Cambodia // Phnom Penh and around //

Hello, what-is-your-name?

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Alhough you may be approached by older people who learnt French at school, they represent the fortunate few who survived the murder of the educated during the Pol Pot era, when the number of French-speakers in Cambodia was drastically reduced. In the aftermath, the emphasis began to switch to English, as the arrival of UNTAC and the NGOs gave rise to a demand for English-speaking interpreters. Nowadays computers, tourism and Cambodia’s membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose working language is English, are driving the rush to learn the language.

English is now taught in state schools, though cursorily at best, so parents who can afford it send their children to supplementary English-language classes at private institutions immediately after school hours, with adults piling in to take courses after the children leave at 5pm. At 1000–1500 riel an hour, these lessons are an expensive business for many, but the outlay is regarded as a good investment, comprehension of English being perceived as essential to getting a decent job. Thanks to massive demand, any establishment with a few desks and chairs can set itself up as a language school, and the shortage of qualified teachers means that the instructor is often only a couple of study books ahead of their students. Classes are advertised on signs and banners in Phnom Penh and all major towns; the place to glimpse them being conducted in the capital is Street 164, parallel to and just north of Charles de Gaulle Boulevard, near Psar Orussey.

Although learning by rote is the norm in Cambodia, many students in the cities now have a reasonable understanding of English; elsewhere though, teaching is at best rudimentary and it is still possible that you’ll encounter giggling children rattling off the well-worn phrase “Hello, what is your name?” before running off, without any expectation of a reply.

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