The language of change in Cambodia

As Cambodians embrace globalization, English is overtaking French as the language of choice.

Visakha Houl adores her job. She spends her days among Voltaire, Molière, and copies of Le Monde, the French daily.

The only problem with working at the French Cultural Center library is that Ms. Houl has a bit too much time to herself: Few young people here seem interested in learning what was once la langue de rigueur for Cambodians.

That includes her son. Houl helps him scrape together tuition of $450 a year - about 40 times the monthly salary of teachers and government workers - so he can study management in English at a private college here.

"English is the first language of the world now," she says, with a dab of nostalgia.

Students attending classes at the French Cultural Center or at government-run schools pay only half to a quarter of the going rate in private schools. But the classes are subsidized by Cambodia's former colonial power, France, which requires that all instruction - from medicine to law - be in French.

Indeed, the French are pushing for something of a cultural comeback nearly a half century since France - then engrossed in a war against communists in Vietnam - granted its rebellious colony independence.

As colonizers, the French brought a certain level of education and development; Cambodians, however, were looked down upon, and most important jobs that were not reserved for French officials were given to Vietnamese.

"The French are working very hard on this," says Prach Sim, editor and publisher of The Popular Magazine. "They remember the Indochina of 100 years ago, and so they are establishing things like the French Cultural Center [which opened a decade ago] and giving money to students to study in France."

Although appreciative of France's aid, many here feel that the insistence on French is a little impractical in an age when the argot of economic recovery is English. "Most young people today are studying English, because with English, they know it's easier to find a good job," Prach Sim adds.

When the brutal Khmer Rouge regime engulfed Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, it virtually wiped out formal education and tried to expunge all forms of foreign influence. Though Cambodia's self-styled "liberators" resented French colonial control, many had picked up their communist revolutionary ideas while studying in 1960s Paris. Their failed attempt to create a Marxist-style agrarian utopia resulted in the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians.

Today, Cambodia is struggling to emerge from that dark period and the crippling poverty of its aftermath. It dearly hopes to enter the World Trade Organization. But as Cambodians look for trading partners among their neighbors in ASEAN - the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - they find that the only common language is English.

"When we can show that we have the rule of law and stability, the investors will be from ASEAN countries, and they speak only English," says Ok Socheat, a member of the National Assembly.

To develop the infrastructure to accommodate the business it hopes to attract, Cambodia needs to train a new generation of infrastructure builders. Many of them are studying at the Institut de Technologie du Cambodge, the country's main state-run college, charged with turning out graduates in subjects such as computer science and civil engineering.

For five-year-degree students, all the classes are held in French. So are government-supported programs in law, medicine, fine arts, and agriculture - fields in which most international cooperation occurs in English. Teachers lament that they have no choice, because the school's budget comes almost entirely from France.

When the Vietnamese controlled Cambodia from 1979 until 1990, the school operated under the patronage of the Soviet Union, and the language of instruction switched to - what else? - Russian.

But since then, students have become more vocal on their language preferences. In 1993, when the college came back under French influence, students held demonstrations to demand that the school at least offer basic English classes. They won, but the main language of instruction - and instruction books - remains French.

The institute's director of studies, Nuth Sothan, acknowledges that studying computers in French puts some students at a disadvantage in the job market.

"It is difficult when the students go to private companies to get training, because when they get there they find out that all the companies are English-speaking," Mr. Nuth says, as some of his colleagues nod in agreement.

That is why Sok Sothea, a 21-year-old accounting student, attends the English-language National Institute of Management, a higher-priced private school across town.

"A lot of companies are coming here to invest, so Cambodians want to come here to study most. For me, English is what's important in Cambodia now. So much of our technology is not modern," she says on a break from classes.

To be sure, the old-nouveau influence is far from unwelcome, particularly among tourists seeking charm and gourmet cooking at rock-bottom prices. The return of the French has brought great restaurants and lovely little guest houses, not to mention some of the city's hip boutiques.

"OK, maybe this is a way to promote French. But the French are the only ones that create any cultural events here whatsoever," says Francois Heyman, the co-owner of the Khmer Village shop. "If you think about the Americans, they're just here for business."

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