The Power of English

This morning for the first time since arriving in Cambodia I braved the sweltering morning heat just after dawn and headed out into the streets for a 2km jog with Bee, who strode ahead of me and managed 4km in not much more time than my 2km took.  The Mekong has had over six months of Dry Season to dwindle to levels as shallow and still as it probably ever gets, making the surface highly reflective.  Wooden boats float on brightly glimmering expanses of water and the river reflects mirrored images of bridge supports, tree-lined shore, floating houses and boats, bringing the water to colourful life.  It is difficult to believe that in a few short months, once the pending monsoons have had time to take effect on the river, it will be flowing fast and high again, with many of the current low-lying landmarks disappearing under volumes of raging water.

Demand for my English skills is snowballing and I now spend seven hours per week in language lessons.  As well as the four hours per weekend in reciprocal English-Khmer lessons with a small group of men, this week I added an hour three evenings per week teaching a group of 12 orphans aged from 6yo to 15yo.  Previously my housemate was volunteering in this role but as is the case with MSF missions, he was only here temporarily and left over a month ago, so a new teacher was sought.  These lessons have since grown to include two homeless children I have come to know via daily contact at work, aged 6 and 11, who will come with me in a tuk-tuk each evening and I will deliver them to their hammock under a tree after the hour-long session.

The lessons occur at the orphanage, on the ground floor undercover area of the high-set stilted house.  Teaching children is a very different enterprise to teaching adults.  I realised the night prior to starting these lessons that the experience of turning up to 12 expectant young pairs of eyes was going to mean I needed to be organised in some way which has not been necessary with the adults, so I spent a number of hours on Google and YouTube getting ideas for a lesson plan.  This was all I needed for the first three evening classes to run smoothly, as I came prepared with a number of different interactive exercises to keep the children entertained and motivated.  Although they seem to be motivated anyway, with even the six year old sitting quietly facing the board and writing out his letters with great concentration when it is time to copy our recited words from the board.

Not only is it a steep learning curve, to suddenly find myself being called “Teacher”, and being responsible for the entertainment and leadership of a tribe of kids for three hours per week, it’s also a huge amount of fun despite the significant language barrier.  One of the songs they already knew, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” is a great hit and they sing it repeatedly, starting over enthusiastically when it comes to an end, watching me studiously as we get to the “Eyes, Ears, Mouth and Nose” part of the song to try and grasp which word belongs to which facial feature and laughing uproariously when we speed up the tempo.

Thankfully a Khmer colleague comes with me whenever he is available which makes a big difference as he is able to translate instructions, the meaning of new words, etc.  He enjoys the kids as much as I do and we come away feeling exhilarated with lots of cute and funny memories, feeling like we’ve made a small contribution to the community.  His words to me when we spoke of this were “I want to help the Cambodian children because I pity them so much and if they can learn English it is so important to their life”.

Equally exhilarating, but in a completely different way, are the reciprocal English-Khmer lessons with four young men who learn English at night school and attend class with me at weekends because of the perceived benefits of having contact with a native English speaker.  At this morning’s lesson there were two Khmer guys with Bee and myself, both Australian.  We spent an hour at the table teaching each other various things, before it was suggested that if we were in the market we could practise our Khmer in a real-life situation and it would have more impact.

With myself and Bee on our bicycles and the men tandem on a single moto, we rode abreast through the streets to the Central Market where we had a few small purchases to make.  With our Khmer instructors there to tutor and support us, we asked for items and prices, translated the Khmer replies of stall holders into English for ourselves, bargained for cheaper prices, asked for our things to be packed and put into practise various other phrases we have been learning from the safety of a private space.  We came away with a new hand-held fan each, a bamboo mat to use in games with the young English students, two books and two pens for each of the new students joining me at the orphanage this week.  Nearby stall holders in the narrow undercover lanes of the market gathered near us to observe as our Khmer bargaining took place at different stalls and there was much sign language and laughter as we all attempted to communicate in Khmer together.  Our tutors corrected our grammar, asked us to “please say it in Khmer” when we gravitated back to English and encouraged us to bargain the price down, a usual and expected custom.

