On weekends at noon, a Japanese university professor, a Spanish man with a Khmer wife, a Russian journalist, a Filipino advertising professional and a few backpackers meet each other in a movie theater.
They do not come together to watch a matinee – but to repeat after Sophavy Pho, their Khmer teacher, and to copy the things that she writes on the white board.
Sophavy Pho, 45, never went to university, but she earns more than most English teachers in Cambodia – teaching Khmer.
Using a textbook that looks like it was published before the Khmer Rouge regime – and survived a few rainstorms – she teaches foreigners how to put words into phrases.
Sometimes, the phrases in the book seem a bit outdated – like “What time does the train leave?” – but the diligent students almost never miss class.
“I can [now] speak with my cleaning lady,” says Aldrin Abanto, one of the fastest learners in the class. “I can ask her, ‘Why didn’t you come?’ and ‘Are you coming tomorrow?’”
He said he signed up for the class to give better service to his Khmer clients and to improve his own quality of life in Cambodia, but found that the class was a great place to make friends too.
“It should be mandatory for all foreigners,” he jokes.
Occasionally the foreign students make a few fun discoveries. Who would have thought, for instance, that Sunday in Khmer translates literally as “Sun Day”, while Monday is “Moon Day”? Or that a “train” in Khmer is literally a “fire cart”?
Ramon Stoppelenburg, who owns The Flicks movie house, says he decided to start Khmer lessons about two months ago to fill the empty room during the daytime, when no one wants to see a movie. He found Sophavy Pho from an ad she posted online.
“It was my idea to become a community movie house and start offering yoga, Pilates and the language of the local people,” he explains. “After Khmer New Year, we want to launch new classes, beginner level.”
Stoppelenburg cannot speak Khmer himself – he tried one class and gave up because he doesn’t have the patience – but says the students include foreigners married to Khmer wives and husbands, NGO staff, volunteers and missionaries. Occasionally, a few travelers show up too – why not learn a few words of a foreign language while traveling? – and try to follow along with the more advanced students.
Stoppelenburg says if there is more demand, he’d like to expand the foreign language program at The Flicks, perhaps offering classes in Thai and Bahasia, the language spoken in Indonesia and Malaysia.
He would also like to offer an English class for Khmer people – free of charge.
He says that he would like to do it as a service to the community, so that expats can send their cleaning ladies, night guards, or drivers to learn English.
“I hope I can have the classes for free. We’re not here to make money,” he said, encouraging any foreign language teachers or anyone interested in learning to contact him.
Meanwhile Sophavy Pho, who has taught Khmer for 15 years, says teaching her native tongue to foreigners keeps her busy. On most days, she works from five to six hours, giving private and group classes.
“I am not rich, but I have enough to make a living,” she said, explaining that the money she earns from teaching allows her to support her two children and 86-year old mother.
She became a Khmer teacher after a one-year training course at an NGO, where she learned how to explain Cambodian phonetics to foreigners and to write Khmer words in Latin letters. After working at the NGO for seven years, she realised it would be more profitable to give private lessons, and started posting ads on websites.
The number of people wanting to learn Khmer fluctuates, she says, but competition from other teachers is always intense.
She can earn as much as US$20 per hour – more than foreigners who teach English in Cambodia make – because foreign students can afford to pay more than Cambodians.
So why study a language that is spoken by fewer than 20 million people, when you can invest your time to learn French, Spanish, Arabic or Chinese?
Well for one thing, says Joshua Nasielski a Canadian who recently came to work here, being able to understand a language spoken by very few people makes you more valuable and marketable. So think about that.
To sign up for a class with Sophavy Pho, email her at [email protected] . Private classes cost $5 per hour, while group sessions are $15 and up.