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But I Don't Speak Khmer... Teaching English in Cambodia
Written by: Kate John
Last Updated: January 12, 2021
A big part of life is communication. It can be intimidating to move somewhere you don’t speak the language. In Cambodia they speak a language called Khmer (pronounced kuh-my). I hardly speak any of it, and yet here I am in Cambodia. I definitely understand the language barrier dissuading someone from moving abroad. It makes small tasks much larger due to challenges that you normally just don’t have to navigate.
Actually, my boyfriend and travel partner, Josh, and I decided to teach English in Cambodia because neither of us spoke the language. Khmer was a fun challenge for us. Also, we didn’t want to move somewhere one of us would have a head start on the other one. So both of us were brand new when we arrived. While I understand that it’s a little intimidating, language differences are surmountable and rewarding.
Something to note is that Cambodia in particular is a country where the language barrier can be difficult at first. While learning a moderate amount of French or Spanish before moving may be easy, Khmer is not on Duolingo. We tried and failed to find language support in Denver before leaving for Phnom Penh. The number of speakers worldwide is small. It was a little bit of a concern for us that we didn’t know the language. We were probably way more concerned about it than we actually needed to be though. [Read More: 5 Expert Tips on How to Prepare Yourself for Living in Phnom Penh].
Cambodia is actually pretty easy to navigate without speaking a word of Khmer. There are three reasons for this:
The tourism industry here brings a long of people through Cambodia. Tons of people do the whole “Southeast Asia Tour” through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. The influx of English speaking tourists has made it such that most service industry workers speak English, at least at a basic level. It’s pretty easy to order at restaurants and bars, get a tuk-tuk home, or buy things at shops. While these may not be the most in depth and meaningful conversations, they really help you throughout the day. Wait staff are usually happy to tell you how to say a particular phrase if you ask too, and I’ve even had tuk-tuk drivers try to teach me Khmer on rides around town.
2. Expat Community
There is a very connected expat community here, and most of them are happy to help when you need to ask a more nuanced question. They also are mostly teachers or NGO workers, who have brought a fair amount of English literacy to the students here. My students speak fluent English, which really helps me every day. The expats who have been here for years know where to go and what to do. Plus they have given us a great friend group of English speakers here in Cambodia.
3. Friendliness of Cambodian People
Even though many Cambodian people, particularly adults, don’t speak very good English, they try to help whenever possible. Something many people say about Cambodia is that the people here are really some of the nicest in the world. That’s not an exaggeration, people here really are lovely! Many of the older generation had their education interrupted by the Khmer Rouge regime, which was a genocidal order that looked down upon many aspects of modernization including foreign language education. As a result, the younger generation are much more proficient English speakers. But that does not mean that the older generation is not happy to help people, they just might not be able to explain in English.
While getting around and communication is relatively easy, it is difficult to have deep personal conversations when you have a language barrier. Not that it doesn’t happen! Plenty of people move here and meet Cambodian friends, or even partners. Not speaking the local language can be intimidating, but it does not make living impossible. We liked the challenge it presented, and the fact that it put both of us at square one. So we took the chance to start brand new with a new country, new language and new life teaching abroad. What could be better?
After volunteering for a year in the Denver Public School System, Kate felt like she needed a change. She and her boyfriend both got TEFL certified and set off on an adventure of a lifetime in the Kingdom of Wonder. Since then Kate has written extensively about her life teaching English in Cambodia as one of ITA's Writing & Content Ambassadors.
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