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Seven million people speak Khmer (also known as Cambodian), the official language of the Kingdom of Cambodia.  Ninety percent of Cambodians speak it with very little variation in regional dialects.  In addition to the Cambodian communities in the United States, Khmer is also spoken in those countries where fairly sizeable numbers of Cambodians can be found, namely, in Vietnam, Thailand and China. In terms of rankings, Khmer is the 102nd most widely spoken language in the world. (UCLA Language Materials Project, 2004; Khmer Language, 2004).

Khmer-Speakers in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Census of 2000, there are 171,937 Cambodians in the United States (Hmong Studies Internet Resource Center, n.d.).  Of this total, 69% of Cambodian Americans reside in:

  • California (70,232),
  • Massachusetts (19,696),
  • Washington (13,899),
  • Pennsylvania (8531)
  • Texas (6852).

The 2000 U .S. Census results show that, of the total school population, 5 years and over, (262,375,152), 181,889 speak Khmer at home (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).  The National Clearing House of English Language Acquisition (NECLA) places Khmer as the eleventh most widely spoken language in the United States among Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students, and the fourth in Massachusetts, after English, Spanish and Portuguese (NECLA, 2004).

Historical Overview of the Khmer Language

Khmer is an Austroasiatic language of the Mon-Khmer family that has over 100 members and is spoken throughout much of Southeast Asia (Infoplease, 2005).  The most closely language to Khmer is Vietnamese (Yourdictionary.com, 2004).  Historically, the language has gone through various phases, and modern Khmer traces its roots back to the 19th Century.  Khmer vocabulary has been borrowed in earlier times from Sanskrit (for administrative, literary and military purposes) (Sanskrit, 2005).  The influence of Buddhism introduced Pali vocabulary into Khmer, and the period of French colonialism also resulted in linguistic “growth” (Pali, 2005).  However, during the period of Khmer nationalism in the 1960s, the authorities attempted to ‘purify’ the language to make it more ethnic.  The communist government of the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s attempted to expunge the language of words that reflected social rank (Yourdictionary.com, 2004).

As of 2003, the estimated population of Cambodia was 13,124,764 (Royal Government of Cambodia, 2004).  Approximately 95% of Cambodians speak Khmer.  Older Cambodians speak French, a legacy of the French colonial era.  Younger Cambodians are likely to speak English as a second language (Demographics of Cambodia, 2003). 

©2005 Maria de Lourdes Serpa.
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