Although she has studied Mandarin three hours a day for the last four years, “It will take another three years of study in order for me to read,” says Duon Hoa School student Sok Ravy.
She still struggles with the Chinese characters that dot the multi-colored maps of China and the world hanging in a second-floor hallway.
She knows the importance of learning the difficult language in a country where investment from Chinese-speaking companies is predicted to rise dramatically.
The 19 year old is one of 5,000 Cambodian children learning to speak, read and write Chinese at Duon Hoa—the largest of about 70 Chinese language schools operating in Cambodia.
Like most students at the school, Sok Ravy is of both Chinese and Khmer ethnicity. And, like most students, she has her eye on the future. By speaking Mandarin—the main dialect of Chinese—she could help out her parents at their Olympic Market stall, she says. Or she could go into business on her own.
“Their father or their grandmother came from China. They know that many businesses are coming here from Hong Kong and Singapore,” teacher Chao Zhou says. “When they finish here, they can work for the government or for a business as a translator.”
Duon Hoa Deputy Director Sea Hong says parents send their children to the school, which costs $35 for six months, both to learn Chinese culture and to prepare for when they are finished with their schooling.
“The more language they know, the better chance they have to get a good job,” he says. “People should know at least three languages—Chinese, Khmer and English—in order to make their life easier.”
Many students come to the school knowing a bit of Chinese from their family, so students are given a placement test when they enter the school to determine proficiency in Chinese. It can take as much as five years to be able to communicate verbally, according to Sea Hong. For writing, it can take nine years.
The school, now in an old apartment building near Olympic Market, opened in 1992 near Kandal Market after the government lifted the ban on learning foreign languages—originally implemented in the 1970s under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Students learn in two shifts, attending classes in either the morning or afternoon. About 90 percent attend a government school in addition to their Chinese studies, Sea Hong says.
Professional translation from Khmer to Chinese is one course of study, taught at the seventh- and eighth-grade level. But children also study Chinese history, traditional dance, painting, math and science.
Most classes are taught in Chinese, although Khmer is sometimes used. Even in the computer classroom, where 40 personal computers are crammed together in two rows, students type in Mandarin.
“The school has strict rules,” says 17-year-old Yang Zu Hui. “We have a uniform, and the teachers ask us to use Chinese all the time.”
Students, ranging in age from five to 20 years old, are taught by 230 teachers—a few of whom come from mainland China—Sea Hong said.
Class sizes average 55 students, a number illustrated by the roar of young Chinese speakers, reading in unison from textbooks, that echoes throughout the building.
The school also teaches English to a number of students like Sok Ravy and 16-year-old Makara Lim.
“Sometimes Chinese is very difficult,” says Makara Lim, whose family came to Cambodia from China in the 1930s to escape the war with Japan. “But English is more difficult.”
About 4,000 of Duon Hoa’s students will greet Chinese President Jiang Zemin at Pochentong Airport and Independence Monument when he arrives Monday.