Kunthea's English Classes

For many young people in the Kingdom today, the ability to speak English means a ticket to a better life, particularly if you live in a tourist centre like Siem Reap. Recently, we talked with Education Officer Kunthea about her journey with English and why she decided to start teaching free English classes at Free To Shine:

"When I was young I heard people my age talking about English class but I wasn’t interested. I never went to extra classes, the only thing about English I knew from my friends was “ABCD”. Then one day someone from Jay Pritzker Academy (JPA) came to my primary school when I was in grade four. They came to every class and they talked about JPA, an outstanding K-12 school that focuses on English language. But I still wasn't interested in English. And last they said, ‘if anyone is interested, please raise your hand.’ In that class, almost everyone raised their hand, and we were given a test, but after the test, I was the only one who had passed and was accepted into JPA. Once I started it was very complicated and sometimes I didn't understand anything. I was always worried, sometimes I didn't sleep at all, but then one day, I realised that I could speak and read English. It was a shock to me; I don't know when it happened! It took me about three years of hard work, but in the end I was successful. Knowing English has been very helpful to me, it has helped me communicate with international people, access information online, and find a good job. These reasons are why many people should study English, it helps them in their lives."

With Cambodia’s entry into the international arena in the post-conflict period, the country moved further away from its francophone roots and began embracing English as the main foreign language taught in schools. The early 2000s saw an influx of English language international aid organisations and an increase in English-speaking tourism coming into Cambodia.

Because of this, knowing even a little bit of conversational English means you are better able to converse with the thousands of English speaking tourists that travel to Siem Reap every year, and more likely to be hired at a higher-paying job. But for many students, the indirect costs of education mean quality English language instruction is out of reach.

Within the Cambodian public education system, classes are taught for half the day, and teachers will often save the important parts of the curriculum for additional classes in the second half of the day that students have to pay for. In Siem Reap Province, a single subject can cost students between $5 USD and $10 USD per month and students in high school might be taking additional curriculum classes in as many as eight subjects. This can be an immense financial burden on families, but students that don’t take these classes are far less likely to pass their end-of-year exam and move on to the next grade, leaving parents in an impossible position. This is why Free To Shine provides the girls on our program with financial support for additional curriculum classes—so they can stay safe and in school, and gain the knowledge they need to progress through high school.

Despite this, some students still struggle with English. “I meet our girls in the rural villages every day, and some of them don’t know how to speak English well,” said Kunthea, “I can speak English, but I have had fourteen years of study. It's so important that students in Cambodia can speak English for their daily work, communication, and so that they can get a high position and better work than manual labour. So this year, I decided to do something. I started English classes at Free To Shine after work so that I could help girls to have a better future.”

In November, Kunthea, who is in her fourth year of university in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course, proposed a new project to benefit our team and the older students on our program. She would teach free one-hour English grammar and conversation classes a few days a week at Free To Shine at the end of the day for anyone interested in improving their skills. “Right now I am teaching two days a week but I would like to do it every day. I will continue to teach them for as long as it takes for them to be confident to speak English. I want to help people achieve their goals and dreams.”

For Education Officer Vantine, the classes are a helpful way for her to develop her English after work while still keeping up with her normal university course work. Vantine is in her fourth year at university, studying law, so having free English classes for an hour after work is much more convenient than expensive classes in town. “I stopped taking private English classes after high school because of the cost. After working at Free To Shine, now I can speak English much better. But want to improve more so I can teach English to the children in my village and talk with the Free To Shine volunteers and international staff. I am so happy for this opportunity.”

21 year old *Bopha has been on Free To Shine's program for five years and is now one of Free To Shine's 22 university scholars, studying business management. Outside of her studies, Bopha also works as a server at a local restaurant popular with visitors. In her mind, "Nowadays, English is important to communicate with other people and for a good job." Bopha hopes that improving her English skills will give her "the opportunity to go up in my job step by step," not only in her work as a server, but after she graduates with a law degree.

We’re so proud of Kunthea for using her skills to create change in her workplace and to find innovative ways to continue giving back to our team and the girls on our program. With her determination and innovation, we have no doubt she’ll continue to help others achieve their goals and dreams.