Sounds and pronunciation usually practiced by young Cambodian school children are being mumbled by foreigners in Phnom Penh. “Kor, Khor, Koa, Khoa…” More and more people from all over the world are taking Khmer classes at the Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL).
Soeung Phos, coordinator of the ‘Khmer for Foreigners’ program at IFL as well as a Khmer literature lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, says that the IFL has provided Khmer language courses for foreign students since 1982. Although it’s not essential for foreigners living in Cambodia, learning the local language can help with work, studies and socialising.
Miriam Park, an 18 year old Korean girl agrees. “I decided to learn Khmer at IFL, because I want to live in Cambodia and study for my bachelors’ degree here,” she says.
28-year-old Australian NGO worker, Amee Brown, is learning Khmer so that he can communicate with the people he works with in the provinces. He says, “Most people in the provinces do not speak English and that’s why I must understand Khmer.”
Chan Vathna has been teaching Khmer for eight years at IFL. He thinks that the fact that more foreigners are learning Khmer has its benefits and its draw-backs.
“It is a good thing for Cambodia because it means ?that we can raise awareness of our culture and civilisation through them. However, it also can harm our religion because some foreigners are spreading their beliefs in Cambodia,” he says.
Elvie Daradar, a 39-year-old woman from the Philippines is amongst those who wish to preach here.
“I love this nation and I want to speak the Khmer ?language so that I can tell the people how precious they are to God, that’s why I decided to invest in Khmer courses at IFL.” Acknowledging that not everyone shares her faith she said, “If they don’t accept, it is their right.”
After completing the year-long ‘Khmer for Foreigners’ course, students can further their learning at the RUPP’s Department of Khmer Literature. The Advanced Study of Khmer Program (ASK) provides overseas students with the linguistic basics so that they can partake in academic research, professional discourse and cultural interaction.
39-year-old Do Sung Uk from Korea is doing ?exactly this and he says that his language skills will be useful even after he returns home from Cambodia. In recent years there has been an influx of Cambodian workers to Korea and he will be able to converse with them in their mother tongue.
Soeung Phos laments that although many foreigners are interested in learning Khmer, many Cambodians focus on learning other languages.
“Foreigners ?give value to Khmer language and literature, but we do not, we appreciate foreign language,” he says. “Many Khmer people send their children to study foreign language instead of Khmer language.”
If the feelings of Khmer student Oun Theary are anything to go by, Soeng Phos’ fears are well founded.
But perhaps he shouldn’t worry too much. The19-year-old Theary believes that Khmer is not an international language and therefore not valued on the job market.
“However, for me, I love leaning Khmer language, because it is a means of boosting Khmer literature,” he says.