Meanwhile, this week the six year old homeless girl who I see daily was devastated by something on Monday morning.  She sat on the pavement sobbing for an inordinate amount of time and could not be consoled.  Later in the day with my translator I was able to have a conversation with her grandparents from their “home” under a tree. The last time she had seen her mother she was about 4yo. Her mother works in Thailand at an air conditioning factory and only comes home when there is a break between contracts.

Last week the girls’ mother visited her daughters for the first time in 2.5 years.  On Monday she returned to Thailand and she will not return home to Cambodia until her next contract ends in three years’ time.  Searching the internet for information on air conditioning factories in Thailand, it is difficult to find anything specific.  However the general employment conditions of migrant workers in Thailand appear to be rife with human rights abuses.  I can only imagine the conditions she works in, in a country where the minimum wage is $280 per month but appears not to be easily or readily enforced.  Yet, it is clearly considered a worthwhile sacrifice for a young mother to make, leaving the children with caring but homeless grandparents who earn a grand total of US$70 per month in a country which does not have a minimum wage nor reliable salary payments to lower level workers.  The following two websites give a little insight into worker conditions in Thailand.

Thai minimum wage jumps

Yet my observations are that these committed grandparents ensure the children get to school each day and despite the impoverished living conditions, keep the children clean and fed.  Many Cambodian children do not have the advantage of regular, or for many, even any school attendance.  Teachers in Cambodia earn a tiny wage and rely on payments from students to make their income livable.  I am told that children have to take 500 riel (equivalent of US12c) to school each day, to pay the teacher.  Children who attend without this payment are apparently sent home.  For many Cambodian families with unreliable income, earning tiny amounts for hard physical labour and employed as daily workers, meaning from one day to the next their ability to earn anything is unpredictable, this is not an affordable amount, particularly when there is more than one child to educate.  Schools also seem to hold morning and afternoon classes, with most primary students only attending for two to three hours per day, either the morning or the afternoon class depending on the school’s organisation of grades.

This family’s story seems shocking to my first world brain but such unimaginable sacrifice is not at all an uncommon scenario. Many of my own colleagues do not see their children for weeks, sometimes months at a time, as they have been able to find work in Kampong Cham, many miles from home and for some at the other end of the country from where their often young children, partners and extended family live.  This sacrifice is made for wages that are in the US$200 to US$500 range per month.  A colleague recently explained to me that living apart from family but remaining in Cambodia pays less than they could earn in Vietnam or Thailand, but they choose this lesser sacrifice to remain closer to their families than travelling to another country would allow.

Today I informed my Khmer classmates that I had started teaching English to some children and one of them expressed that he wished he had known me when he was a child because learning English as a child would be so much easier and learning English from a native speaker considered far superior than learning from someone who knows English as a foreign language.  The fact that I, a very unlikely teacher, was head hunted for this role by two quite different groups of people; the studious attention that my adult and child students pay to learning English from an untrained and less than average teacher; the comments I have heard about the importance and value of English proficiency; the outsider observations I have made of the difference in income, small as this difference is to a westerner, between those in English-speaking jobs and those whose jobs do not require English; are all factors which have revealed to me a surprising insight into the power that the English language possesses in Cambodia and many other places in the developing world.

As if to confirm my point, the article from People Magazine in December 2012 below, was posted to my Facebook page tonight.  The last line in the article is a quote from a girl who spent her first decade of life scavenging in Phnom Penh’s Steung Meanchey rubbish dump before being rescued by Scott Neeson, founder of the renowned Cambodian Childrens’ Fund: “Now my life has changed.  I can speak English with you.  I have the opportunity to go to school.  Everything is different”.

Click to access PEOPLE_Magazine_USA_December_2012.pdf

3 thoughts on “The Power of English

  1. Amazing stories Helen … I wonder if you could adapt any of your posts into an article for the Australian press, as a counterpoint to the Australian government unbelievably trying to do a deal with Cambodia to take some of our refugees. (can you believe it?) An insight into the life they may expect.


  2. I wonder if you watched the programme about this situation on Dateline, Jennie. Awful.
    Another fascinating insight into your sojourn in Cambodia and of your generosity towards your fellow man.


  3. Thanks, friends. Jennie, I would not know how to do that but I find it unbelievable, that the Australian government could possibly think they were doing something right for the world by implementing such a hair-brained plan.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s