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Esperanto just the thing for secret lovers

THE banners have been hanging in the wind and rain for 15 days now, but only five

children have turned up to ask about training for the new Esperanto language course.

Esperanto teacher Chhim Sokha has been forced into a new approach: offering the course

for free.

That has only encouraged mockery and derision. "Even if they came to my house

to teach me for free I wouldn't learn," said Mao Saran, 27. Reflecting, Saran

decides he might learn it if he had a girlfriend, so he could whisper "words

of love" so that other people couldn't understand.

Chan Mach reckons Esperanto might be a good idea for spies or secret police. Another

student, Tep Sok, said: "In Cambodia Esperanto is a dead language. I would rather

learn Cham [spoken by the small Islamic community], not Esperanto."

Learning foreign languages is big business in Cambodia, and an issue seeped in history.

English and French were included in school curricula before the Khmer Rouge era of

1975. After 1979, Russian and Vietnamese were taught. People could only learn English

and French secretly during much of the 80s, but now the two languages have been reintroduced

into the school syllabus.

However, most Cambodians know little about Esperanto.

Esperanto was created by a Polish eye doctor in 1887 with the aim of promoting it

as an international language. Its roots are derived from words commonly found in

European langauges.

Encyclopedia Brittanica says that Esperanto is the most successful of the international

artificial languages, with over 100,000 speakers.

However, "Kamboga Esperanto Associo" director Chhim Sokha reckons there

are millions of speakers now around the world.

Undaunted by the apparent lack of interest from Cambodians, Sokha - in addition to

making his classes free - is going to ask different ministries and departments to

nominate students to learn the langauge.

Sokha began learning the language in Ho Chi Minh City, and continued when he returned

to Cambodia in the late 80s. He first opened an Esperanto class in 1990, and claims

to have taught 1,000 Khmers the strange language.

Sokha, who also speaks English, German, Spanish, Vietnamese and French, launched

his "Kamboga Esperanto Associo" in 1993. Since then, he has mostly taught

curious Cambodians privately at his home.

"Anything that is easy to learn is also easy to lose," he said.

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