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English skills lagging behind global trend

A teacher writes homework on a whiteboard during an English class at Phnom Penh’s Wat Koh High School last year.
A teacher writes homework on a whiteboard during an English class at Phnom Penh’s Wat Koh High School last year. Heng Chivoan

English skills lagging behind global trend

A global index on English language proficiency has cast Cambodia against the international trend of improving standards, with the Kingdom ranking 69th of 70 countries and territories surveyed and the lowest among 16 Asian participants.

Released this week, the annual English Proficiency Index, the world’s largest ranking of countries by English skills, surveyed almost 1 million adults around the world, compiling the results from countries with a minimum of 400 participants.

Despite an overall global improvement, Cambodia ranked in the “very low” band for the second year running, with only Libya scoring lower. While Vietnam and Thailand were both surveyed, neighbouring Laos and developing ASEAN partners like Myanmar were not included.

The index considers English proficiency alongside other indicators including GNP, connectivity and technological progress, concluding that better English correlates with higher incomes and quality of life.

Asia was found to have improved more than any other region, reflecting countries’ increasing investment in english training as an accelerator of globalisation. With English enshrined as the official language of the ASEAN community, this push is also influencing Cambodia.

“People all around the world want to learn English, but especially since it is the lingua franca of ASEAN, it is normal that Cambodians are prioritising learning english over languages like Chinese or French,” said Rasul Cakiroglu, head of the English department at Zaman University.

Cakiroglu noted the government’s intensifying efforts to promote English-language education, but says that Cambodian learners continue to face challenges involving access that may affect their abilities.

“Learners in Phnom Penh are relatively lucky, as they have great opportunities to interact with native speakers from a range of backgrounds, which is not the case in the provinces,” he said. “There are some English language cable channels and newspapers, as well as social media sources, but these are not always affordable for people.”

Factors such as average years of education, internet penetration and per capita income, which Cambodia ranks lowest on among Asian countries surveyed, doubtless contribute to the Kingdom’s low performance.

However, other experts cast doubt on the index’s data collection, in particular its inattention to speaking skills, or urban and rural differentiations.

“I have had far more English interactions with locals in Phnom Penh than in Tokyo,” says Andrew Tweed, an English specialist at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies who has worked extensively in Cambodia and notes speaking as a local strength.

“Proficiency varies greatly in Cambodia. If you go to small provincial towns, like Prey Veng, almost no one can communicate in English.

The rank of 69 thus seems misleading. If we are thinking of urban centres, Phnom Penh would rank much higher than a lot of other Asian cities.”

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