Teaching English to Cambodians

I want to share some recommendations for those who are teaching English to Cambodians without speaking Khmer. Probably professional language teachers have gone already to the characteristics of Khmer language in order to understand the linguistic logics of the Cambodian people and to elaborate a proper English language master plan. But we can see several foreigners without an education title and even from non-English-speaking countries, teaching English in Cambodia as volunteers in organizations or looking for a job to do while they live here. Many of them became occasional English teachers to their Cambodian friends, who urged them to teach them English.

Khmer has nothing to see with European languages and it is something you must have in account at the time to teach English to any Cambodian. It is not like teaching English to French or Spanish people, which languages are in anyway connected to English for common European linguistic roots. For example, the grammar of French or Spanish is correspondent to the English grammar and it is an advantage. Saying in English ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’ has undoubtedly the Spanish correspondent (Si no puedes vencerlos, úneteles) just because both languages belong to the same Western mentality concepts.

Here I let some Khmer characteristics in grammar, pronunciation and Cambodian mentality that would affect the way Cambodians speak English or any other Western language, with the notice that Cambodians are very good learners of any foreign language, an advantage of them over several foreigners that live in Cambodia for many years speaking a very basic level of Khmer.


As the same in any other foreign language, Khmer has many phonemes that are not in English and viceversa.

These are the main English phonemes that do not exist in Khmer language or have a different use:

  • F – The world Farmacy helps because Cambodians know it through French, though it does not exit in Khmer.
  • CH – Especially if this phoneme is at the end of a word: Aich will be said Aik.
  • – This phoneme is made W. Cambodians say Wietnam instead Vietnamor Wery muk instead Very much.
  • – The phoneme is made as K. They will say Tak instead Tax.
  • S – The phoneme exits in Khmer, though it is scarce. From here, the problem with plural: I have two book…
  • R – The same with the S phoneme, R is too scarce in Khmer, though Cambodians pronounce it much better than Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai people that made it L (some Cambodians also, but there is a better approximation.)
  • B / P – It is not rare to make the B phoneme as P: Brazil becomes Prazil.
  • Z – This phoneme is completely strain to Cambodians.
  • SH – It becomes S, so She is said Si.
  • TH – This is also a great difficulty, becoming S… like Sank you.

Now let’s go the opposite way: Khmer phonemes not present in English and most European languages:

  • ញ – This Khmer phoneme is very similar to Spanish Ñ and, curiously, they have a curved line: in Khmer it is down, in Spanish it is up. This Khmer phoneme, unlikely Spanish, can go at the end of a word, for example in ភ្នំពេ(Phnom Penh). In Spanish it could be written Phnom Peñ and it would be read correctly. Most foreigners do not pronounce the name of the Cambodian capital correctly just because this phoneme.
  • ង​ – This is my favorite Khmer phoneme. The reason is that I spent weeks and weeks in 1999 learning it. I thanks the work of Dr. Franklin E. Huffman, Modern Spoken Cambodian (1969), who wrote the right tip to learn this difficult Asian phoneme: ‘ŋ occurs in English words having a final ng, as in sing’ (Huffman, 1969:2). It happens to be the Velar nasal. It seems that some Huffman texts are copied into that Wikipedia article. If you want to learn Khmer, you must see Dr. Huffman.

Then we have 72 phonemes, 23 of them being vowels, meaning a wide range of phonemes… Khmer is the language with the longest alphabet of the planet!

What is the advantage? When Cambodians learn a language, it becomes easier for them, because their sense of phonetic is much developed than yours. Cambodians use very much their ear in learning. It creates also a problem for non native speaking English teachers: Cambodians will copy their original accents. If you are a Frenchman, your Cambodian students will learn English with French accent

In this sense, Cambodian students must be exposed to a different English accents. As they are so particular with the exactitude of the Khmer phoneme, they will become particular with the English accent they pick, thinking it is the real English accent. Many Cambodians do not understand English spoken in other accent, so you must procure to them the exposure to other accents out of British or American as well.

