THE seed of the English language was planted in Cambodia during the UNTAC mission between 1991 and 1993, which facilitated the cooperation of some 60,000 Cambodians with 20,000 peacekeepers and personnel for 34 nations around the world. But the importance of the English language has truly taken hold as Cambodia integrates into a global society in which it is widely used as the language for business, education and development.
Two decades ago, those with the ability to speak some broken English stood a chance of working with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Today, the ability to speak English continues to represent hope for a better future and solves common issues in the Kingdom. “You learn English to survive, it’s a language you acquire for your stomach,” said Kieng Rotana, 43, a former interpreter for UNTAC.
For students such as 23-year-old Tep Livina, it became obvious that expertise in English would open doors, regardless of the specific career he chose to pursue. In 2004, Tep Livina enrolled in the computer science programme at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. However, a year later he quit, having lost faith in the power of an engineering degree. He decided instead to enroll at the Institute of Foreign Languages, where he graduated with a degree in English last year.
As a sales executive for Japanese-run Sumitomo Corp in Phnom Penh, Tep Livina speaks English fluently and communicates confidently. “It’s more than just a bridge, you major in business, law or whatever field, without this language to communicate, you won’t be on the stage to compete,” he explained.
After years of learning and teaching English as a second language, including two years mastering the language in Australia, Kieng Rotana is convinced that acquiring fluency in English can be life-changing for all Cambodians. “Speaking at least basically or intermediary [English] is necessary to be in the workforce, in the marketplace and to thrive in higher education in this modern society,” he said.
“Early 2000 saw the arrival of foreign culture through tourism, international scholarships and international aid agencies,” Tep Livina said when asked why English has become widely used in a country that was once governed by France and is still home to many francophone intellectuals and elites.
Also in the new millennium, as Cambodians witnessed political stability and economic growth, a surprising number of new private universities have been opened, many of which have integrated English as an essential part of their curriculum.
“In 1997, Cambodia’s first private university, Norton University, helped transform how lecturing is conducted and how students access study materials; again English is the main language,” said Kieng Rotana, who is also vice chancellor of Pannasastra University, where English competency is mandatory for graduation.
When employers try to whittle down a pile of hundreds of applications, it is often those people with the best English skills who rise to the top. Students who have studied in countries such as Japan, the United States, Australia and even China’s Hong Kong usually possess strong English language skills. But this is not only due to their experience abroad – they have invariably spent thousands of hours self-learning and participating in intensive courses to perfect the language.
Being fluent in English not only improves one’s job prospects, it allows one to access a wealth of information that is not available in Khmer. “It opens and widens up my world view, since I am able to read textbooks, newspapers and magazines in the English language, not to mention to watch foreign TV channels and movies,” Tep Livina said.
As linguists estimated in 2009 that two billion people worldwide are trying to learn English, Cambodia – once isolated by civil wars – is gradually integrating itself into the regional and global economy.
“I can see the world in a bigger, clearer picture than I could have if I hadn’t learned English,” Livina said proudly.