Cambodians rush to learn Mandarin as economy grows

When 20-year-old Suon Chiva was choosing a language to complement his native Khmer, it didnt take him long to decide. He saw where the products in his local markets were made and where the new investments in his country were coming from. Learning to speak Chinese, he decided, made the most sense.

Cambodian students learning Mandarin in capital Phnom Penh

Cambodia now has a lot of business people coming here from China, Chiva says. Theyre investing a lot of money. So its very important to speak their language. Its a view shared by most in his stuffy classroom in Phnom Penh. Chiva and a dozen other students sit on wooden benches, whirling fans pushing warm air around the room, as their young teacher runs through a lesson on Mandarin tones.

The school is one of several that have popped up in the Cambodian capital in recent years. Theyre catering to young Cambodians looking for a step up in an emerging economy. For years, learning English has been a prerequisite for many Cambodians wanting to get ahead. But with Chinas increasing clout and its conspicuous investment in the region, speaking Chinese has also become a valuable skill.

The results of Chinas soft power efforts are up for debate. But in Phnom Penh, many young people are just as eager to learn about Chinese culture and language as China is to export it. A local association of Chinese-Cambodians claims there are some 40,000 full or part-time students now learning the language.

Cambodia’s 3 business languages: Khmer, English, Chinese

17-year-old Muth Sovannara is not like most Cambodian teenagers. For starters, he speaks three languages his native Khmer, the English he spent most of his life studying, and, for three years now, Mandarin. Each weekday, he wakes early in order to get to his high school at 7am.

After four hours of lessons in Khmer, the teenager packs his bag and returns home for an afternoon nap. It is rest he will sorely need. Later in the day, Sovannara goes for an hour of English classes before heading to Mandarin lessons at the Duan Hua School, just outside Kandal Market.

Coping with three languages is a challenge, he admits, but Mandarin is the toughest of all. In order to keep up, Sovannara stays awake until midnight most days to fu xi gong ke, he says, using the Mandarin term for revision. But the long hours, says Sovannara, are worth it. I want to be a Mandarin translator in the future.

ASEAN states like Philippines accused Cambodia of becoming China’s client state

While Sovannaras ambition may be unique, his desire to learn Mandarin is not. Enrolment in Chinese schools has been skyrocketing, classes have been proliferating and, increasingly, Chinese is becoming the third or even second language of choice for young Cambodians. Learning Mandarin, they hope, will give them an advantage in the business world.

Its not hard to see why. Chinese Cambodians play a leading role in the Cambodian business sector as well as within Cambodias political scene. Accounting for just 5% of the population, they have a considerable presence in the Cambodian economy and are estimated to control as much as 92% of it. The countrys wealthiest man, Chinese Cambodian businessman Kith Meng, runs The Royal Group, Cambodia’s largest and most diversified conglomerate.

Cambodian families are encouraging their children to study Chinese, Mandarin teacher Sochea says, because they want their children to get jobs. The school also offers basic lessons in other languages, including English, Korean and Vietnamese. But when new students ask him for advice, Sochea says he steers them in one direction. I tell them to look at the investments other countries are making, he added. The real money in Cambodia is coming mostly from China.

Cambodia’s richest man Kith Meng, rumored to be the next candidate for Prime Ministership

China has become the biggest financial backer of Cambodia. Since 2005, approved investments from Chinese companies in Cambodia have exceeded $8 billion, according to the Cambodian Investment Board - far above the sums expended by the next closest, Korea. But these figures offer just a partial picture of Chinese ventures in Cambodia; they represent only projects approved for tax exemptions and other incentives. They also dont include investors in the countrys special economic zones, or smaller projects approved by provincial authorities.

Many students said they hoped their efforts would lead to a lucrative job. Nguon Lengneng takes Mandarin lessons every evening. The banking major graduated from university a year ago but has so far been unable to find work in the profession. Lengneng, 24, is hoping that speaking and writing in Mandarin will move him to the front of the line for a job at a bank.

There are many Chinese businesses here, so the language is very important now, he said. Chum Leakena, 24, studied Mandarin for two years and, due to her language skills, landed a receptionist position five years ago at a Phnom Penh gym frequented by expats. Within two years, Leakena was promoted to an assistant operations manager and now oversees sales and staff rosters. At my workplace, Im the only one who can speak Mandarin and is able to talk to our Chinese clients.

China has achieved absolute economic dominance in Cambodia

Leakenas two sisters have followed in her footsteps and have also spent years learning the language. The US is a big economy, but China is second, said Leakena. If we can speak both languages, we can work with both.

Being one of the poorest nation, Cambodia recently entered a phrase of rapid economic growth. Gross domestic product grew by an estimated 6.6% in 2012, forecast at 7.2 percent in 2013, and picking up to 7.5 percent next year - making it one of the fastest growing economy in Southeast Asia.

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