East Asian languages growing in popularity
A student learns Thai at a private class in Phnom Penh’s foreign language school district near Bak Tuok primary school, on June 6.
hile English remains the most popular foreign language among students in Cambodia, Chinese, Japanese and Korean are fast catching up as young Khmers increasingly view them as a gateway to better jobs in the country’s growing industrial and tourism sectors.
Japanese and Korean language courses have already made the jump from private schools onto the state-approved curriculum and are now taught at Royal University of Phnom Penh alongside English and French, said the college’s director of administration, Ponn Chhay.
Japanese was included two years ago and Korean this academic year. The costs of establishing the language courses were paid for by the countries’ respective governments, Chhay said.
Both languages have become essential to the tourism industry in Cambodia, which has seen an explosion in visitors arriving from East Asia. South Koreans continue to top the list of foreign tourists making the trip to either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, where tour guides walk their international charges through the Angkor temples, explaining the wonders of Cambodia’s past in a variety of foreign tongues.
But it is Chinese that has made the biggest inroad in Cambodia, with Prime Minister Hun Sen set to sign a sub-decree that will put the language on the national curriculum at university level, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education Chea Se told the Post on June 9.
The Chinese government requested last year that Chinese-language courses be offered in universities and the Cambodian government was happy to oblige, according to Chhay, who added that instruction will start in about one year, allowing students to work towards Cambodia’s first education ministry-approved Chinese-language qualification.
Until that time, however, a number of fully licensed language institutes are filling the gap for budding linguists.
The biggest Chinese school in Cambodia is the Duan Hoa Chinese School, which has two branches in Phnom Penh and over 7,000 students. The school has been open since 1992 and caters mainly to Chinese students, although some Cambodians and Vietnamese also study there, said administration manager Kim Hean.
“Often, students are trying to learn Chinese so they can join the family business or find work in a private company – especially working in factories or in the tourism industry as many Chinese investors are coming to Cambodian now,” Hean said.
China has emerged as one of Cambodia’s largest investment partners, and is heavily involved not only in the garment sector, but construction and other industries.
A language teacher writes Korean characters on a whiteboard at the International Chinese Center, which has more than 1,000 students enrolled at its two branches in Phnom Penh.
The Chinese firm Sinohydro is developing the country’s biggest hydropower projects, and more Chinese companies are eying this tiny Southeast Asian Kingdom for its business potential.
“I learn Chinese because I saw how many Chinese companies and factories there are in Cambodia and I want to be able to work at these places,” said Chea Sokbouy, who is now studying in Grade 11 at Duan Hoa.
Another Chinese language school, the Chhung Cheng Chinese School, is popular with Chinese-Khmer families, said the deputy director of the school, Chan Tirin.
Of the 2,000 pupils at Chhung Cheng, most come from Chinese or Chinese-Khmer families who, while continuing to study in Cambodian state-run schools, realize the value in today’s society of speaking two languages.
Tirin said that preserving the Chinese language in Cambodia was an important motivation for many students, but securing a high-paying job also remained a driving force for learning Chinese.
The International Chinese Center, with two branches in Phnom Penh, has more than 1,000 students currently enrolled in its classes. Some 70 percent of its students learn Chinese, but the center also teaches English, Korean, French, Japanese and Thai, and retains a heavy emphasis on continued studies in mainstream schools.
“We believe it is important to learn Khmer, obtain [normal school] qualifications and also learn a second language,” said the center’s director, Chin Socheat.