Learning Khmer: Khmer for Foreigners at RUPP

If you’re looking to learn Khmer, one of the most well regarded courses is at Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Institute of Foreign Languages. The course, ‘Khmer for Foreigners’ teaches reading, writing, and speaking. Most teachers and Cambodian learning classes focus only on speaking, and most expats never learn to read or write the language. The successful completion of Khmer for Foreigners, on the other hand, will have you reading, writing and speaking the language at a high level after a year.

Khmer studies schoolwork and flashcards.

Learning the alphabet in Khmer for Foreigners.

The course is five days a week, 90 minutes a day for eight to 10 weeks per term. There are four levels each running four times per year and it’s possible to do the entire course in a year. Khmer for Foreigners costs $800 for a year, or $200 per level. Those who’ve successfully completed the course say that learning to read Khmer script is integral to learning to speak the language, as understanding how each character is pronounced results in overall better pronunciation, thus making it possible to make oneself understood.

While it’s generally thought to be the best Khmer language learning program around, I had mixed feelings about it. The class taught me an awful lot about the Cambodian educational system, far more, in fact, than I learned about the Khmer language in a month of class. The material, which uses a book called We Learn Khmer, is taught entirely by rote. The teacher was an accomplished linguist with a degree in Cambodian literature, but our classes generally followed the same format: he would hand out a worksheet with a list of Khmer characters on it. He would read it aloud once, then he would read it aloud a second time. This time, we would all repeat back what he said. Finally, he would go around the classroom asking each student to read the worksheet aloud one by one (and there were 18 of us). Most of us had written down the phonetics for the sound of each character and were just reading what we had written down, rather than actually recognizing the character. All of the actual learning I did was outside of the classroom, and the time in the classroom felt sort of pointless. Having a Khmer partner, friend, or colleague around that can correct your pronunciation when you are studying is invaluable as pronunciation is key.

That said, I have met others who had a very different experience in the Khmer for Foreigners classroom (and had a different teacher). The beginning weeks are difficult, they say, but once you learn to recognize the characters —no small feat because the language has one of the largest alphabets in the world — the class becomes more rewarding.

Even after a month I was able to recognize some of the alphabet and try and sound out words on business fronts (all businesses need to have Khmer signage, and many Western businesses just spell out their business name phonetically in Khmer, making for good reading practice.) Those who manage to stick it out actually learn to read, write and eventually speak Khmer, unlike the great majority of expats in Cambodia. As we wrote last week, there are a lot of good reasons to learn Khmer, even if it’s not strictly necessary to live as an expat in Cambodia.

For me, the last straw was the time and location. Right around the school there is bumper to bumper traffic every day in the early evening, so getting from Toul Kork back into town took an hour by car or tuk tuk every day. The 90 minute class took approximately 3.5 hours door to door, plus at least an hour or two of studying every night, which was more of a commitment than I was ready for. I’ve been told that the morning classes have lighter traffic, or that taking a moto allows you to beat the crowds. Overall, this is still considered one of the best courses in town and at about $3 an hour, is also the best value.

The upcoming terms run from April 1-June 27, July 1-September 12, and Sept 15-December 27.

Level 1 meets from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. or 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Level 2 meets at 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. or 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Level 3 meets at 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m or 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Level 4 meets at 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m or 5:30 to 7:00 p.m.

Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP)
Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL)

Russian Federation Boulevard, Toul Kork, Phnom Penh
T: 012 866 826; 012 827 284
rupp.edu.kh

18 Responses to Learning Khmer: Khmer for Foreigners at RUPP

  1. Louise says:

    Hi, I’m just about to do a week at Natural Khmer -LINK on Street 200, Phnom Penh. It looks like fun and definitely a different approach to learning a language. The videos give a good idea of how they do it

  2. Tyler says:

    hey guys, I’m from Brisbane Australia, I’m looking for someone to have a chat about learning Khmer. Thanks!

  3. Andrea says:

    Hi, Lina-
    I recently returned to the US after living in Cambodia for two years. I’m writing up an article about my experience learning Khmer for the MinneTESOL journal, and I’d like to use your photo from this post (with full attribution to you). Would that be possible?
    Thanks!

  4. Jade says:

    How did you guys go finding the LEC? I have just moved to Cambodia and am keen to try and pick up a few sentences (at least!) x

  5. Stephanie Arrowsmith says:

    Reviving this old thread! Anyone know where the new LEC office is? Called them and apparently it’s # 49a on St. 456 – but went up and down the street and can’t find it. Cheers!

    • Sheldon says:

      Were you able to find it? I live in the neighborhood and plan to search for it this afternoon. If I have any better luck than you had, I’ll report back.

  6. perambul8 says:

    Thank you for your review of the RUPP programme! It sounds intensive, but correspondingly effective.

    My one concern about it is the location, which is quite a long haul from my place. Can you (or any other readers) recommend a Khmer programme in the southern part of the city, ideally in the Russian Market area? Thanks in advance. :-)

    • Lina says:

      I have heard good things about Language Exchange Cambodia, although I have never been there because it’s too far south for me. If you go, please let me know what you think! Their details are: #32C Street 468 between 163 and 430, T: 092 619 091

        • perambul8 says:

          Hi again, Lina — I’ve just completed my first week of Khmer lessons at LEC, and I’m very pleased with the place. Although it’s a less formal programme, I think it will still prove effective.

          If there happens to be a group starting at the same time, they’ll give group lessons; otherwise it’s 1-on-1. LEC is marvellously flexible — you come as often and for as long as you wish. If you attend more than 10 hours per month (which you certainly would, if you have any intention of making progress), the lessons are $6/hour.

          I requested a one-hour lesson every day M-F, and the manager has me working with 2 different teachers. This seems to work really well for me (they all follow fixed lesson plans, so there is continuity), and I feel it’s beneficial to practice with two people whose pronounciation differs slightly.

          The LEC motto is “We teach people to speak Khmer as Khmers speak it.” They are definitely teaching the colloquial language — more than once the teachers have taught me a more formal word or phrase, then the typically used one.

          They also teach reading/writing the Khmer script, but that comes later. The initial emphasis is on speaking, and after learning greetings or numbers, for example, the teacher will send me to interview other off-duty teachers to practice the new phrases.

          Overall, LEC is a very friendly, encouraging place, and I think anyone who comes there will learn as much and as quickly as he or she wants to. Thumbs up from me!

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