Cambodia Needs to Embrace and Invest in Bilingual Education

Rathana Phin
Cambodian Education Forum
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
February 10, 2021

Image: Medium


Possessing the ability to speak multiple languages will make you stand out amongst those who are only monolingual. In the century of globalization, there is an increase in international mobility, cross-cultural communications, and digitalization. The power of speaking two languages will be necessary to understand the unrelenting change in the world.

English is recognized as a global language and is used nearly everywhere around the globe. As a developing nation, Cambodia benefits from English since the language can be used as a bridge. English helps to connect the Kingdom to the latest developments of the world in various fields from social sciences to science and technology.

No doubt, Cambodia would benefit from more exposure to English. With more people speaking English, it is likely that Cambodia will become more similar to other developed nations in terms of technology transfer, trade, and development. Each Cambodians should therefore attempt to learn the language to help the entire Kingdom move forward.

Cambodia would gain immensely if there were greater improvements in the comprehension of English and technology. These two subjects would launch the nation into more connection with the world. A foreign language like English exposes anyone to new matters which are updated on the internet each day. We may use this language to learn about what happens in our country or the world, to develop our skills, to expand networking, and/or to explore something new.

Moreover, as research has shown, a person who speaks more than one language, particularly from early childhood, not only have better concentration ability but also suffers less from brain-related diseases such as dementia and cognitive decline as they age (Perry, 2018). It was found that a bilingual brain would make one smarter (Muñoz, 2014).

Normally, bilingual people have a better chance to get a job because they are better equipped than their monolingual counterparts in terms of the ability to communicate across languages. These bilingual people are strong communicators and tend to be good at multitasking and have an excellent memory as well as cross-cultural and social understanding.

Bilingualism and Multilingualism

Bilingualism refers to a person’s skills to use two languages effectively and multilingualism is when someone can use more than two languages (Nordquist, 2020). Bilingual education refers to “education in more than one language, often encompassing more than two languages” (Negadi, 2015, p. 497). Knowing a foreign language means someone can function in the four macro skills such as listening, reading, speaking, and writing.

It has been found that to become completely fluent as a native speaker, one should learn a foreign language before the age of 10, and the older a person is, the more difficult it is to learn a language (Smith, 2018). However, even one starts to learn a language at the age of 17 or 18, they are still able to understand grammar in the new language properly (Smith, 2018).

In European countries, those who speak a foreign language are the majority. According to Eurostat (2018), 65% of working-age adults in the European Union know at least one foreign language. People with the ability to communicate in multiple tongues are particularly high (more than 90%) in Sweden, Latvia, Denmark, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Finland, Malta, and Estonia (Eurostat, 2018).

The multilingual traits of the European Union promotes learning and linguistic diversity across Europe. Some Europeans believe that language will unite people, rendering other cultures and countries accessible and thereby reinforcing intercultural understanding. Additionally, according to the European Commission (n.d.), multilingualism plays a pivotal role in boosting people’s employment and mobility.

With the emergence of the robust Asian economic growth, the role of English is more necessary than ever for Asian nations (Goidtsnoven, 2019). The rise in the use of English might be preparation for the future prospect of Industry 4.0. English is at the vanguard of competitive and effective business strategies (Goidtsnoven, 2019). While English is considered a global or common language, no one can deny that it can be a bridge to propel growth faster, especially in science and technology, a sector that Cambodia lags behind developed nations or other neighboring countries.

Bilingual Education in Cambodia

In 2002, UNESCO in partnership with CARE Cambodia initiated a bilingual education program specifically for the remote tribes in the north-eastern provinces of Cambodia which lacked access to schools (Middleborg, 2005). The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) introduced bilingual education by cooperating with NGOs to expand the implementation in the next several years. Until 2013, the government of Cambodia enacted a law to allow the use of indigenous languages in formal schooling (Dickinson, 2019).​ More importantly is the introduction of English into school curriculum, starting from Grade 4 (Zein, 2017).

Bilingual education is a powerful reformation for Cambodia’s education sector. Although it brings numerous benefits, it requires more efforts and resources. There must be collaboration from the public to support this new system. At present, many bilingual classes only exist in affluent urban locations and are limited to other rural areas where resources are scarce.

In fact, all students should begin to learn English from primary school, preferably from Grade 1, so their skills will develop with them until the completion of high school. In this case, there must be quality teaching, so students can reach upper-intermediate levels before entering college; consequently, there is a need for more qualified English teachers, effective learning programs, adequate timetable for English classes, and learning resources such as books and electronic devices including computers, speakers, and others relevant materials.

For rural students who have limited opportunities, unlike the students in the city, they might not be able to afford a standard private school to learn English. There should be mechanisms to support these students. There should also be qualified teachers to help rural students to achieve the same level of proficiency in English as their city-dwelling peers.

The Way Forward

Bilingual education requires many resources; however, the first way forward is to provide them with English classes beginning at primary school with quality teaching and learning. Secondly, it is important to supply more books in both Khmer and English regarding math and science, literature, ethics, history, and other relevant books. Third, increasing the library time for them is vital as it helps to develop their independent learning skills and the love of reading. Fourth, it is crucial to increase the sense of competitiveness among students, creating more programs or events in school, including reading or mathematical competitions similar to sports.

These changes would improve students’ knowledge along with English skills. Therefore, when they become older or enter college, they might have enough capability to use English to help themselves to seek national or international scholarships as well as internships that require high English proficiency. They can join international programs such as conferences or competitions. They can also learn new skills in online classes on Coursera or edX.

Imagine 80 percent of Cambodian youths or students with advanced English skills by 2025 or 2030. There would be a spike in innovation, competition, betterment, and prosperity in diverse sectors of the country. This will be vital for Cambodia to achieve its ambition to become an upper middle-income country by the next decade.


Bilingualism provides advantages that are far-reaching. Bilingual students can acquire cognitive, economic, and social benefits. Bilingual people are local but able to understand global issues. Bilingual classes are an impressive transformation for the Cambodian education sector which is in need of resources and efforts to achieve a higher level of quality. I believe Cambodia cannot adopt changes to bilingual education equally and efficiently overnight but providing English classes with quality teaching and learning for students would be the first step in the right direction.


Dickinson, G. (2019). Cambodia’s emerging bilingual education programs—Success in a system in crisis. In B. Johannessen (Ed.), Bilingualism and bilingual education: Politics, policies and practices in a globalized society (pp. 269-290). Springer.

European Commission. (n.d.). About multilingual policy.

Eurostat. (2018, September 26). 65% know at least one foreign language in the EU. Eurostat.

Goidtsnoven, G. R, (2019, November 13). Bilingual education in Southeast Asia.  TIE Online.

Middleborg, J. (2005). Highland children’s education project: A pilot project on bilingual education in Cambodia.

Muñoz, M.A (2014, June 23). Does being bilingual make you smarter? British Council.

Negadi, M. N. (2015). Learning English in Algeria through French-based background proficiency. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 199, 496-500.

Nordquist, R. (2020, February 5). Definition and Examples of Bilingualism. ThoughtCo.,languages%20is%20known%20as%20multilingualism.

Perry, S.  (2008, September 1). The bilingual brain. Brain Facts.

Smith, D.G, (2018, May 4). At what age does our ability to learn a new language like a native speaker disappear? Scientific American.

Zein, S. (2017). Access policy on English language education at the primary school level in the ASEAN Plus Three member states: motivations, challenges and future directions. Asian Englishes, 19(3), 197-210.

The Author

Rathana Phin is currently an intern at Cambodian Education Forum. He is a junior student pursuing a Bachelor of Political Science and International Relations at Paragon International University in Phnom Penh.

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