Social relations

Another difficulty is the conservative Cambodian social relations that especially Western visitors seem to ignore thinking Cambodians behave as in their own countries. You see elder foreigners asking their young pupils to call them by their personal names as old friends, a cultural crush felt more by the Cambodian, learned from childhood to respect older people and position, avoiding to call them by their names.

The most serious is that your Cambodian friend is put against the wall, because he or she is asked to violate the social rules of his or her culture before their own people, something that attracts over them a social disapproval without your own knowledge.

In teaching English, you must clarify such as that in English it is okay to ask for the name of a new acquaintance, but not his/her age or the salary they have. Because it is impolite in Cambodia to ask the name of a person we just knew or having a higher position or older than me, but it is okay to ask the age – even of women – and how much salary you get.

You must teach also that in Western cultures people do not like to be called elder, because in Cambodia to be elder is a high honor, status and a position of wise. In this sense, Cambodians ask your age and after they use to say smiling ‘you are very old‘ without the intention to offend, but thinking it is a great idea to be a successful person like you, who reached so many years in smartness.

Cambodians do not shake hands, especially people out of Phnom Penh. Now there is a new tradition to shake the hands, especially of foreigners, by holding the elbow with the other hand. I am studying the origin of this rare custom…

In Khmer language there are not pronouns (I, you, she, he, we, it, they). The related pronouns we are thought in our first Khmer lessons such as ខ្ញុំ អ្នក លោក លោកស្រី are only social positions you relate with. For example, there are many types of you: if you talk to a lady, the you becomes lady or madame. So you don’t say ‘How are you?’ but ‘How is lady‘. 

This is the reason why so many Cambodians in a first stage of English conversation say things such as Teacher eat rise already? Teacher come with us?

Teach them the English pronouns, but make them know that saying you to a person in English isn’t impolite.

Are you teaching English in Cambodia? How is it? How is your experience? Any recommendation?


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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, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X39xwdGtVXI) and among the 12 Colombians that are making this a better world 2013 (http://www.colombia.co/en/culture/colombians-that-are-making-this-a-better-world.html).

14 responses to “Teaching English to Cambodians”

  1. Alan says :

    How is it for older EFL teachers? I’m 72, 5 years in Vietnam with MA(TESOL), TEFL cert…25 years Middle East, Europe…but hours are shrinking for 65+ with new Government decree.

  2. phnompenhcv says :

    As we approach 2017 will the emphasis switch more to private tutoring as parents now understand that the level of education within the International schools is woefully inadequate when compared to other countries?

    • Albeiro Rodas says :

      I will review the topic, but I don’t think private tutoring is a tendency in Cambodia. I think many international schools are good and it is a matter of spend time in a good selection.

  3. phnompenhcv says :

    Is the education system getting better in Cambodia now that 2017 is approaching?

  4. UK Tutoring Services-Cambodia says :

    I feel the educational system is improving gradually now.

  5. gb says :

    Some useful points…thanks. I’ve noticed the sound “i” as in “time” is also challenge…

  6. Robert A. Landen says :

    A specialist in teaching English conversation, I offer all Cambodian teachers serious about improving their English speaking skills FREE practice in person or on Skype. Contact Bob at cli4tenglish@gmail.com for details.

  7. Laurel says :

    What books or CD’s are most beneficial to teach adult Cambodians to read and write English?
    We live in Maine USA. I am an RN caring for a special needs infant. The family can speak some English but do not read or write. Thanks Laurel

  8. Tutoring Services (@TutorCambodia) says :

    How do you think parents feel about the future of their children in The Kingdom of Wonder concerning the shrinking job market and facing more and more stiff competition from fellow graduates? #Cambodia

  9. UK Tutoring Services-Cambodia says :

    It is complicated I grant you. #Cambodia #Teaching

  10. Cheryl says :

    This is a good intro into the differences between English and Khmer. Helps the classroom teacher out a lot.

  11. ហែម​ សុខជា says :

    You understand Cambodian students better than Cambodian teachers do.

    • Martin says :

      Hardly surprising as a lot of Khmer teachers have little interest because they are paid so little and don’t have the resources.

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