A group of young medical students are filing out of their afternoon class at Phnom Penh’s Faculty of Medicine. They swap notes in Khmer but the language of study here is not their native one. Six hours of lectures a week are conducted in French.
“You have to speak French to complete the training,” says Suon Sothy, 19, a second year student. “The books, documents, everything here is in French.”
His French is clear and fluent, but other students struggle a little with the language and prefer to speak in English. They all learn English at private schools.
“I want to study in Khmer,” Lam Korvin says in English. He says he finds French difficult. “I would like them to translate the books into Khmer so then it would be easier to study.”
Since 1991, the French government has supported the Faculty of Medicine with $2.2 million, according to French Embassy figures. The money will refurbish the buildings infrastructure, as well as create a comprehensive training program for the physicians of the future. Following an agreement years ago with the Ministry of Health, French is the central language at the Faculty.
“We are offering extra opportunities for these students,” said Alain Freynet, cultural attache at the French Embassy. “France has a network of academic services that the students can use. We send professors from France to help. We want to provide training to the highest level.”
Events will be held today at Chaktomuk Theater and the university marking the International Day of French-speaking nations. The Francophone group of countries, comprising 49 nations, promotes French across the globe by giving aid to education, cultural and media projects.
Learning French is certainly an asset for anyone involved in commerce or global relations, admits Kao Kim Hourn, the executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. But he believes Cambodia should be free to create its own education system after receiving financial support.
“France should know that if aid is attached to language that may work against the French in the long term,” he said. “They should consider what works best for Cambodia rather than imposing certain conditions like language.”
Three quarters of France’s total aid bill for Cambodia is spent on non-language related programs such as infrastructure projects and rural development, according to embassy figures.
But France spends approximately $10 million a year on education and training programs in Cambodia that contain variable elements of French-language learning.
An Embassy brochure on support given to a bilingual project at Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh states the aim of the program.
“This section plays a part in promoting French as the main foreign language used in the national education system,” the brochure reads.
Despite the French efforts, English remains the most popular choice for foreign language learning in Cambodia, according to Culture Minister Nouth Narang. Chinese comes in a close second.
“English is beginning to open up in Cambodia,” he said. “But French culture is part of Cambodia, it’s something we should preserve, in parallel to our links to the English-speaking world.”
Nouth Narang will address a seminar this morning at Chaktomuk about the international Francophone community.
The group of nations will spend $1.2 million this year on French-language support programs in Cambodia. The voluntary classes are aimed at secondary and university students.
“English should not be allowed to prevail over all other languages,” explained Christoph Laborde, who oversees the francophone education programs in Cambodia. “The French-speaking community has united to keep this process of globalization at bay. We need to conserve our own culture. Culture is passed through language.”
The more languages we can learn the better, said Kao Kim Hourn. But Cambodia needs to look to the future, he added.
“Cambodia is moving its accounting systems, trade law and commercial codes to Anglo-Saxon models,” he says. “Not just to be ready for joining Asean, where English is the working language. The goal is the World Trade Organization.”