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Language for life

On the day his English school opened in the tiny town of Chumkriel in Kampot, in October 2005, Nget Sothy wasn’t sure there would be any students. He said the locals had told him English wasn’t important for their children. The next meal was what mattered and lofty dreams of foreign languages and university education were a waste of time. But when the day came, they must have changed their minds because over a hundred students flocked to his little room, keen to learn.

Nget Sothy knows the importance of a good education. Born in 1973 in the remote village of Prey Trang, in Kampot province’s Chhuk district, he says his teachers were any villagers who knew something about anything.

“We learned what we could,” he says, “but it wasn’t much.

“Coming into town, I was just very scared, like I was from another world, a different world, you know. [The town people] were very good, and I was very different. I thought, how could I help the remote students have a good time in the town?”

The answer, according to Nget Sothy, was an English school. He says English opens up opportunities for children from the provinces, making university education a more realistic possibility.

“Some students who come from remote areas find it very difficult to study because all of the documents are in English. But the children who live in town, it’s easy for them because they know English,” he says.

Chumkriel was chosen as a location because there were no English schools in the area, and given the barrage of kids on the first day, there was evidently a need.

As usual, money was the biggest problem. The pay was low, even for Cambodia, so Nget Sothy hired the only local teachers who applied, despite their language ability. As a supplement, he charmed local Westerners and backpackers into volunteering for a week or two (he’s got a killer smile). When the school became more established, he even managed to get some Cambodian English teachers in from the towns.

“I told them, my students are so good, so calm, and much nicer than in town. I said there is not much money, but [the school] is a nice place to work,” Nget Sothy says.

He gives a wide, toothy smile and laughs. “Really, I just told them anything so they would come.”

While Nget Sothy says the school is heavily dependent on Western knowledge, time and money, it is managed by Cambodians, with Nget Sothy as director, and the ultimate goal is to build social and economic awareness in the local community.

Many Western volunteers work full time, some staying for months or years, but there are no salaried Western employees apart from Australian Hanna Guy, who lives with a Cambodian family and works full time for US$50 a month. She is working with the local community on fundraising projects, with the goal of making the school self-sufficient one day.

These days, the school provides one-hour evening English classes for more than 300 school-aged children, five days a week. Most pay a fee of 300 riels (about $0.07) for the lesson, but there are also 40 sponsored scholarship students. Each class has a permanent Cambodian English teacher, as well as a volunteer native speaker from time to time to help with pronunciation. In 2008, the school expanded to include the Chumkriel Learning Centre during the day for younger children, to fill the gap left by what the centre describes as “unpredictable state school schedules”.

Nget Sothy, or “Mr Thy” as his students call him, still shakes his head in disbelief to think of where the school has come from. But more exciting is where it’s going.When asked why she’s learning English, 15-year-old Kanha laughs and says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up.

It seems the school has a future.

Go to phnompenhpost.com to see a photo slideshow by Susan Wilson that captures the sounds and images of Chumkriel laguage school.

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