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Now you're speaking my language

Cheng Lyta, Kaing Menghun and Kim Samath meet five students reversing the trip and studying abroad on our home turf

Getting an overseas education has been the goal or intent of elite Cambodians for decades, centuries for some, as it is often seen as the best way to rise above the competition for jobs in Cambodia and, more recently, allow students to compete globally. It might seem like a one way exchange, but there are also a number of students from outside the Kingdom coming to study in Cambodian schools.

Students from China, Vietnam, Laos and Korea are in Cambodia pursuing degrees in academic fields from Khmer literature to computer science at various universities in the country. The Royal University of Phnom Penh alone has about 20 Korean students and few Japanese and Chinese students as well, according to Pon Chay, deputy director of Cambodia’s biggest state-run school, adding that many of the students are here to study language, usually Khmer.   

The government has encouraged foreign students to study Khmer in Cambodia by offering scholarships for students from abroad to learn the Khmer language in its home country. The Study Office of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, who provided enrollment data for foreign students at the university, said that 121 such scholarships, in language studies as well as translation and literature, were given out in 2010.

This year, there are 26 students taking a Khmer prep course for a bachelors degree in Khmer literature, 15 of which are Vietnamese. These students will join the 65 students, from Vietnam (45), Laos (18) and Japan (2) studying Khmer literature already, along with 30 students studying translation of Khmer. Not all of these students are studying for free, according to the study office, who said that some foreign students pay full tuition, but declined to give more specific figures.

Regardless of what they study or how much they pay, we wanted to find out what their experience has been like coming to Cambodia. We often have emails sent in from fellow Cambodians; we wanted to see what the letters would be like if we were viewing Cambodia from somewhere else.

Yoon Sang Chul
Khmer lit. major
Institute of Foreign Language (IFL)
From: Korea

It’s been a year and a half since Yoon Sang Chul, 52, arrived in Cambodia and followed the advice of other Koreans studying in the country by enrolling in the Khmer literature programme at IFL. He has been paying his own tuition, which he says is quite affordable coming from Korea, because he wants to be able to communicate with all Cambodians, not only ones who can speak English or Korean. His Khmer is quite good now, but he said there were times when he wanted to stop his studies at IFL. “I am old so that it is difficult for me to remember Khmer vocabulary and it is difficult to pronounce words correctly,” he said. Despite his difficulties, he is still committed to improving his Khmer and practices whenever the opportunity arises, which is often since everyone around him speaks Khmer. “I try to speak Khmer when I meet my friends and sometimes I like to watch Cambodian TV stations as well,” he said.

Navongse Susjaisog
Khmer lit. major
RUPP
From: Laos

Like most of his foreign classmates, Navongse Susjaisong was a strong student in high school and was rewarded with a free ride to Cambodia, which has an agreement with Laos to host their students while they host Cambodian scholars. Lao students, he told us, receive only $100 as a monthly stipend, a bit lower than their Vietnamese counterparts.  

Like most of his academically competitive Cambodian peers, Navongse Susjaisong hasn’t settled for getting one degree out of his time at university, he is also a tuition paying student in his senior year at Setec University studying computer programming.

Yet, it is his language skills he hopes to capitalise on when he returns to his home country, working as a translator between Lao with interests or investments in Cambodia and the Cambodians responsible for its operation. Working with businesses would be preferable to a similar job in the government, he said, since the pay is significantly higher.

Although he has struggled with catching up in Khmer classes, he has never failed a class and maintained above average grades in both programmes.

Seth Roberts
Grade 11
Logos International
From: US

Seth Roberts has been living with his family in Tuol Kork for seven years. Happily, he says, since the people have been consistently friendly and helpful in his time here. The 16-year-old even says that the education he has received at Logos International School is preferable than what he would have had in the States. “My teacher in Logos expects more of students than my teachers in USA,” he said, adding that the challenge of learning a foreign language to communicate with people around him is an added challenge that has improved his intellectual abilities.

He said that adapting to differences in culture has been a challenge, but language is the greatest barrier, and one of the main factors in his decision regarding the next stage of his education. Despite his positive experience in the Kingdom and an open offer of free tuition from Cambodia’s government, Roberts said he is likely to return home for his higher education.

Nguyen Hai Anh
Senior in Khmer Literature
Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP)
From: Vietnam

It’s been three years since Nguyen Hai Anh left his family in Northern Vietnam to pursue a degree studying Khmer. He told Lift that he came because he lived so close to the Cambodian border but nobody around him could speak Khmer, and he recognised that many opportunities and jobs were likely to open up if people needed to communicate more effectively.

When he graduates at the end of the year, Nguyen Hai Anh wants to pursue a career in public service and apply for a position in the Vietnamese government, working in a Cambodian-related field. His back up plan is joining the expanding group of Vietnamese involved or investing in Cambodian-based businesses.  

Coming from the mountainous north of Vietnam, the hot temperature is his only complaint about living in Cambodia.

The Cambodian and Vietnamese governments have an agreement to host students from across the border, and Nguyen Hai Anh, along with all recipients of a state scholarship to come study in Cambodia, has

Scatly Jang
Khmer translation major
RUPP
From: China

Scaly Jang was already majoring in Cambodian Language as a college student in China, but three months ago she decided to come to Cambodia and truly immerse herself in the language and culture. Now she and a Chinese friend are sharing a room in a house within walking distance of RUPP, where they both study. She says living in the house with a Khmer family has helped accelerate her learning, and it only costs $200 for the ten months she plans to stay in Cambodia.

There are 35 students in her programme, an intensive ten month course on translation, and Scaly Jang said that most of them are also Chinese. Like her classmates, she is paying $500 for the course. The unfamiliar food and warm weather that she has encountered in the Kingdom have been a minor challenge, but Scaly Jang says the friendly, helpful people in Cambodia have made the experience a pleasure.

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