I first started to learn English in a private class in 1981. At that time, English or French languages were not welcome in Cambodia. We were living in the socialist regime under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. People or students were encouraged, even forced, to learn Russian or Vietnamese as a foreign language. Languages of the West were all together strictly forbidden. The government feared that allowing people to learn the enemy’s language could help them to flee the country or contacting the west and did harm to the country or government.

My English teacher was a very handsome guy and was working in the Ministry of Interior as police officer. He had a small, but nice car while I hardly owned proper shoes. He used his apartment, close to the apartment of my aunt in Oh Russey market, for English classes.  There were two teachers teaching at that time in his language school. He used his powerful position to oppress other people of not allowing them to teach or learn English, while he himself did it secretly. However, I am still thankful to him for allowing us to learn with him. If discovered while learning English, severe punishment would be opposed to the “offender”.

The course was at the evening time, between 5:30-6:30 pm, from Monday through Friday. We did not have electricity and was using petrol lamp to give us some light. The fee was 30 Riel for a month. The Riels were very valuable. It was just reintroduced into the economy in early 1980, after being banned during the Khmer Regime. I did need to save one Riels per day to be able to pay for the tuition fee. I did not take the money from my mother. I knew how hard she worked to earn that little money. I had a bicycle and made use of it as a bicycle taxi or kang dup in Khmer. My bicycle was bought with the money when I sold my pig, I rose by myself. I got tears when my pig was taken away. But, I did need money to buy a bicycle. I woke up in the very early morning, usually at 4 am. After reviewing my lessons in school and helping my mother, I took my bike and cycled along the streets of Phnom Penh searching for customer. When lucky enough, I could earn up to five Riels in the morning. But, most of the time I earned 2-3 Riel, sometime nothing. Currently, 100 Riel is the smallest note still in circulation and worth nearly nothing.

Having monopoly in teaching English while other people could not do, my teacher did not care much about his commitment to teach us regularly. He came to class three to four times maximum per week. I did need to learn a lot by myself. However, I finished Essential English Book One with him, after several months. I supposed to continue to book 2. But, the fee was higher, 50 Riel. It was a big challenge for me. I negotiated with him, but my effort was in vain. No way out for me, I stopped to learn with him. Luckily, a friend of mine offered us 30 Riel per month for the book 2 course. He himself just finished it. I took this offer and learned with him until the end of the book.

ENG-KHM Dictionary

An English-Khmer Dictionary re-written or copied by Sophanna in 1983

I did not own any dictionary. There were some old dictionaries sold in the market. But, one simple dictionary would cost one “chi” in gold or 500 Riels, which I did not have. One day, I decided to write/copy a dictionary of my friend. The original copy is from Mr. Pa Vanna, a well known writer in English. I borrowed the dictionary from my close friend. He was better off than me. It is thick one. I thought, oh God, how long it would take to re-write all words in there? Am I diligent enough to do it? How much time would I spend per day? One thing was clear for me: I must have a dictionary soon, if I would like to learn English. And I wanted to learn English at any price. I did not have money, but plenty of time and energy. I was young. So, I devoted my time to write it. I wrote from the morning till evening, about ten hours with some short breaks in between. If I continued at the same speed, it would take me at least two weeks of writing ten hours per day. After the first page, I thought I would give up. But, one thing came to my mind. Mr. Pa Vanna did a great research, wrote, translated from English to Khmer and compiled as a book for other people to make use of it. Why couldn’t I just write it now? No need to think much. Just write, write and write. I did do it until I finished it.

ENG-KHM dictionary

Finalized and compiled in 1983

Sometime I wrote until 12 am or 1 am in the morning. Finally, I had done it. A dictionary was re-produced by me. It was bounced nicely by me. It was a great joy for me and sense of achievement. I gave back the original dictionary to my friend and I told him that I would not need to borrow from him anymore. He was very surprise to learn that I have my own copied-style dictionary. I still owned it now and am proud of it. I used it a lot for my study. Currently, a dictionary costs nearly nothing. Some time, I could not understand why people or young people or my sons now would not learn or lazy to learn English.

Note book

Learning English by translating the word into German

Then, I got the scholarship to go to Germany in 1984. I stopped learning English for a while and started concentrating on German which was a requirement. German is a difficult language. Students must learn hard if not wanting to be sent back home. After one year of German, I nearly forgot my English. But, I continue to read books in English or newspapers by using dictionary. I must translate many, many words; first into Khmer, later on from English to English. Every page is marked by unknown words with the translation next to it. I have a notebook, which I have kept until nowadays. At the third year of my study at the University of Leipzig, I started to refresh my English again. In East-Germany English was not much welcome either. We had only 1 hour 30 minute class in a week. Not enough. I must learn hard by myself to see some progress. It required constant self-discipline.

One day in 1989, my friends Koma and Kosal challenged me in listening to the radio in English. I tried to listen to BBC. I could not understand much, except word by word, not the whole meaning. I bought one radio later on and listened to it very regularly. Little by little, my English became better and better, thanks to them. It was very good experience for me. Learning a language, several methods must be done at the same time: reading, writing, speaking, listening, and talking; to make it more effective.

Currently, I could use my English properly, though not very professional. I could attend international conference in English, reading books or any written documents without any problem. In addition to English, I speak German, read and understand fair Thai and French. I used once to learn Vietnamese. I like studying foreign languages. At one time in Germany, I would like to open a language institute in Phnom Penh. I have not done it. But, there are plenty of private language institutes in Cambodia. English becomes the most popular second language for most Cambodians.


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