In reference to yesterday’s article in The Phnom Penh Post titled English skills lagging behind global trend: According to the article Cambodia ranks 69th of 70 countries in the annual English Proficiency Index released this week.
According to the article English proficiency is connected with three important factors, namely connectivity, GNP and technological progress the country has made so far. It is really an amazing fact that language proficiency is connected with GNP, which shows how a country’s economic development influences the education and mindset of its people.
We have to see this in a broader perspective. The economic conditions of a family affect directly the learning ability of children in that family.
Education has always been connected with the family’s ability to afford a particular standard of education. This is the fact one cannot ignore when analysing correlations between a country’s GNP and national educational attainment.
I, personally, agree with the index findings. In Cambodia, if you go to small provincial towns you will find the standard of education is, on average, lower than a large city like Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, even in Khmer let alone the English language. The reasons are very simple: poverty, lack of connectivity and technological progress.
In Cambodia the trend of learning English language among the youth is driven from the fact that if they could speak and write English proficiently they will have better prospects of finding a good job with a better salary.
If you are an English language teacher and teaching in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, it is very easy to figure out that a majority of your students are learning English.
They are longing for a well-paid job, and this is their ultimate goal and learning motive.
In smaller provincial towns, where the job opportunities are limited, the desire to learn English diminishes.
Most of the youth are engaged in agro-business activities. Education becomes an afterthought, and the idea of a well-paid job is alien.
According to a Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport survey and a World Bank report of 2013, the dropout rates in high schools in small provinces were very high, and even higher among girls.
The truth is simple: parents think girls can be more useful if they stay at home and do the chores rather than go to school and learn. These are all decisions made due to financial constraints of the family.
Here I have come across a number of successful business personnel (especially women) who do not have even high school certificate, but they are rich and successful in their businesses, owing to their own efforts and intelligence, and nothing to do with education.
With Cambodia’s economy growing at the fastest pace in ASEAN, the trend of getting a better and a higher education among the youth and their families grows in turn.
Ten years ago, there were English language schools and English teaching institutions all over Phnom Penh offering English courses for $5 to $10 per month.
Now, if you go around the city, one can see how private educational institutions have popped up like mushrooms.
Some of them are claiming to be an internationally affiliated English language school. But quality and facilities are below average.
That said, some schools are excellent but can charge exorbitant fees, often between $100 and $150 per month.
Parents are happy to pay as the quality of education, facilities, teaching materials and teachers are much better and equivalent to schools in the US or the UK.
As Cambodia approaches ASEAN economic integration, the trend towards learning English language is rapidly changing from desirable to essential.
Cambodian youths of today are more conscientious of their surroundings and the swiftly changing environment than their counterparts 10 years ago.
But there is still a lot to be done to equal the proficiency of their counterparts in Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand.
Competency in English language will empower the youth of this country to compete with their counterparts in the job market.
Besides English, there are other languages, such as Chinese, Thai, Korean and Japanese, that are also important for regional interaction and communication.
I personally know many students who are studying three or four languages simultaneously, as their families can afford it.
Khmer as mother tongue; English as second language; and Chinese, Korean, Japanese or even Thai as a third language. It all depends on which language the family sees as more important for their child.
The Kingdom’s ranking in English Proficiency Index is an eye opener for all stakeholders in public and private education sectors.
The government is committed to bringing genuine change to the existent education system to match regional standards by upgrading the quality of education from primary schools to higher education institutions in the country.
But I still believe Cambodia needs additional investment in English-language teacher training programs at all levels.
There must be a pilot project in every province where training to trainers should be provided.
Five to 10 years down the road, if the political and economic situation remains stable, Cambodia could become one of top 10 countries on English Language Proficiency Index.
Joseph Matthews is the Director of the Department of International Cooperation at Asia Euro University.