The last two months of my life have been a whirlwind of changes, emotions and excitement. The end of the term also signaled the end of my contract with the language company I was employed with and the start of new adventures. What kind of adventures? Well, after a week down south playing on the beaches of TonSai and Railay, I made a tough choice: to say "sawadeeka" to my beloved Thailand and move next-door to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
It wasn't a choice that left me sad as I have just as much love for Cambodia as I do Thailand, but I did shed a few tears as I said my farewells as the bus drove down the streets that had been a part of my life for the last year. Thailand was my first foray into Asia, and the Thais were gracious hosts that made me fall in love with Asian culture and made it easy for me to continue living in Asia instead of running back home with my tail between my legs.
So, now I am going on 1+ years of living abroad in Asia in two different countries. Despite their proximity, there are vast differences between Thailand and Cambodia including in the level of English both in and out of schools. My first time coming to Cambodia from Thailand was in December of last year when I went to Siem Reap and I was astounded by the level of English spoken by Cambodians, especially children; it was fluid, well-pronounced and much better than the English I had heard spoken in Bangkok.
The second time I went was to Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh and I felt similarly about the level of English. But, the last month living and working a school in Phnom Penh has brought to light one important detail; the places I went to before in Cambodia were major tourist destinations and the people I was talking to had regularly interaction with English speakers, including the many street kids wandering the streets looking for plastic bottles or selling bracelets. My interaction with Thais in and outside of Bangkok had been more with locals not accustomed to a large volume of tourists and farangs and looking back, comparing my students with minimal contact with foreigners to other kids, albeit poor, who are exposed to lots of foreigners speaking English, was a bit unfair.
Cambodia still suffers from the same maladies the Thai education system has; rote learning based on repeating what the teacher says and little emphasis on creativity. It's a struggle to get my Cambodian students to understand that when someone asks, "How are you?" you don't always have to reply with, "I'm fine , thank you and you?". It's been drilled into them so much that its near impossible to get them to say something else, like, "I'm tired" or "I'm sick" without a lot of prompting. They are also taught to say the English word and the Khmer word simultaneously, just like in Thailand. So, when they are taught the English word "bird" for example, it becomes "birdjahp" or in Thai, "birdnock". If you have taught in Thailand before, you know how frustrating it can be when you peak inside a classroom and hear them mimicking the teacher as she rattles off vocabulary like this.
From my experience, the level of writing and reading is higher in Thailand. I've been quite shocked by a few of my Cambodian students who are 7-9 years old and can not write their name in English and I've been even more shocked by their inability to even copy English words off the board correctly. I had Thai students as young as 4 who were able to write their names in English from memory, so recently, I was a bit flustered when I saw an older Cambodian student sitting at their desk twirling their pencil as everyone else wrote their names.
But all things are relative. I taught in all private schools in Bangkok and so, I don't know what the level of English was of kids who went to government schools. Cambodia is also poorer than Thailand in general and therefore, I don't think the schools are as well organized and the amount of Western teachers is not as great as in Thailand. The schools here are sorely in need of native speakers to improve pronunciation and phonics but the pay isn't as competitive as in Bangkok, so the turnover rate of native speaking teachers is high.
I think schools in both countries suffer from rote learning and teaching students to be followers instead of leaders. I think if more native speakers ventured abroad to teach conversational English and challenged their students to think critically about what they are learning, the level of English would improve thrice-fold and both Cambodia and Thailand's youth would benefit tremendously.