Learn Your “Sok Sabay” From Your “Mouy, Pi, Bey”

Feeling more at home in the Kingdom but mystified by the world outside your door? The intention to learn the language is easily forgotten when you realise that you can get by just fine with rudimentary English.

Speaking Khmer will certainly enrich everyday life, from negotiating a fair price at your local market, to enhancing cultural understanding, sense of community and yes, even employment opportunities in Cambodia.

First, a little history: Khmer is the earliest recorded and written language of the Mon–Khmer family to which it belongs. Pali and Sanskrit, to which elements from the Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Cham languages were later added, heavily influenced the language. Modern Khmer dates back to the 14th century.

Unlike the language of neighbouring countries, Khmer is not tonal- but the sounds it contains (not to mention the script) are totally new to the ears of most English speakers, providing quite a challenge!

Want to pick up Khmer while learning more about Cambodian culture? Get on down to Khmer Street Telling Class where Professor Thida teaches everyday vocabulary through key cultural products, like 60s Golden Age classic rock song Chih Cyclo and traditional folktale Mea Yeung. Catch free fortnightly evening classes at bar and venue Cloud (#32, St.9) where local craft beer and cider help to loosen lips.

In a similar vein is the BlaBla Phnom Penh Language Exchange, which happens every 2 weeks on Tuesday evenings at various venues around the city. It’s a free and easy space where the needs of participants decide the shape and flow of the session- meet and greet is in English, after which people can break off into their desired language groups for practice. Part of the global BlaBla Language Exchange network, meet ups are about more than just words, they help develop and deepen community. There are also fortnightly meet ups in Siem Reap.

It you’re serious about making strides in Khmer and have the time to spare for formal instruction, the course of choice is “Khmer for Foreigners” taught at the Institute of Foreign Languages within the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The course covers all 4 language skills, including reading and writing- something of a rarity for expats- offering students the chance to learn as native Khmer speakers do, starting with individual script characters, which many will tell you is the gateway to better pronunciation, thus clearer communication. The course is taught by Cambodia’s best and brightest linguists, split across 4 levels, each repeating throughout the year, with 90-minute classes held from Monday to Friday for 8 to 10 weeks per term (3 terms a year). Students can choose morning or evening classes. Each level costs $200 and it’s possible to complete all 4 levels in an academic year (generally end of March to end of December) for a total of $800, which works out at around $3 per hour, the best value in town.

A few words of warning: traffic enroute to the campus in Toul Kork and teaching methodology (largely rote learning) can be severe. That said, if you desire comprehensive mastery of Khmer within 1 year, this is the course for you.

A happy medium between ad hoc learning and rigorous instruction is attending sessions at one of the language schools in town, which are often tailored to individual needs and schedules. There are countless such schools and centres but the Khmer School of Language (#52G, St.454) is one of the best out there. Set up in 1993, they are one of most established schools in town. Tuition is available 1:1, in small groups and even remotely via Skype. Prices start at $8 for 1:1 lessons in-house, plus $5-7 extra to cover teachers’ travel time and distance to your home or workplace. Their in-house shop showcases language study aids and crafts made by staff from disadvantaged backgrounds, who can also translate documents and tailor make clothes, so you can feel good about looking good! KhmerFriends (#22A, St.185) opened by a group of teachers in 2011, offers similar teaching services at more affordable rates, with in-house 1:1 classes from $5.

One stop shop Making It Easy can ease your passage into expat life or doing business in the Kingdom, be it relocation services, VAT registration or learning Khmer. What sets their lessons apart from others is a teaching methodology modelled on contemporary recommended language acquisition, namely the Communicative and Interactive Language learning approaches applied in virtually every modern language school in the West.  Group classes are conducted at their office within Impact Hub on St.306 in BKK1. 1:1 classes can be arranged at a location to suit you, with tutors available for classes between 7:30 am -7:30 pm Monday to Friday and for limited periods on Saturdays.

Independent learning at your own pace is possible but be sure to get enough exposure to authentically spoken Khmer. Hiring a private tutor and studying in your own time is a tried and tested route if you practice at every opportunity!

“Pretend you don’t speak English and try only Khmer,” is long-time teacher Chhun Vanna’s advice. “Learn one new word a day and use it many times (out loud, and in your head).” Vanna’s website,, has useful freebies including videos, worksheets, and vocab lessons to get you started.

You can find quality language study books, including Cambodian for Beginners, by Richard K. Gilbert and Colloquial Cambodian: The Complete Course for Beginners by David Smyth, at Monument Books on #111 Norodom Blvd or at Aeon Mall 1 (Sothearos Blvd).

Unsurprisingly, there are now a range of apps to support Khmer language learning, including free and top-rated Speak Khmer Learn Khmer and Simply Learn Khmer Language containing over 300 essential words and phrases, flashcards and quizzes to track and test your progress.

Every little helps, so why not try a multi-pronged approach to learning: ask co-workers what words and phrases you hear frequently mean, devise mnemonics to remember vocabulary, listen to Khmer songs, watch Youtube Videos and above all practice, practice, practice!

At time of writing (December, 2018) all information was correct, but may have changed since. If there’s something you read here which you feel is incorrect or requires updating, please let us know.

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