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The History of Cambodia Is Interesting and Diverse

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  • Category: Life

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In this essay, I will be describing and evaluating language policies in Cambodia, focusing mainly on language-in-education policies. I have chosen Cambodia due to its rich and interesting history. Also, it is a country I have always been intrigued by, after having had the opportunity to visit. When I visited Cambodia in 2014, I could not help but notice the state of poverty the country is in, having seen so many children on the streets, selling postcards and asking for donations to go to school. This made me wonder about the issues faced by these children, especially in schools. Many of whom spoke English fluently, some even with what seemed to me, an American accent. In my discussion, I will be identifying the main ideologies that I feel underpin the policies and further discuss the pros and cons with regard to these policies and their implementation.


According to Cambodia’s Multilingual Education National Action Plan, Cambodia today has approximately 24 minority language groups and a population of over 15 million. Native ethnic minorities contribute to a large amount of the population in north-eastern provinces. Ethnic Khmer, mainly Buddhist, forms almost 90% of the total population. Central Khmer is the official language in Cambodia, as Article 5 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia states: “The official language and script is Khmer”. Besides Khmer, 18 other languages are spoken in the country.

Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, having been a French colony from 1863 to 1953. Since then, the ideal plan of building a nation-state through its educational development was effectively implemented. Schools were built in rural areas. In the past, Cambodian education took place in Buddhist monasteries known as Wats. Education was offered only to the males, similar to its neighbour, Thailand. Students learnt simple literature, religion, and life skills such as carpentry.

This was slowly transformed when Cambodia was a French colony where a proper education system influenced by a Western educational model was introduced, benefiting the people of Cambodia. However, during the Red Khmer regime, under the Marxist–Leninist ideology, its aim was to eliminate Western cultural influence and restructure the society of old Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge ideology only accepted poor agricultural workers. Factories, hospitals, and schools were therefore eradicated.

As such, the education system was completely abolished. Between the 1980s and 1990s, education was rebuilt and had been developing since. Classes were conducted in the open or under trees. Survivors from the ‘Pol Pot Regime’, were asked to teach these children under the slogan ‘Literate People Teach Illiterate People”. At that time, there was no need for a license to become an educator as there was a high demand for teachers, to help restore the country’s education system. I feel that this may have caused the quality of education to be compromised as these teachers may not have the necessary qualifications or skills required for the job. However, given the plight at that time, this may have been a necessary and strategic step to take to help Cambodia develop.

Cambodia has since recovered from the Khmer Rouge regime gradually shifting to an authoritarianism, big tent and populist ideology. The country has definitely evolved in terms of their approaches and views, benefiting its people, specifically the children.

Language Policy in the Education System

Cambodia’s main priority has since been to rebuild its education system. Hence, The Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia provided citizens with equal rights to obtain a formal basic education, at the very least. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport working with key stakeholders to achieve this. The Royal Government of Cambodia too has improved the education sector by introducing laws, policies and action plans to increase admission to education. Of course, from then till now, only some extent of these policies and action plans have taken effect.

According to UNICEF, children from ethnic minority groups in rural areas faced various challenges such as the shortage of schools nearby, lack of understanding due to instruction being in a foreign language to them and curriculum resources being in a language that is different from their context, such as their home language. These obstacles would often cause these children to be at a disadvantage as compared to their Khmer classmates.

“The State shall protect and promote the Khmer language as required.”; In December 2007, the National Assembly adopted the Education Law. The Article 24 of the Law states that:

“Khmer language shall be the vehicle language and be one of subjects of core curriculum used for instruction of general education program in public schools. The private general education school must have Khmer language as one subject in their curriculum.

The language policy in Cambodia focused on the development of the national language which is Khmer. This was thus made the standard medium of instruction in classrooms. Hence, being a de jure language policy in schools. It was key for me to find out the reasons for choosing Khmer, and not English. This could possibly be attributed to maintaining Cambodia’s national identity. Interestingly, I found out that Khmer is the 65th-most-spoken language in the world, with English being in the top 10. This language is still greatly prevalent in Cambodia’s media, government and education system. Moreover, it is spoken as a first language by majority of the people in Cambodia, which is why it is chosen as the language of instruction in schools. This policy in education can therefore be seen as a pro for the development of its people.

However, where there are many speakers of minority languages, educators may give instruction in the minority language. Teachers can choose to translate key vocabulary used in these resources from Khmer to the minority language such as Vietnamese or Cham for example, to help these students understand better. This can be seen as a form of scaffolding students’ learning of Khmer. To me, this can still be considered subtractive in nature and a con in the policy, as the ultimate aim is to, at some point, completely discontinue instruction in the home langauge once the student has acquired the dominant language, being Khmer. There is no continuation of the home language which is cultivated throughout the child’s schooling. These children thus become circumstatial bilinguals as they have no choice whether to learn Khmer or not.

UNESCO believed that by using the learners’ mother tongue in the classrooms, it was essential for the child to be able to first learn to read and write in their spoken language at home. Once this is established, the child could learn a full command of mother tongue and other foreign languages. No doubt, the effect of the incongruity between home and school language is detrimental because little learning can take place when teacher and student do not understand each other. Although, I cannot help questioning what are these languages of instruction going to be, how are they determined and if teachers are adequately equipped with the language/s required in the classroom. Again, in my opinion, this may not be achievable or feasible due to the limitations in the education system.

