t get exposed to daily. Maybe I’d even learn more about Khmer history.”  

Ouk is a senior at Polytechnic High School, which despite being home to the largest number of Cambodian-American high school students in Long Beach, does not offer any Khmer classed. In 2008, the school district approached Ung about teaching Khmer at both Wilson and Poly, but the program was postponed due to budget cuts. At the time, Ung had a Poly student in his class who requested permission from her counselors to attend his class at Wilson so she could learn Khmer and fulfill her language requirement.

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Darith Ung teaches Khmer at Wilson Classical High School

“I think it would be cool if they had [Khmer class] at Poly,” said Ouk. “It probably can make a big difference. A large population of Khmer kids go to Poly, so they could get access to the language.”

If someone is not a student at Wilson High School, their only options for formally studying Khmer in the entire Los Angeles region are attending Ben’s class at Mark Twain library or seeking mentorship at a Buddhist temple where some monks still teach the language.

But Ouk sees Khmer classes as a key to accessing more than just language.

“Other people would learn to appreciate what the Cambodian community is and what our culture is,” said Ouk, who is currently taking Japanese and enjoys learning about the culture along with the language. “If there was a language class [for Khmer], it could teach the history and let the community and other students understand what we are: we are survivors.”

Perhaps with passionate teachers like Ung and Ben, and students like Ouk and Keo who are hungry for opportunities to learn their heritage, Khmer language will be a survivor too.

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