A Cambodian student answers a teacher's question during a history lesson in a classroom at a private school in Phnom Penh in this photo taken Aug. 8, 2014. Learning English is a preferred option for many young people in Cambodia as it offers better job prospects. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
Standards of living in Cambodia have improved markedly since the war ended with education emerging as a key industry and English shattering a once French dominated cultural landscape, which is reshaping the next generation for a different future.
In business, education, civil society and among younger members of government, English is now the second language, after Khmer.
Father Ashley Evans, an Irish Jesuit missionary who worked in the Khmer refugee camps in the 1980s and returned in 1993 is now the director of the Xavier Jesuit School Project. He says English is important for Cambodian students because it enables them to relate to other people and to enter other cultures and communities of knowledge and expertise that they cannot access in Khmer.
"The study of English also helps Cambodian students understand the relevance of their own history and culture. Other languages, like Chinese and French, are also important in this regard but English offers the widest openings to other cultures," Father Evans said.
Srey Vanthy, a professor at the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), used to speak French, before English became popular.
"I was born in the 1960s when the French language was very popular," she said. "I had the chance to learn French and received a scholarship. I still speak French but I do not hear many young people speaking it now, instead they use English."
French became the lingua franca here after their colonial forces arrived in 1863 and it remained in common usage within the bureaucracy even after independence, 90 years later.
But educating the Khmers was not a priority for Paris and three decades of war and the 1975-1979 bloody reign by the Khmer Rouge obliterated the country's cultural fabric and with that the few gains that had been made with foreign language teaching.
Hanoi's subsequent invasion and 10-year occupation of Cambodia also resulted in a brief flirtation with Russian and Vietnamese, however, French remained an important tool for diplomatic communications and official use — until the arrival of U.N.-backed peace-keepers.
English as a common standard
English first emerged as a linguistic force with the landing of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1992 and its mandate to restore peace and hold free and fair elections a year later, as part of U.N. efforts to rehabilitate this war-torn country.
About 20,000 troops and civilian advisors from 45 countries served here, employing around 50,000 Cambodians who were given a chance to improve on what little English they already had, and that has continued to influence Cambodian life to this day.
Cambodia's admission to the Association of South East Asian Nation, where English is the official language of the 10-nation trade bloc, and its transition into a free market economy, have also played an important role that requires the study and use of English.
Srey Vanthy said that many Cambodians believed their ability to speak English would open a wide range of opportunities to learn and gain a decent career path while sharing their interests with people from different cultures.
"Even my two kids, I let them study English because English is in use globally. Here there are now more English schools available and more scholarships are being provided for them to study in countries like England, Australia and the United States," she added.
Better English, better pay
Improved employment prospects are behind most young people learning English. Sen Sinal, a former French student at RULE, says a gradual reduction in the use of the French language has forced him to focus on improving his English in order to find a job.
"I began my special French class at RULE with the cooperation of Lumiere University Lyon 2 of France in 2007. At that time, I mostly used French in studying and when connecting with an administration agency representative of the French government there. But after graduation, I began adopting English instead, since there were not many companies that were looking for people who spoke the French language," he said.
Sen Sinal eventually earned an English-language Master's Degree in Law in Japan. "Moreover, both local and international companies require an English-speaking ability," he said.
The dominance of English on the internet and introduction of the smart phone also helped to underpin growth in the language by expanding access into rural areas of the country and onto the streets of Phnom Penh where taxi and tuk-tuk drivers are often fluent.
"When I decided to study information technology, I needed to use a computer to do research and read. Most IT is in English and if I cannot understand English then it would be very difficult for me," said Much Chamroeun, an IT graduate.
Higher standards still needed
Hundreds of non-governmental organizations arrived here with UNTAC and some invested heavily in English, opening-up schools like Bak Touk High School for the poor.
An influx of foreigners followed, attracted by foreign-ownership laws and visa requirements that are much friendlier than Cambodia's neighbors and English flourished. However, standards remain an issue.
Father Evans operates the Jesuit school in Banteay Meanchey Province, in Cambodia's remote far northwest. He says while Cambodia has many language schools, the level of teaching and learning remains weak as both students and teachers rely on rote learning rather than active participation.
"However, the level of English is improving all the time. There is a big difference between now and 15 years ago. TV stations must be allowed to broadcast English language programs with Khmer subtitles rather than Khmer dubbing," Father Evans said.
"If Cambodia wants to make English study a top priority so that the level is as good as in Malaysia, then some subjects may have to be taught in English, like, say, world history or science, first at university then at high school."
It's a point not lost on Mak Simorn, a 31-year-old security guard at a foreign-owned coffee shop. His lament is his English needs to improve dramatically if he is to improve his lot. He says people who work with tourists get better pay and better tips if they can speak English well and that is what he would like to do too.
"I have learnt my English from hearing people talk on radio and television. My broken English will not allow me to go far and that is something I regret," he said.