English for a Changing Cambodia by Kali Mason

The phrase “TEFL” is thrown around a lot worldwide as the demand for speaking English becomes more popular. So what does it mean for people to speak English in Cambodia?

Naisbitt and Aburdene in 1990 said that “the culture of English-speaking countries will dominate”. Now, 24 years later, the landscape of Cambodia, especially the capital Phnom Penh has dramatically changed. More skyscrapers are dotted around Phnom Penh than ever before and more are being added each month; the latest example being the huge Aeon Mall that has brought elements of western culture right into the heart of Cambodia. Many signs and posters are written not only in Khmer but in English as well, showing how much more touristy the country is becoming. Many people that I have spoken to about this describe Phnom Penh as being the next Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City.

Therefore the demand for English is almost as rife as Cambodia’s demand to become modern and sophisticated. I interviewed a number of students in my classes about why they wanted to learn English and these are the responses I received:

“So I can get into a good university.”

“So I can get a good job.”

“So I can talk to important business people that work in investment.”

“So I can travel the world!”

Many of my students work in business or their desired university has a requirement for speaking English which is one of the most common reasons as to why many students come here. For them it is more beneficial speaking English at CWF than learning English using the traditional writing and reading tasks. I asked students of different levels at the school if they preferred our style of learning – more engaging, animated and filled with games – compared with a style of learning that they are more familiar with and many replied with similar responses, although one stuck out the most.

“I find when I am here I feel more welcome to learn. We do lots of games [at CWF] and talk to each other which is good practice and we make lots of friends. When I first came here I was shy but now I love class because I can use what I have learnt with my new friends. When we are in school we do not get chance to speak English, we just write it down and forget it, but now I feel I can use English with tourists and they like that.”

Many employees at CWF have taken classes here and I hear them practicing their English with the volunteers or their friends which is very encouraging. English can be seen therefore as a gateway to many different avenues: studying, teaching, working in business and just general conversation to name a few, and the number of speakers grows by the day. It’s interesting to see the globalisation of a language that was once never spoken in Phnom Penh and has now spread not just here, but almost to the entirety of the world. As the westerners flock here so does English, but it begs the question as to what will happen to the true Khmer culture.

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