In 2009, hundreds of first year medical students from the University of Health Sciences in Phnom Penh took to the streets protesting their end of year exam results. Less than a quarter of them had managed to pass the grueling test in French, which for many was in their third language, after Khmer and English.
While French is no longer the compulsory language in secondary schools, as it was in the days before Independence, it remains the principal language for several leading higher education institutions in Cambodia.
The French government currently has agreements with five public universities in Phnom Penh — Université des Sciences de la Santé, Institut de Technologie du Cambodge, Université Royale de Droit et de Sciences Economiques, Université Royale de Phnom Penh, and Institut National de l’éducation – offering 15 different training programs. In March 2012, there were more than 7000 students participating in these bilingual streams.
Professor Seang Tharith, Deputy Dean of Medicine and Director of International Relations at the University of Health Sciences, explained that French is fundamental to all undergraduate courses in the faculties of medicine and pharmacy. “The students understand that French is the main language. They accept it. If their French is not strong enough, then they cannot continue in specialize,” he said.
Still, he recognized that many students encounter difficulties with learning the language, and often have to undertake intensive language classes alongside their usual studies in order to reach the mark.
“Especially the students from the provinces. They don’t know very well about French, they know only Khmer. So it is very hard for them in the beginning. I think they struggle.”
After the Second World War, France established the La Francophonie, a group of 56 French-speaking countries whose aim was to preserve French language, culture and education. Although Cambodia is a member of the group it has not stopped English taking over as the most spoken language among Cambodia’s youth.
As Puthi Oudom Chea, 19, sat swapping notes with friends ahead of next week’s final exam, he described how French was a major challenge for him as a first year student. “Especially for me, I studied English since I was a child, but French I had to study for a year before I came to study here. For me, it would be easier in English.”
With the majority of students now studying English in secondary school, some believe that the current system is out-dated, and that courses should be conducted in English rather than French.
Ing San Hak, 21, a student in his fourth year, believes that English would be more relevant. “Students need a lot of resources,” he said, “and most of the resources on the Internet are in English. I think English would be a better choice.”
But with limited teaching staff and resources, Prof. Tharith said it would be difficult to make the transition to English.
“We are trying step-by-step to integrate English into our curriculum in the long term. For the moment, French is a priority because we cannot find enough professors to teach in the English language.”
Prof. Tharith, who undertook his postgraduate studies in Paris, said that as most of the teaching staff were trained in French, the legacy of the French language in the education system would likely remain.
“We still use the French language as that is what we did a long time ago. All our teachers are former doctors in Cambodia who were taught in French and so our faculty members mostly speak French. I would say that only 5 percent of the faculty, or maybe 10 percent speak English.”
Still, he foresaw the possibility of the English language playing a more pivotal role in the future: “Maybe in the next generation, in 10-20 years at least, we might see a change.”
Ultimately, however, the French government has been actively involved since 1991 in promoting the French language in higher education through the establishment of number of partnerships between French institutions and research centers and Cambodian universities.
According to the Institut Francais there are some 126,000 students studying French at primary and secondary schools and another 5,000 taking lessons at the Institut.
Roeungdeth Chanreasmey, assistant to the director of the Institute of Technology, said that a major advantage of teaching the French curriculum was the support the institute receives from universities overseas.
“In particular, we benefit from a strong teaching support from a International consortium of nine French Universities and Schools of engineering and two in Belgium,” she said.
Ms. Chanreasmey added that students studying engineering in French, alongside English and Khmer, have a clear advantage in the job market: “The mastery of the French language carries an added value and is an indicator of quality when compared to those who only have Khmer and English as their language.”
While the influence of English may seem all pervasive, in relinquishing French all together young Cambodians risk losing a certain “je ne sais quoi” that sets them apart from their regional neighbors.