Sitting in the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s academic advising center, Mong Kol described why he chose to learn English, rather than French, once the foreign language of choice among educated Cambodians.
“My first language class was in French then I changed to English,” Mong Kol said, using a carefully crafted American accent cultivated since his first English lessons in 1993.
“I [thought] that English would [give] me a better chance of getting a good job and applying for scholarships,” he said.
Now a teacher at the university’s Institute of Foreign Languages, the 22-year-old will on Saturday take a paper version of the internationally recognized Test of English as a Foreign Language.
Currently TOEFL is offered only four times a year in Cambodia and is taken by roughly 320 applicants annually.
But soon, a new Internet-based test will replace the current paper test sheets, said Hang Chan Thon, dean of Faculty of Science at the Royal University, who is in charge of administering TOEFL in Cambodia.
Computer-based testing has been employed in Thailand since 2000, and because Cambodia still uses the paper test, some believe that Cambodian students may be at a disadvantage with the new TOEFL exam.
“I think the difficult part will be typing, because [the test] is timed,” Hang Chan Thon said.
Khiev Khemara, who took a special version of the TOEFL exam when he became a Fulbright Scholar in 2003, is concerned that the country’s Internet infrastructure will not adequately support the new test, which is taken online.
“It’s Internet-based, and with the quality of Internet in Cambodia being so low, I wonder if that will be taken into consideration,” the 26-year-old said.
And low scores in TOEFL are not what Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam need.
Last week, Thai newspapers reported that the English proficiency of the four countries lags behind their Southeast Asian neighbors.
The Thai government’s English Language Development Center announced last week that Singaporeans had the highest average TOEFL score at 252 out of 300 points.
Filipinos came in second with 234, Malaysia third with 224, and Burma and Indonesia tied at 214 points.
The lowest averages were from Vietnam with 205, Laos 203, Thailand, 201 and Cambodia at the lowest with 200 points.
Although Thai officials are reportedly scrambling to improve English proficiency, Hang Chan Thon said he was not too concerned about Cambodia’s poor test scores compared to its Southeast Asian counterparts.
Instead, he is confident that the country’s English abilities are improving.
“Cambodian students are strong enough in the TOEFL,” he said, although he was unsure of Cambodia’s exact performance on previous tests.
In addition to a shift to Internet-based tests, a new English oral section will be added to TOEFL, which is currently comprised of four sections: writing, listening, grammar and reading comprehension, Hang Chan Thon said.
“I think that this one is going to be a challenge,” Khiev Khemara said, “You’re going to be talking to a computer.”
Despite the obvious challenges, Hang Chan Thon believes that a new, more exacting test could also benefit students.
“When they want to study in the US they need to know how to speak anyhow.” he said.
With English as the official language of Asean, member countries require TOEFL test scores for student scholarships, as do Korea, Japan and the US, Hang Chan Thon said. For students who wish to attend Australian and British universities or vocational schools, a similar test known as the International English Language Testing System is available.
It wasn’t until Cambodia became a market economy in the early 1990s, said Hang Chan Thon, that English solidified its popularity. Now, even the country’s rural English schools are packed with students.
“Before we used French, but now it is difficult to use French,” he said.
But for Mong Kol, learning English has meant much more than improved job opportunities.
“Most importantly it’s an international language, and I love to travel,” he said.