Cham Language Literacy in Cambodia: From the Margins towards the Mainstream

Author: Alberto Pérez Pereiro (Breogán Consulting)
Jorge López Cortina (Seton Hall University)
Speaker: Alberto Pérez Pereiro, Jorge López Cortina
Topic: Language revitalization
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


The Cham language has been written since at least the 4th Century. As such it is the oldest attested of all of the Austronesian languages. This literary heritage was transmitted using locally modified forms of Indian scripts which were also used to write Sanskrit. With the loss of Cham territories to the Vietnamese, many Cham became displaced and the literary culture was disrupted. In addition, the adoption of Islam by the majority of Cham led many of those who continued to write to do so in variations of the Arabic script. However, the literary potential of the language in Cambodia has not been fully realized in either script – with village scholars using it almost exclusively for religious tracts and for very limited local audiences.

In 2011, the United States Embassy initiated a program to encourage the protection of Cham culture and heritage. This Cham Heritage Expansion Program ran from 2011 to 2017 and resulted in the operation of 13 schools in which over 2,500 students of different ages were taught the traditional Cham script. This effort was accompanied by the development of a now significant number of local Cham intellectuals throughout the country who are dedicating themselves to the expansion of the use of Cham as a written language in all aspects of daily life.

This presentation documents the way in which interest in this long-neglected writing system was rekindled, and the new avenues for personal and communitarian expression that are being opened by the propagation of Cham literacy. It also talks about current developments in the formalization of Cham language education in the country including the possibilities of bringing the language into the school system.

Keywords: Cham language, Vietnam, Culture and heritage