Khmer English

A Cambodian ad in a female students’ resident. Khmer ads with English translations are becoming a part of the urban views of Cambodia.

If we have to make an updated evaluation on the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC, 1992-1993) legacy to modern Cambodia, researchers probably will conclude that English language is one of them. Saloth Sar (alias Pol Pot) was educated in Paris where he set the conditions to evolve the Khmer Rouge movement. However he was fluent in French language, as many of the middle and high class Cambodians of the French Protectorate of Kampuchea, the eradication of foreign languages was included in the extreme policies of the Khmer Rouge Era (1975-1979). Thus French language became one of the deadly victims of the regime. Although French was widely used during the UNTAC time, it is true that English was used as the official language. It creates the need of several Cambodians to serve as interpreters to UNTAC officials.

Although Cambodia attracts today many French visitors for business or tourism, French language can be considered a dead language in Cambodia. You can find elderly Cambodians able to speak some French with nostalgia, but young people just turn on to English for good or for bad. You can find even the National Constitution well written in an English version where it is stated that Khmer is the official language in the Kingdom (Art. 5)

ADMINIST ATION. In Khmer language, R is a practically nonexistent phoneme.

If you visit Vietnam where French has been better preserved or Thailand that has in its history several links to England, you will notice that Cambodians speak a better English than those two neighbors countries.

Talking to young Cambodians, you will realize also the great appreciation of them for English language under the premise ‘it is the international language.’ Then  we find ‘English schools‘ everywhere, either inside big cities like Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siem Reap or Sihanoukville or in villages. French language is not more included in the curriculum of secondary schools, but English, even if English teachers do not speak English and follow the Cambodian popular English text book ‘New Headway‘ that is practically copied everywhere without regards for copyrights.


The Cambodian option for English has several advantages, of course:

Foreign investment will prefer a country where its population appreciates an ‘international language’ like English. Foreign business people, political leaders, entrepreneurs, international tourism… will find easily to deal in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang or Sihanoukville if they find their Cambodian counterparts talking to them directly in a common language like English. It gives to the foreign investors a feeling of ‘financial security.’ If you want to invest in a country where you need an interpreter to talk with its people and a translator to see their official documents and laws, you feel doubts. Is the communication 100% clear? Do they really understand what I need? Then it is time consuming and we leave in a global time where time runs in seconds.

Children and young people will have the opportunity to reach a more global information. If they speak only Khmer, a language talked by 20 million persons around the world, their information will be limited in what is concern foreign topics, bounded to translations – translation is always traitor.


It creates also some situations that need to be reviewed. The enthusiasm for an ‘international language’ can be in detriment of our own language. Khmer, one of the most ancient living languages, can be affected by this growing enthusiasm of young Cambodians for English and for Latin scripts. The situation can be more worrying since Khmer language has not a central language academia authority to care and develop the language. If you notice, there is not a know rule in the matter of adapt foreign technical terms into Khmer. If you want to know the technical terms in Khmer, it is easier. See this example: Intenet, computé, mau (for mouse), etc. Plus the abundance of geographical terms in French language. There is not a rule of how to adopt or to incorporate foreign terms into the language, something that makes it a little vulnerable.

Facebook, Twitter and Chats are doing their part too. Although Khmer Unicode has been developed to give the opportunity to Cambodians to use their Khmer language on computers and Internet, it is frequent the use of Latin scripts of Khmer online.

See these texts brought out from Facebook (hiding their authors):

  • serch ey kor serch yang nes: It means ‘search something wrong, search how’
  • mix k b ask nhom jeng? nhom tell b mdong herz ta: (unknown)
  • ort som tes: (unknown)

The proliferation of foreign businesses like restaurants, hotels and others in the big cities, is making a preference to English over Khmer in the ads they put in their locals. In many cases the rule to put Khmer language first is overlooked or even eliminated.

The idea that learning English will guarantee for you a better future in Cambodia, attracts also the booming of English schools, too many of them a fake to get your money, where the ‘English teachers’ do not speak really English or they know only grammar, but without conversation. Schools using English text books like ‘Headway’ are abundant in Cambodia and children and young people attending those schools provide a lot of money.

Connected to this last one situation, English  fever attracts also foreign abusers trying to use their English native skill to take advantage from locals, even children and teenagers. Many foreigners offering themselves to teach English, are not really teachers with a proper method, so just take care of possible abusers.

To end this post we can question the idea of English as international language that is exposed by many Cambodians in their will to speak the language. It is true that English is important in our time and it became the lingua franca for business, media and tourism. It is enough to say that you can go everywhere with English, but it does not mean that all the world speaks English. Airports, beaches, hotels are not the world. A Cambodian can be successful not because he or she speaks English, but because he or she has talents, creativity, honesty and commitment. You can be successful just speaking Khmer language and many Cambodians have been successful without English too. So it is not the correct way to introduce English language, because, as it has happened with other lingua francas along the history, it will pass one day.

Promote the respect for copyrights in Cambodia. Do not photocopy books.

Recommended and related sites: 

  • BBC World Service (2012). English in the East, Episode 1. The Documentary. ‘English has been the dominant global language for a century, but is it the language of the future in rising South East Asia?’ Link retrieved n 5 August 2012.

Tags: , , , , , ,

About Albeiro Rodas

Albeiro Rodas (in Cambodia Sky Ly Samnang), is a MA in Digital Communication, independent journalist and a Salesian of Don Bosco from Amalfi, Colombia, based in Cambodia since 1999. He is the creator of the Don Bosco schools of journalism in Sihanoukville and Kep with young people from poor communities and the founder of the Don Bosco Kep Children Fund. Medal for Social Commitment UPB (2010); among the 100 more upstanding Colombians abroad (Marca Colombia, 2012, and among the 12 Colombians that are making this a better world 2013 (

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: