11 July 2024

In Cambodia, anything Thai – from TV series and music to celebrities, consumer goods, and even the language – was once hugely popular. Despite this popularity having waned in recent years, many Cambodians still recognise the value of learning Thai.

When it comes to language learning, many Cambodian students are much better at learning Thai compared to other languages, due to the inherent similarities between Thai and Khmer, as the two languages share roots in Pali and Sanskrit, with around 70% of their vocabulary having similar meanings. Sentence structures are also the same, allowing students to communicate in daily life with ease after just three to six months of study.

Heng Hongry, 33, a Thai language teacher at Krung Tap Thai School in Phnom Penh, emphasises the challenge of advanced learning in Thai. “The difficult part is pronunciation. It’s crucial because, if you pronounce a word incorrectly, it causes confusion”. Each syllable in Thai carries one of five distinct tones. Even a slight shift can completely change the meaning.

Heng Hongry, Thai language teacher

Cultural diplomacy

By learning Thai, students gain the ability to communicate effectively while also delving into the culture, society and history of Thailand. This deeper understanding can foster stronger connections between people in both countries and, potentially, beyond.

At the Royal University of Phnom Penh, students in the Thai department learn about “Thainess” through various activities, including “Sunthorn Phu Day” and a Freshman Welcoming Ceremony.

“Actually, we don’t have that kind of ceremony in Cambodia, but we want our students to get an idea of Thai activities”, said Assoc. Prof. Dr. Samphos Hem, Head of the Thai Department. He added that students have opportunities to showcase their abilities in the Thai language and their knowledge of Thai literature. There are student performances, in which they practice Thai dance and performance arts.

The most important thing is that, through practice, students can learn various forms of Thai art and language. Hence, they gain a clear understanding of Thai culture.

“They will know the perspectives important to both Thais and Cambodians, and realise that there are many positive aspects we can learn from each other”, he said.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Samphos Hem, Head of the Thai Department,
the Royal University of Phnom Penh

Enhancing career prospects

Proficiency in Thai can promote both deeper cultural understanding between Cambodians and Thais, and broaden career prospects for Cambodians.

Prom Sokleng, 22, a Thai language student, explained her reasons for learning Thai. In addition to her desire to be multilingual and be able to speak with Thai people, she highlighted the career benefits. “Since many Thai companies operate in Cambodia, those who speak Thai have a better chance of getting a job,” she said.

Prom Sokleng, Thai language student

The Founder of Krung Tap Thai School, Sok Kheang, said proudly that, on his school’s LINE group, with around 10,000 former students as members, they have given some impressive feedback. As they studied at the school for 2-4 months, they could communicate in Thai when visiting Thailand, adding “In another case, some students like to work with Thai companies in Cambodia, such as SCG, CP, Makro, and 7-Eleven. They hold positions such as executive assistants or managers at 7-Eleven”.

Sok Kheang, Founder of Krung Tap Thai School

He has witnessed the many successes of his students, some of whom apply for scholarships in Thailand and return to their motherland as different people, because they have successfully integrated Thai culture into their lives.

By Att Boonyatus

Video version https://www.thaipbsworld.com/connecting-thais-and-cambodians-through-language-learning/