Seventeen-year-old Muth Sovannara is not like most Cambodian teenagers. For starters, he speaks three languages – his native Khmer, the English he spent most of his life studying, and, for three years now, Mandarin.
Each weekday, he wakes early in order to get to his high school at 7am.
After four hours of lessons in Khmer, the teenager packs his bag and returns home for an afternoon nap.
It is rest he will sorely need. Later in the day, Sovannara goes for an hour of English classes before heading to Mandarin lessons at the Duan Hua School, just outside Kandal Market.
Coping with three languages is a challenge, he admits, but Mandarin is the toughest of all. In order to keep up, Sovannara stays awake until midnight most days to “fu xi gong ke”, he says, using the Mandarin term for revision.
But the long hours, says Sovannara, are worth it. “I want to be a Mandarin translator in the future.”
While Sovannara’s ambition may be unique, his desire to learn Mandarin is anything but. Enrolment in Chinese schools has been skyrocketing, classes have been proliferating and, increasingly, Chinese is becoming the third – or even second – language of choice for young Cambodians.
It’s not hard to see why. According to a report released early last month by the Council for the Development of Cambodia, China had poured $9.17 billion in investments into the country in the past 18 years (1994-2012), making it the Kingdom’s biggest financier.
These investments focused mostly on the fields of energy, mineral resources, garment manufacturing, banking and finance, real estate, tourism and agriculture.
“All these Chinese companies that come here need workers that can speak Chinese. This is especially so in factories. Most factory workers don’t speak Mandarin; they will need people that can help them translate,” said Pan Gan Wu, senior secretary of the China, Hong Kong and Macau Business Association.
Learning Mandarin then could be a straight ticket to a middle-management job, says Gan Wu.
Tourism is another industry with a growing demand for Mandarin-speaking guides. Some 333,900 Chinese tourists visited Cambodia last year – up 35 per cent from 2011 – according to a Tourism Ministry report released last month. This makes China the third-largest tourist arrival group after Vietnam and South Korea, and the fastest-growing one.
It is no wonder then that Cambodians here are snapping at the opportunity.
Work hard and endure
With 14,000 registered students, the Duan Hua School – which has two campuses, in Chamkarmon and Daun Penh districts – is the largest Chinese school in Southeast Asia.
Enrolment has been increasing year on year, said principal Li Huiming, who estimates that there are now about 30,000 Cambodians studying Mandarin at the 50-plus Chinese schools in the country.
At Duan Hua, it is the night classes that are proving most popular.
“We have about 3,000 students enrolled in our evening classes this academic year – about 1,000 more than the year before,” said Huiming.
These are filled mostly with undergraduates and young working adults hungry for an extra edge.
At Duan Hua’s evening classes, classrooms are filled to the brim with Cambodians scribbling down Chinese proverbs and idioms. Their teachers, some of whom are from China, instruct them to recite the words – and one proverb echoes poignantly down the dark hallways. “Ke ku nai lao”, a class repeats after their Chinese instructor. “Work hard and endure.”
Many students the Post spoke to said they hoped their efforts would lead to a lucrative job.
Primary three-level student Nguon Lengneng takes lessons every evening. The banking major graduated from university a year ago but has so far been unable to find work in the profession. Lengneng, 24, is hoping that speaking and writing in Mandarin will move him to the front of the line for a job at a bank.
“There are many Chinese businesses here, so the language is very important now,” he said.
It is perhaps a telling sign of Mandarin’s growing importance that some English-language schools here are also beginning to offer Mandarin classes.
Home of English International has been offering Khmer and English classes in Cambodia for 16 years. Beginning this month, interested students can learn Confucius alongside Charles Dickens.
Like Duan Hua, Home of English is offering evening classes and targeting young people. The response has been good so far, says managing director Judy Tan, adding that several diplomats have also registered for classes.
“It’s no longer enough to be bilingual; we have to be trilingual,” said Tan, who is Thai-Taiwanese. “Look at how many Chinese people there are in the world; after English, it’s the most important language.”
Indeed, the growing importance of the language shadows the increasing Chinese influence in the region, say experts.
“The pool of Cambodians who speak Chinese are a natural constituency for China to expand its cultural, political and economic influence,” said Carlyle Thayer, a professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales and an expert on the region. “Mandarin speakers have a stake in China’s continued involvement in Cambodia.”
And while many have said the passing of King Father Norodom Sihanouk heralded the end of the “Francophonie Era”, perhaps it is also the start of the Cambodia’s China-funded “Great Leap Forward”.
The government has made strides toward bolstering Sino-Cambodian relations – next month, Prime Minister Hun Sen will make a trip to Beijing to greet China’s new leaders President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who will take power in late March.
“For strategic and economic reasons, this is natural. Cambodia is a small country, and we need to have a strong ally,” said independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay.
Thayer notes that as China grows more influential in the region, “Mandarin will compete in the regional marketplace with English as the so-called lingua franca”.
As it stands, Cambodians seem poised and waiting for that day to come. Chum Leakena, 24, studied Mandarin for two years and, due to her language skills, landed a receptionist position five years ago at a Phnom Penh gym frequented by expats. Within two years, Leakena was promoted to an assistant operations manager and now oversees sales and staff rosters.
“At my workplace, I’m the only one who can speak Mandarin and is able to talk to our Chinese clients.”
Leakena’s two sisters have followed in her footsteps and have also spent years learning the language.
“The US is a big economy, but China is second,” said Leakena. “If we can speak both languages, we can work with both.”