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Khmer as a Heritage Language in the United States



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117 Heritage Language Journal 7 1 Winter 2010 Khmer as a Heritage Language in the United States Historical Sketch Current Realities and Future Prospects Wayne E Wright University of Texas San Antonio Abstract Cambodian Americans are a fairly recent language minority group in the United States most families arrived in the United States as refugees during the 1980s Over the past 30 years there has been great concern in the community regarding the maintenance loss of their native Khmer language This article provides an historical and contemporary sketch of the Khmer language in the United States and discusses implications for its future survival Data are drawn and analyzed from the U S Census the 2007 American Community Survey and other statistical sources in addition to research conducted in Cambodian American communities and the author s experiences and observations as a non native Khmer speaker The findings indicate that the Khmer language is alive and well in the United States and most school age youth continue to speak Khmer although few speak it with high levels of proficiency and few have literacy skills in the language given the lack of opportunities for Khmer HL education Nonetheless there are some positive factors that Khmer communities and educational institutions can draw on to ensure the future of Khmer as a HL in the United States In the early 1990s I attended a forum held at California State University Long Beach sponsored by the United Cambodian Students of America The distinguished guest speaker was Mr Neou Kassie a well known Cambodian American and an outspoken human rights advocate Mr Neou began speaking elegantly and powerfully in Khmer describing his advocacy work in Cambodia A few minutes into his animated speech one of the young college student leaders with an embarrassed look on her face interrupted him Excuse me Mr Neou can you please switch to English Most of us are having a very hard time understanding you in Khmer Cambodian Americans are a



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