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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia's students flock to learn English

Cambodia's students flock to learn English


Since Cambodia opened up to the free market in the past decade, the number of

English schools has mushroomed. Many Phnom Penh streets are strung with colorful

advertisements designed to tempt young people into the classrooms.

For students in Ngeth Darith's TOEFL class learning English can open doors to a brighter future.

Street 164, south of Baktuk Primary School, is crowded from

dawn till dusk with hundreds of young students who believe English is the

younger generat-ion's best bet.

Fifteen-year-old secondary school student

Prom Rithy is hopeful that learning English will help him to find a good job in

a private company once he has finished his studies. Rithy is not alone: the past

few years have seen a surge in the number of students learning English as well

as schools that provide the service.

Rithy started learning English last

year. He found that the standard available at school was not good enough, so he

now spends an extra two hours each day studying the language


"Better human resources are needed for Cambodia's

development," he says, "so I decided to study English in the hope that I will

find a good job in a company when I have finished."

In 1996, the Ministry

of Education, Youth and Sports (MoE) included English and French into the

secondary school curriculum starting from Grade 7 (aged from about 14 years).

Students can choose which they would prefer to learn. Statistics show that this

year almost 37,000 Grade 9 students took the English examination, while French

attracted around half as many.

George Tailor, a former consultant who was

involved in an MoE project to train English language teachers, says the increase

in the numbers of students keen to take English lessons has surprised even


He says in 1996 around 7,000 Grade 9 students sat the French

language exam, with 25,000 students sitting for English. That means the number

studying English has increased by half in only five years. Tailor has noticed a

proliferation of English schools in both Phnom Penh and the


"There has been a big change," he says. "Students are

interested in learning English for social and cultural reasons and also for job

opportunities. I think that learning English will grow even more than it has

already. English will become increasingly popular and successful."


has several reasons for the growth in numbers learning English. First was

Cambodia's admission to the English-medium Asean group in 1999. Second, he says,

is that it is seen as fashionable language given the cultural influence of

foreign countries such as the US and Australia. Third, those who speak English

can more easily find jobs in an increasingly competitive work


Ngeth Dareth, 38, has taught English since 1992 after

returning from a refugee camp in Malaysia. He found that teaching English earned

him a good living, which gave him the confidence to quit two jobs, the first

with UNICEF and the second with the Cambodian Mine Action Center.


stands for eight hours a day in his classroom nearby Baktuk Primary School

teaching English grammar, writing skills and translation. A microphone helps

project his voice across benches filled with dozens of students who pay 1,000

riel an hour to crowd into his classes.

Sean Sam Ath, a 25-year-old monk,

has studied English since 1998. Sam Ath says that learning English proves useful

when interpreting the teachings of the Buddha.

"When I have a good

command of English, I would like to interpret Buddha's scripture in English so

foreigners can understand it," he says.

Of course, more students require

more teachers: MoE statistics for 2000/2001 show that there are now 728 English

teachers compared with 331 French language teachers at the secondary level. The

number of Grade 7 to Grade 12 students to whom they teach English now stands at


However, it appears the demand for English teachers is

outstripping the supply. Dr Suporte Prasertsri, head of Unesco's education

program, says there are not enough teachers to supply every school.


the Fifth International Conference on Language and Development held in the

capital recently, Suporte said that the standard of English taught by many

native Khmer speakers was not good enough; he suggested that the country take on

500 native speakers of English to meet the demand.

Like Tailor, Suporte

notices that the desire of young Cambodians to learn computing skills had driven

the demand for English. He adds that since Cambodia joined Asean, he has also

noticed more demand by government officials to study English.

"Every year

the Asean countries hold a lot of meetings in many fields. These meetings are

held in English, so government officials should learn more English to absorb the

information," he says.

Siv Seng Han, deputy chief of planning at the

Higher Studies Department at the MoE, says that despite booming numbers of

English students, they could not avoid learning French as many textbooks were

only available in that language.

Moreover, he says, the French government

has provided funding to some university departments, including medicine,

engineering, economics and law; that funding is conditional on those courses

being taught in French.

"During the 1960s we learned French and worked

with French people," says Seng Han, who speaks both French and English. "Now

people tend to learn English because they want to find jobs with a foreign


Mao Sokan, director of the Institute of Foreign Languages, says

that around 300 English language students at his schools were on Cambodian

government scholarships, while the rest paid $450 a year. Almost 1,000 students

are studying for a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in English, while the French

equivalent has 250 students.

Sokan says that ten years ago only 15

students took a BA in English. Four hundred and fifty now hold the degree.

However, he cautions that learning only English is insufficient and says

students should study other skills to ensure good jobs.

"In former times

people were arrested for learning English," he says. "I think that in the future

Cambodians will use English more than French - after all, that is the language

used for communication in other countries in the region."




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