The Ministry of Rural Development drafted the National Policy on the Development of ethnic minorities, in 2006. It stated that the development should fulfil the welfares of the minority people. Therefore, literacy programs and non-formal education shall be structured to improve native knowledge, culture and the language of such minorities. Thus, textbooks should be made bilingual, in both Khmer and minority languages. Listed as an achievement by MoEYS, Norway has helped translate Grade 1 textbooks from Khmer to the Kuy language to cater to Khmer speaking teachers better understand key vocabulary of Kuy language in order to effectively teach the Khmer language to Kuy children in public schools in the Preah Vihear province.

However, this has not been implemented in other provinces and according to the policy for curriculum development in 2005 to 2009, textbooks will be published in Khmer except for Foreign Language textbooks. Although this was a proposed implementation, it did not seem to have taken off fully. I feel that this may be due to the other various challenges tackled by the Cambodian government, which are far more pressing thus made priority. For instance, the shortage of teachers, insufficient resources, poor facilities in schools and even a lacking water supply of clean water.

Presently, the educational structure of Cambodia is 12 years which divides up into six years for primary education (grade 1 to 6), similar to Singapore, and six years for secondary general education. The curriculum for basic education is divided into three cycles of three years each. The first cycle consisting of five main subjects namely, Khmer, Maths, Science & Social Studies including Arts and Physical and Health Education and life skills program. I feel that this curriculum is comparable to Singapore’s curriculum in primary school, however, instead of English, students learn in Khmer. The second cycle consists of the same number of subjects but differs in the number of lessons. The third cycle consists 7 core subjects, similar to the first and second cycle with the execption of a foreign language being one of the subjects to choose from.

Upper Secondary Education curriculum has two different phases. The curriculum for the first phase, grade 10, is similar to the third cycle of primary education whereas the second phase has two main parts. Compulsory and Electives which involves four major subjects such as Khmer literature Physical & Health Education and Sports, a foreign language; English or French and Mathematics. The introduction to a new language only in upper secondary education could be due to the theory that older learners are actually better at some aspects of langauge learning, and that the ‘critical period hypothesis’ is really valid only for accent or punctuation. However, unlike Singapore, Mother Tongue, in Cambodia, is not included as one of the subjects in the primary and secondary curriculum which again poses as a disadvantage for the minority groups, whose home language is not Khmer. The choices of foreign languages being French and English are logical. French was decided, being a former French colony, and English being an international and well-developed language, used by its neighbours, as well as for economic purposes with major trading partners. Since 1996, the number of students learning French, however, has been decreasing. French has not been used in Cambodia, in recent years, except for some older Cambodians who still speak the language. Instead, an increasing number of people are learning English.

This could be attributed to the perception of it being the Global Language and the utility of the language. Students have a choice to choose between the two making them elective bilinguals which will ultimately benefit them, in my opinion. Being able to speak and write in English for example will provide these children with more job options in future. However, this can only be achieved, if their proficiency in Khmer is high. Being a student of a minority ethnic group, can make learning a foreign language even more challenging as the foundation of Khmer is not strong to start with. This can in turn cause students to be weak in both Khmer and their foreign language, and also, their home language which has not been practised. During my research, I noticed a shift in the aim of the policy for a curriculum development over the years. In 2005 to 2009, the aim was to have students learn basic Khmer language and literature and Mathematics when they leave schools. Whereas, in the National Development Priority and Education Policy for 2014 to 2018, the quality improvement program aims to improve national assessment tests for Grade 3 and 6 on Khmer & Mathematics and include English for Grade 6. In addition, the teaching of a foreign language from Grade 4 instead of previously, only in the secondary curriculum. This shows the importance being assigned to English recently, and the foreign languages in school as opposed to only Khmer previously.

The changes in Cambodia’s foreign language in education can be linked closely to the political periods and ideologies during the different times. From learning only French during King Sihanouk’s Government from 1953 to 1970 being the official language in the schools’ curriculum, to French and English during the Lon Nol Republic till 1975, to no use of foreign language where ut was severely prohibited during Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, to the use of Vietnamese and Russian from 1979 to 1986 during President Heng Samrin and the Age of International Politics. Finally, English and French were the choices of foreign language from 1989 to present time. Perhaps, Mandarin will also be one of the choices as a foreign language in Cambodia’s future education policy implementation, given its practical utility and popularity globally.


Undeniably, athough education is imperative in developing each child, for success; There are umpteen challenges faced by Cambodia which understandably trumps the policies from being implemented effectively and promptly. No doubt, the issues are vastly overwhelming. From poverty to the lack of access to clean water and proper electricity, to health issues, and even its widespread corruption challenges to which country still faces today. Is the language policy in education given priority? Probably not. However, maybe in the next decade or so, education policies and plans to better provide to the children of Cambodia will be given priority, more funding and be improved ultimately. After all, as the saying goes, ‘Rome was not built in a day’, can be applied here to Cambodia.

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