There is a 140 character limit on micro-blogging platform Twitter, one of the top 10 most visited sites on the Internet used to share anything from real-time news to mundane activity updates. It’s a short sentence or two if you were to ‘tweet’ (or micro-blog) in English. But in Mandarin, 140 characters is enough to write a short story.

In the Christian Bible, the story of the Tower of Babel shared how the people of Earth wanted to build a tower that would reach heaven and prove humans could be equal to God. God says in Genesis 11:6,

“If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

To save them from their pride and arrogance, God created language to divide the people, thus never completing the construction of the tower.

The nuances of language is fascinating. Some languages are rich enough in vocabulary to describe the parts of a bicycle in one or two sentences. While other languages are more conversational and would probably take a paragraph or two to do the same. Hence, the ability of a language to effectively transmit information may hinder the growth of its citizens if schools in a country prefer using their native mother tongue as the medium of instruction.


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Students discussing homework before school begins at a private school in Lvea Aem District in Kandal Province, Cambodia.

A recent trip to Cambodia, a developing country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), led me to a private school in the Lvea Aem district in the Kandal Province. Here, students pay US$5 a month to attend daily classes and learn English. A hefty sum for most families living outside the capital city, Phnom Penh, considering that their average monthly family income is less than US$80 a month.

During one of the workshops conducted for English teachers in Cambodia, a state high school teacher lamented how it is a challenge for him to educate students who have varying levels of mastery in the English language within the same class. The more proficient students will get bored if lessons are too simple while students with limited exposure to the language would struggle if lessons were too complex.

The default language for instruction in Cambodian public schools is Khmer. Cambodian students are only exposed to the English language in classes at the high school level. Many Cambodians living in suburbs and rural areas do not converse in English frequently until university level.

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Public school teachers in Cambodia are paid between US$50 to US$100. Many have to take up a second job in order to support their families. Yet many your teachers still aspire to provide a higher quality education, attending workshops conducted by NGOs to upgrade their skills and share their experience with peers.

For Cambodians whose families struggle to make ends meet, education becomes a privilege as the poorer students as young as 12 years old end up leaving school to work. This vicious cycle of poverty continues if they can’t master the language, as good jobs that require working proficiency in the English language pay as much as US$300 or more. For example, global consulting firm KPMG offers top fresh graduates a starting wage of US$500 with a career track that will lead them to receive competitive salaries with their global peers if they fare well in the firm.

Tassilo Brinzer, a German expat based in Phnom Penh and owner of business publications, SEA Globe and FOCUS ASEAN, cites that Singapore’s economic success (one of the 10 nations in ASEAN) can be attributed to the nation’s mandate of making English, the main language of instruction in schools since 1987 except for mother tongue classes instructed either in Tamil, Bahasa Malayu or Mandarin. Comparatively spoken Khmer would require more spoken syllables than the English equivalent, at times requiring certain English vocabulary to supplement the Khmer language.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister when the state gained independence in 1965, said, “If we were monolingual in our mother tongues, we would not make a living. Becoming monolingual in English would have been a setback. We would have lost our cultural identity, that quiet confidence about ourselves and our place in the world.”

Singaporeans currently enjoy the highest average wage among all 10 ASEAN nations followed by Brunei, a member of the ASEAN. Both countries have adopted English as the language of instruction in schools since the mid-1980s.

Based on a triennial study of 65 countries in 2009 by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) under the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Singapore students fared very well in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy. The OECD notes in the assessment, “that there is a strong link between (Singapore’s) education and economic development.”

Though many Cambodians are bilingual or trilingual, the quality of English education, due to the lack of correct grammatical use and conversational opportunities, hampers their ability to gain working proficiency in the language. Instead, some are more proficient in the spoken languages of neighboring countries such as Vietnam and Thailand.


In the Samrong Tong District, within Kampong Speu Province in Cambodia, eager students attend daily night classes instructed in Mandarin. The school, a refurbished shophouse, is funded by a Taiwanese and classes are run by a local Cambodian, Sen (not his real name), who works as an assistant manager in a Chinese garment factory nearby.

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Samrong Tong District, Kampong Speu Province in Cambodia. Students commune for free Mandarin classes in a refurbished shophouse funded by a Taiwanese businessman.

Students as young as 6 and as old as 30 attend free classes to brush up their ability to converse in Mandarin. Many parents recognize the importance of having their children mastering Mandarin, especially when China is one of Cambodia’s largest economic partner, supporting many key infrastructure projects in the country with a “no strings attached” policy.

Sen, 28, has been teaching daily on week nights for the last 2 and a half years to 2 different classes comprised of 30 to 40 students. The elementary class for younger students teaches basic vocabulary, while the advanced class teaches conversational phrases and decorum. The curriculum and textbooks are adapted from a local Chinese high school in another province. Most students will spend about 3 to 4 years of study to gain basic proficiency in the language. There will be no national grading standard or proficiency test such as the Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) administered.

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Sen, 28, worries that the school may not be able to continue running when he gets married later this year and his family would have to relocate to another province. A replacement with proficient Mandarin and Khmer communication abilities will be a challenge to find in Cambodia, few are willing to teach due to low wages paid as a teacher.

Mastery in Mandarin, enables them to serve as translators in Chinese factories for their bosses or advance to the position of an assistant manager, second in rank to a native Chinese who would usually serve as a factory general manager. The minimum monthly wage for a garment factory worker in Cambodia is US$73 and assistant managers can expect to earn 3 to 4 times more.


To the people of developing countries like Cambodia within the region, the mastery of a common working language like English or Mandarin represents upward social mobility and a ticket out of poverty. At a macro level, a high-quality standardized curriculum in languages can help a country’s economy transform from a resource reliant economy to a knowledge-based economy.

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Without further education and working knowledge in English, young Cambodians are left with low-skilled work to support their families. Some who have limited knowledge in English become Tuk Tuk drivers, the equivalent of cab drivers.

Most leading education materials and books today are written in English and students that fail to develop English literacy and reading habits are on the losing end as the global economy grows more competitive. Even learning Mandarin could prove to provide a competitive edge as enterprising Chinese publishers have translated many foreign books in English and Japanese for its 1.35 billion citizens to consume.

If the public education system of a country fails to catch up and train its citizens to meet professional working proficiency in languages. The private education sector would have to play a bigger role in filling the gaps. Should the private education sector not be robust enough in its offerings, developing countries can only come to rely on non-profit organizations or member states to provide intermittent assistance.

Photos by writer, Daylon Soh.

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Daylon Soh

Design Founder at CuriousCore
Creative Rebel, Marketer & Managing Editor of @OpenBrief. ♥ Digital Photography, Copywriting & Gaming
Daylon1 300x300 How language is influencing the growth of ASEAN
Daylon1 300x300 How language is influencing the growth of ASEAN

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