In what language will you hear me?

For many Cambodian’s learning English and in some cases Chinese is now necessary in order to find work. This is a far cry from the Khmer Rouge regime when people were killed for speaking a foreign language (BBC News 2015).

As Cambodia more readily has access to technology and global information systems, the need for learning English is not only one of understanding this information but one of survival. Dean of the Institiute of Foreign Languages in Cambodia, Professor Kieng Rotana who earned a Masters Degree in Education at UNSW says that,“ being fluent in English not only improves one’s job prospects, it allows one to access a wealth of information that is not available in Khmer (as cited in Bun T 2010).”

Hasman (2005) argues that English, ‘may supplement or co-exist with languages by allowing strangers to communicate across linguistic boundaries (Hasman 2000, p.5 as cited in Igawa 2008 p. 347).” This is evidenced by the economic growth through globalization and furthermore how many Cambodians are now also choosing to learn Chinese as many garment factories are opened by people from both Singapore and China in Cambodia.

But who is benefiting from this bi or even tri lingual language learning? Igawa (2008) argues that instead the English language may only be serving those in higher positions who do not want their positions threatened and that the use of the English language may be (somewhat) responsible for the evident income disparity amongst Cambodian citizens.

A photograph of a drawing I took in an English-Chinese school in Cambodia

Considering the garment industry accounts for around half a million jobs and is a primary income generator for the country, wages are considerably low (BBC News 2014). Recent protests in the capital of Phnom Penh from garment factory workers seeking to have their minimum salary raised sparked violence after the government agreed to increase the salary to USD95/month well below the proposed target of USD160/month (Ponniah 2014). Military officials opened fire killing four workers and injuring several more.

Since the protest, public assembly in Phnom Penh has been prohibited and is monitored by officers who aren’t trained; use weapons to control order and have even seen journalists severely injured (Pooniah 2014). Citizens have argued that the Cambodian Government are instead (again) ruling with fear and oppressing it citizens (Virak as cited in Ponniah 2014).

So whilst socioeconomically, Cambodia may need the English or even Chinese language as a form of survival and sustainability, is it really its citizens who benefit or is it a small minority within Cambodia and on a larger scale foreign investors? Furthermore, in a country ruled through fear for the benefit of minority groups, how do the citizens in Cambodia find their voice for equal and fair rights in any language?


BBC News 2015, Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge, BBC News, [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 July 2015]

Igawa K 2008, English Language and its Education in Cambodia, a Country in Transition, Shitennoji University Bulletin [Online] Available at: [Accessed 21 July 2015]

Ponniah 2014, Fears over human rights in Cambodia as crackdown on protests continues, The Guardian [Online] Available at: [Accessed 21st July 2015]






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