Cambodia’s Hidden Language Classes

Author: Janelle Retka
Published:

In 1979, Ker Mao Chhommaradh, then 19 years old, moved onto Street 184, tucked behind the Royal Palace in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. 10 years later, it would be known as “London Street”, accented by a slew of vibrant signs advertising language classes that turned it into a temporary hub of English-language learning in the city.

But there was no way Mao Chhommaradh could have known this back then. Quite the opposite; he says a ban on foreign language learning during that time meant eager students, including himself, were forced to study in secret.

“If you wanted to learn [English], you had to wake up at 3am,” the 57-year-old recounts with precise diction as he stands outside his house in the heat of day. “You’ll be learning in a dark place, so there was candlelight.”  Electricity was not an option, as it risked the class being raided by the authorities—a fate he had been lucky to avoid.

“We were very scared. They said, ‘If you do something wrong, we will arrest you.’ We thought, ‘Oh, if they arrest us, they will step on our freedom.’ We weren’t interested in asking for details,” says 49-year-old Chan, who also studied under the radar during the ban, and has since contributed to the creation of an online English-Khmer dictionary.

The ban on English

According to Chan, English had been the most popular language to study in the early 1970s, when Prime Minister Lon Nol’s US-backed government was in power, because it was seen as the connection to modernity and Westernisation.

This changed after the government was overturned in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge regime. Education was banned and teachers were targeted as threats to communism. The government’s ruthless anti-intellectual bent meant that knowing a foreign language or simply wearing eyeglasses—which were assumed to indicate a degree of higher learning—could get one condemned to death. Phnom Penh was evacuated and the country’s population was pushed to the countryside to work in rural collectives.

“If someone spoke French, even one word, they would be killed… during the Khmer Rouge” because it was a sign of their education and class, says Cambodian political analyst Meas Nee. When the regime was overthrown by a rebel group with help from Vietnam in 1979, education was reinstalled in the country, but only on the government’s terms.

“English was from the free world, so they considered this counter-revolutionary”

“We could learn Russian and Vietnamese because it was from the communist bloc,” says 53-year-old Lim Phai, who studied in secret before teaching his own English courses in 1983. But the learning of all other foreign languages were banned, with a particular focus on English.

There were political motivations behind the specificity. “English was from the free world, so they considered this counter-revolutionary because you could see the propaganda from the West, so that was the intention behind the ban,” he explains.

But it was precisely this connection to the “free world” that made English so attractive. Proficiency in the language was seen as the key to fleeing the country and finding a better life after the destruction and violence of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge—historians estimate that the regime oversaw between 1.7 and two million people’s deaths. So English lessons went rogue.

Learning in secret

Classes were tucked into quaint apartments down alleys across the city. Groups of four to five students were organised among friends by word of mouth and taught in the dead of night by a handful of teachers willing to risk the ambiguous fate of a police raid.

“You would have to go searching and hunting [for classes], or find out from friends,” Phai recalls.

While there had been no way of knowing how many classes were being held, Phai remembers that the students had been determined to both find willing tutors and master a new tongue. One woman achieved fluency studying privately under Phai for six months before fleeing the country. He never heard from her again.

Mao Chhommaradh and Phai used different textbooks—“Each Enjoy English” and “Essential English” respectively—that had survived the Khmer Rouge and helped lead the academic charge. But these books, and the speaking of English itself, could only be found in the secrecy of private rooms, for fear of discovery.

Janelle Retka

There was no clear punishment upon getting caught; Chan had heard that some teachers and students faced fines and jail time, while Phai had only heard of those caught paying fines and putting their thumbprints to documents promising never to engage in them again. “The ban was not really consistent,” he says. When it came to vigilance, enforcement and punishment, the local authorities had plenty of power and leeway.

Still, some people went to lengths to avoid finding out what penalty might have awaited them. Chan recalls his sister had friends who jumped off a classroom balcony to escape a police raid.

A gradual shift

The ban lasted for about a decade before the authorities began to relax. Phai puts the beginning of the change in 1984, when advertisements for classes could finally be openly posted in Phnom Penh. His classes were in full swing by then, but aside from photocopied editions of “Essential English,” he made sure to only use English-language materials from Russia to avoid any accusation of pushing Western ideologies in his classroom.

But Chan thinks that the lifting of the language ban came closer to 1989. “When they started to allow it, they did not announce it. To me, I think they never officially lifted the ban,” he said.

Despite the lack of any official policy change, the reason for the gradual shift toward tolerance was clear. Hun Sen’s government had begun receiving more foreign aid from Western countries and soon signed the 1991 Paris Peace Accords to end the Cambodian-Vietnamese war. The United Nations later sent forces to Cambodia in an attempt to set up a new government and election.

Those who had learnt English in hidden corners found that their skills were suddenly in great demand. “There was a lack of people who spoke English to work with the foreign aid, so most of the people who could work with [the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] were people who returned from overseas,” says Nee.

Interest in English lessons increased and vibrant advertisements shot up all along Mao Chhommaradh’s “London Street”. “In 1991, there were lots of classes on this street,” he says.

Janelle Retka

Today, English is offered in state schools and “London Street” is back to being referred to simply by its number. Teaching English has shifted from a banned activity to a common attraction for young foreigners who visit or move to Cambodia to teach in private schools. As a result of the various learning opportunities now available—as well as increasing access to international entertainment and media—many of the capital’s youth and young adults today are conversational or fluent in the language.

But private apartment-side classes are also still available; Mao Chhommaradh points to a sign above an alleyway written in Khmer script, guiding students toward a nearby classroom. It’s a constant reminder of how things have changed in modern Cambodia: within a single lifetime, English language education has transformed from a risky undertaking to a thriving industry.

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Janelle Retka

Janelle Retka is a Phnom Penh-based illustrator and journalist.

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