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Despite France's best attempts, Cambodia's higher education system is embracing English

Caroline Vernaillen
May 23, 2013

Despite France’s best attempts, Cambodia’s higher education system is embracing English

By Caroline Vernaillen
Less than 20 years ago, Phnom Penh’s engineering students turned the campus of the Institute of Technology upside down. Burning both tyres and signs that read ‘French’, they had one seemingly reasonable demand: to abandon French as the language of instruction.

Parlez-vous Anglais?
Photo by Lauren DeCicca for SEA Globe
Cunning linguist: Sum Map says that, “In the private sector, if you do not speak English it is difficult to find work”

The engineers-to-be certainly had a point – in the Asian job market, English, not French, was the language of business. But the students would soon get a reality check, for as long as France was footing the bill for the Kingdom’s higher education system, lessons would be given in the language of la république. However, the Cambodian Minister of Education did manage to obtain one important concession for the students: an English course would be added to the curriculum. With that, the floodgates opened.
In 1999, when Cambodia joined Asean, which uses English as the sole working language, the Ministry of Education did not have enough English speakers to attend all Asean meetings. Today, English proficiency is almost a prerequisite.
“As an official, especially [one] who specialises in diplomacy, you need languages. I say languages, plural. French, English, Chinese, Japanese: you need them. But English is mandatory,” said Sum Map, executive director of the Royal School of Administration and an articulate French speaker.
Between 2001 and 2005 France donated some $146m in bilateral aid to Cambodia, which included projects to promote the French language. Under its Priority Solidarity Fund, France has set up programmes valued at almost $6m that invest directly in Cambodian higher education or the further education of officials.
While many of these programmes take place in French or offer French as a course, they are more than a mere tool of language promotion, says Gilbert Palaoro, director of the French-speaking University Agency in Phnom Penh.
“It is also a story of political will to help, to develop Cambodia,” he said. “When we draw the parallel with Anglo-Saxon programmes from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US… Those countries usually only invest in countries when they know they will have a significant economic return on their investments.”
“In the private sector, if you do not speak English it is difficult to find work,” said Sum Map. “The offer of French language jobs is very low. How many French companies are in Cambodia? How many companies need French-speaking staff?”
Faced with changes in the labour market, higher education has had no choice but to fall in line. While it remains largely dependent on donor funding, the education sector has reoriented towards English, shedding the French monopoly.
The main motivation for students to enrol in Cambodia’s French programmes today is not the lure of the French language as an asset in the labour market, but the option to study abroad afterwards and achieve prestigious degrees.
“It is not necessary to learn French,” Sum Map admitted.“But those who want to continue their studies in France, engineers for example, need to learn French.”
The increasing dominance of English is also reflected in France’s renewed political approach. In the 1990s, French was viewed as the number one diplomatic language in Southeast Asia: today it is typecast as the language of the academic elite.
This volte-face has proved a successful strategy so far. Eight French programmes have been instated in key sectors, enrolling almost 8,000 students. When considering the entire Cambodian student body of over 170,000, however, the enrolments represent just 5% of the student population.
“We do not necessarily want more,” said Gilbert Palaoro. “We want students that are on a qualitative level, that are good.”
The creation of a French-speaking elite is not a deliberate policy. Rather, it has occurred as a logical consequence of obtaining highly valued degrees. Indeed, while French rapidly decelerates in everyday studies in the Kingdom, according to Palaoro, it still enjoys a significant role in the country’s halls of power.
“In the office of the prime minister, in the parliament and so on, there are advisors, people who have studied at French universities,” Palaoro said. “And it could be true that that influences decision-making, but it was them who made the choice [to study at a French university]. It is not just about acquiring vocabulary and grammar, it is about acquiring values of humanism, of sharing and of exchange.”
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