PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — “A young man applied for a scholarship to go and study in Australia,” says Helen Cherry, director of the Australian Center for Education, Cambodia. “His English was very good, and I asked him where he had studied. He replied ‘By windows.’

Pon Koeum sits at the head of a class in Sophea Thon’s private English school. Below, ads tout a variety of English-language schools.

“I tried to establish if this was a textbook or a computer program. Finally I worked out that he had actually learned English by standing outside classroom windows!”

Many Cambodians have overcome remarkable odds to learn English and currently the demand for English-language education is booming in the country. Judging from the linguistic ability of everyone from cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) drivers to government officials, English is fast becoming a second language for a considerable number of Cambodians.

It’s not just random conversations that demonstrate the abilities of Cambodians — the boom is visible. Hundreds of “on the street” private schools have sprung up in Phnom Penh. Locals say the phenomenon started about four years ago when several big international hotels were built and provided employment opportunities for people with English-language skills.

Cherry believes that Cambodians’ rapid acquisition of English has a historical basis. “They have had a lot of exposure to foreign languages, such as French and Russian, and now it’s English,” she says.

ACE has four schools in Cambodia: in Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siem Reap and Kompong Cham, with over 4,000 students. Established in 1992, it is a nonprofit organization owned by Australian universities through IDP Australia. ACE also provides opportunities for students to study in Australia through scholarships and has initiated locally based programs for government officials to study English. The teaching staff includes expatriates of varying nationalities and Cambodians.

Cherry notes that there is no government policy regarding language and education is still not available to everyone, especially in rural areas, “but we have noticed a dramatic increase in enrollment since 1996.”

Nick Rea, a 31-year-old British logistics coordinator and teacher at ACE, says that English-language learning in Cambodia is the “key to prosperity.”

“Cambodians can see themselves having a better lifestyle if they have English education,” he says. He also points out some of the difficulties that Cambodians have in learning the language.

“Because of a lack of general education, world knowledge, different cultural concepts and the simplicity of the Khmer language, students often have trouble.”

He adds that Cambodians have several pronunciation problems with English. “In the Khmer language, final consonants are a stop, so in English they often don’t pronounce the final sound of a word. They also have trouble with English vowel pronunciation and intonation,” Rea says.

Large colorful signs advertising English-language schools line the streets around the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Every day, young men and women stream toward them from late afternoon onward, clutching well-thumbed textbooks. Lessons are cheap ($4 a month for a daily one-hour lesson), but class sizes are large (usually up to 40 students).

Students identify their levels according to the textbook series they are using. “I’m Headway Book 1,” says Brak Pin, a 24-year-old monk. After four months of study he is already able to hold a basic but lengthy conversation about his life and ambitions.

Sophea Thon is a 31-year-old teacher and owner of a Phnom Penh private English school. His teaching focuses on speaking and writing first, then reading and listening, he says. He cites two reasons for the speed of his students’ language acquisition.

“Firstly, life here depends on politics, and at the moment it is very advantageous to have English-language skills. Secondly, cable TV has exposed students to a variety of accents and they are familiar with Australian, British or American English.”

Thon’s students all agree that gaining good employment is the reason for their study. Borun, 19, feels confident that studying English is a wise decision. “With English we have a future,” he says. Pon Koeum, 20, is aiming for employment with a foreign company. “If we have language and computer skills, we can get a good job,” she says.

In other parts of Cambodia, English is also the key to survival. At Siem Reap, in northwestern Cambodia, 15-year-old Rien spends most days at Preah Khan, a 12th-century temple. Unable to attend school for financial reasons, he waits for tourists at the entrance in the hope that he can be their guide in either English, French or Japanese.

“My English is strongest because I started learning it at primary school. French and Japanese I picked up from tourists,” he explains. Although he dreams of a chance to further his education he says, “It’s too late for me now, but I think that with English I have a chance.”

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