Cambodia’s Language-in-Education Policy (LEP): Too many recipes, but without enough ingredients for the cooks


Hum Chan
University of Battambang
Battambang, Cambodia
July 11, 2020

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This essay highlights key findings from a full research paper, entitled “Language-in-education policy formation through a consultation-based system: The case of multilingual curricula in Cambodian universities,” published in The Journal of Asia TEFL.

As the paper concludes, LEP in the form of foreign language education (FLE) in Cambodian universities seems to have been enshrined by different recipes, metaphorically referring to policy texts, craving for national and ASEAN regional politics and economic development. Without any prescription of curriculum content or guiding principles, however, the Cambodia’s LEP is entirely subject to the demands of stakeholders, as well as the constraints and enablement of the contexts. The incorporation of ‘flexibility’ and consensus with various stakeholders has been considered an ideal LEP formation process.

Moreover, the resultant LEP for Cambodia’s university education was less than ideal as regards quality issues; even some basic requirements (e.g., quality assurance standards) were not met. The end result, paradoxically, has driven the curriculum away from meeting stakeholders’ needs. The findings in this study are consistent with those of the previous studies, as many have argued that Cambodia’s LEP has been hegemonic, flared by ideologies and politics.

For example, in the 7th century, under the Indian political pressures and cultural influences, the Cambodia’s LEP introduced Pali and Sanskrit into FLE curriculum, while about two centuries after the loss of Angkor Empire and Longvek capital, Thais took the control of the north-western parts of Cambodia, and thus the Thai language influenced the language of education, literature, and administration in Cambodia. When Cambodia was later subject to French colonisation (1863-1954) and then under the regime of Prince Norodom Shihanouk in the 1960s, the French language was given an official status along with the native Khmer language, because France attempted to use its language as a means of establishing education systems and strengthening colonial power.

After the 1970s, Vietnam advanced their interventions and reinforced the use of their language in both formal and non-formal education (e.g. military training) in order to transform Cambodia’s political ideology and economic system. At the same time, the Russian language was politically introduced to Cambodia in order that Cambodia could gain financial assistance and diplomatic support from the Soviet Union/Russia. Thus, the Vietnamese and Russian languages were predominantly used as the economic and political languages, functioning as tools for international influence and appropriation in Cambodia. Under such an ideological pendulum, Cambodia’s LEP was impacted by ‘linguistic/language imperialism’. As a result, other foreign languages such as English and French were not allowed to be taught in Khmer schools.  

After a national election in 1993, and with the move to the free market and a membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a period defined as neoliberalism, Cambodia’s LEP faced yet another batch of ideologies in language studies, i.e., English, the official language of ASEAN, and Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, the languages of the Asia-Pacific’s three largest powers. This ideological process enables the policymakers of the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC), the employment market and development partners, as well as Cambodian learners to recognise the proficiency in these newcomer languages as essential for Cambodia’s economic development and for individual social mobility.

At the institutional level, however, there is no separate department that solely governs LEP. Cambodia’s LEP for university education is thus governed by a body of policies that cover all aspects of education. Three levels of actors are involved in the policy processes: macro, mezzo and micro levels. As prescribed in the 2007 Education Law, the LEP process is rather top-down. At the macro or governmental level is the Supreme National Council of Education, chaired by Prime Minster of the Kingdom of Cambodia. It formulates ‘long-term policy and strategy’, assesses the overall education progress, and allocates resources for implementing policies.

At the mezzo level – where actors coordinate policy implementation between the national level (macro level) and micro level – is the Technical Working Group of Higher Education, which promotes aid effectiveness and development partnerships in support of the achievement of higher education policies, as well as ministries, agencies, and committees. Some of the higher education policies include, among others, the Cambodia Qualifications Framework and the Minimum Quality Standards of the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia.

At the micro level, the universities interpret and implement the policies as stipulated and translated at the macro and mezzo levels. The LEP as practiced at this level is influenced by local stakeholders such as parents and students, as well as local developmental partners that seek to improve the education quality and provide financial support to local universities.

The current LEP recognises the revitalising role of the English language in both the ASEAN region and wider global community. Thus, the Curriculum Framework for General and Technical Education 2015 mandatestwo compulsory foreign languages, French and English, in the national curriculum. For basic schooling, foreign language education (FLE) follows the guidelines in the Policy for Curriculum Development for General Education (2005-2009) and the Curriculum Framework for General and Technical Education 2015.

There is no guideline for FLE in Cambodia’s higher education. While several policies and plans, e.g., Policy on Higher Education 2030, Education Strategic Plan 2014-2018, and the Minimum Standards for Accreditation of Higher Education 2010, have mandated teaching English and French as foreign languages in Cambodia’s higher education institutions (HEIs), they do not provide any clear guidelines on the what and how to teach these languages. They do provide the standard of achievement though. The ultimate proficiency aimed for foreign languages through the three levels of education is somewhat ambitious, given that it encompasses not just daily communication, but also other advanced areas such as research and work, and it even seeks to develop critical thinking and creativity.

Considering the proficiency and other goals, the study hours for the English subject in a three-year programme for technical education are rather limited as there are only 76 hours annually, and 228 hours in total of teaching hours. For the undergraduate programmes, time allocation is more realistic, with 450 hours annually and 1,800 hours for the four years. This practice is seen as a lack of consensus at the institutional level.

Without clear guidelines on what and how to teach, LEP has been under ideological hegemony, and the LEP practice has varied across higher education institutions (HEIs) and different units within a single institute. For example, some universities require students to sit for state exams in order to graduate, while others stipulate that students do a practicum or write a thesis. The community of practice of FLE has been left to the perceived features of the contexts and people’s needs. Within the university education context, English and French have been used as the medium of instruction (MOI) in some departments and/or institutes, e.g. the Institute of Foreign Languages, Department of International Studies, and Department of Media Communication. Others offer lessons on them through a flexible time frame, e.g., three months, six months and/or one year, and still others, through a fixed-length programme. There is also ‘policy misalignment’ among different elements of curriculum, e.g., assessment, teaching methodology, and the nature of programmes. Thus, Clayton was right when he fittingly describes LEP in Cambodian HEIs as highly ‘flexible’.

In building absolute ‘flexibility’ in developing LEP in the form of FLE for Cambodia’s universities, some questions should be considered. For example, what degree of flexibility is optimal in the current context? If a benchmarking framework is to be established, what aspects should be included to provide direction to relevant parties to help balance the power difference in ways that are not so rigid that it does not allow for room to respond to changing stakeholder needs? How exactly is power negotiation in an LEP process, for instance, not just verbally but through non-verbal and other symbolic exchanges including turn-taking and body language?

Seeking answers to these questions may help pre-empt undue domination of the negotiation process by ‘the powerful,’ especially in high power distance societies like Cambodia. In view of the findings, a consultative policy process of LEP should not be given too free a rein but, rather, be guided and principled so that the LEP process and outcomes can be kept on an appropriate track. It is hoped that further research is conducted to identify a balancing point in LPP formation, which enables constructive opinion gathering and freedom to incorporate the demands and needs of all parties.

The Author

HUM Chan is currently the Head of Personnel Office at the University of Battambang (UBB). In 2019, he worked as Deputy Chief of the Research and Development Centre in the University. He has been awarded a four-year PhD scholarship starting from 2020 by The Education University of Hong Kong. His research interests are TEFL curriculum development, language learning investment, language ideology, and language policy and planning.

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