Seventeen-year-old Muth Sovannara is not like most Cambodian teenagers. For starters, he speaks three languages – his native Khmer, the English he spent most of his life studying, and, for three years now, Mandarin.
Each weekday, he wakes early to get to his high school at 7am.
After four hours of lessons in Khmer, the teenager packs his bag and returns home for an afternoon nap.
It is rest he will sorely need. Later in the day, Sovannara goes for an hour of English classes before heading to Mandarin lessons at the Duan Hua School, just outside Kandal Market.
Coping with three languages is a challenge, he admits, but Mandarin is the toughest of all. In order to keep up, Sovannara stays awake until midnight most days to “fu xi gong ke”, he says, using the Mandarin term for revision.
But the long hours, says Sovannara, are worth it. “I want to be a Mandarin translator in the future.”
While Sovannara’s ambition may be unique, his desire to learn Mandarin is anything but. Enrolment in Chinese schools has skyrocketed, classes have proliferated and, increasingly, Chinese is becoming the third – or even second – language of choice for young Cambodians.
Chinese – the second language for Cambodians
It’s not hard to see why. According to a report released early last month by the Council for the Development of Cambodia, China had poured $9.17 billion in investments into the country in the past 18 years (1994-2012), making it the Kingdom’s biggest financier.
These investments focused mostly on the fields of energy, mineral resources, garment manufacturing, banking and finance, real estate, tourism and agriculture.
“All these Chinese companies that come here need workers that can speak Chinese. This is especially so in factories. Most factory workers don’t speak Mandarin; they will need people who can help them translate,” said Pan Gan Wu, senior secretary of the China, Hong Kong and Macau Business Association.
Learning Mandarin then could be a straight ticket to a middle-management job, says Gan Wu.
Ticket to a middle-management job
Tourism is another industry with a growing demand for Mandarin-speaking guides. Some 333,900 Chinese tourists visited Cambodia last year – up 35 per cent from 2011 – according to a Tourism Ministry report released last month. This makes China the third-largest tourist arrival group after Vietnam and South Korea, and the fastest-growing one.
It is no wonder then that Cambodians here are snapping at the opportunity.
With 14,000 registered students, the Duan Hua School – which has two campuses, in Chamkarmon and Daun Penh districts – is the largest Chinese school in Southeast Asia.
Enrolment has been increasing year on year, said principal Li Huiming, who estimates that there are now about 30,000 Cambodians studying Mandarin at the 50-plus Chinese schools in the country.
30,000 students in over 50 schools
At Duan Hua, it is the night classes that are proving most popular. “We have about 3,000 students enrolled in our evening classes this academic year – about 1,000 more than the year before,” said Huiming. These are frequented mostly with undergraduates and young working adults hungry for an extra edge.
The classrooms are filled to the brim with Cambodians scribbling down Chinese proverbs and idioms. Their teachers, some of whom are from China, instruct them to recite the words – and one proverb echoes poignantly down the dark hallways. “Ke ku nai lao”, a class repeats after their Chinese instructor. “Work hard and endure.” Many students say they hoped their efforts would lead to a lucrative job.
Even English-language schools offering Mandarin
It is perhaps a telling sign of Mandarin’s growing importance that some English-language schools here are also beginning to offer Mandarin classes.
Home of English International has offered Khmer and English classes in Cambodia for 16 years. Beginning this month, interested students can learn Confucius alongside Charles Dickens.
Like Duan Hua, Home of English is offering evening classes and targeting young people. The response has been good so far, says managing director Judy Tan, adding that several diplomats have also registered for classes.
The growing importance of the language shadows the increasing Chinese influence in the region, say experts.
End of the “Francophonie Era”
And while many have said the passing of King Father Norodom Sihanouk heralded the end of the “Francophonie Era”, perhaps it is also the start of the Cambodia’s China-funded “Great Leap Forward.”
The government has made strides toward bolstering Sino-Cambodian relations: Next month, Prime Minister Hun Sen will make a trip to Beijing to greet China’s new leaders President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who will take power in late March.Adapted from: The Phnom Penh Post – “Cambodians flock to learn Mandarin”
- Cambodia: China is doing the second step. (alfredmeier.me)
- The Tug of War Over Cambodia. (alfredmeier.me)
- China builds hydroelectric dams in Cambodia (chinadailymail.com)
- Third China-invested Dam inaugurated. (alfredmeier.me)
- Armies of Cambodia, China sign deal to enhance partnership (chinadailymail.com)
- ប្រវត្ថិរូបម្ចាស់ប្លុក (khmernowadays.wordpress.com)