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Learning English a key step to a better life

Salet's sister has now taken over responsibility for the classes.

June 2012: A few years ago 21-year-old Salet was living with her 7 siblings and impoverished parents in Sam Ruong village, an hour from the famed Angkor Wat temple. Today she works on a luxury river cruiser that sails between Cambodia and Vietnam, and mixes drinks for tourists who spend hundreds of dollars a night for a cabin. The secret to her success? Learning English.

“On an international ship like this there are many foreigners, so we need English to communicate,” she says.

Salet landed the job because she knew English and had completed a bartending course. She now sends US$200 a month to her family and has singlehandedly lifted them out of poverty. In a country where garment workers earn US$70 a month, that kind of cash is hard to come by.

In the beginning

It all began when she and her school friends approached Plan Cambodia about starting English-language evening classes in her village. Salet, a diligent student, volunteered to teach, and as a result her English improved too.

Plan’s programme support manager Prashant Verma says knowing English is proven to boost opportunities. Many international companies enter Cambodia each year, and knowledge of can English doubles salaries.

Those who volunteer to teach also improve their skills. Plan says 70% of them have gone on to get paying jobs.

Plan’s aim is to convince the government of the need for such classes, which use volunteers and require just a few dollars a month for materials.

Lessons learnt

Plan currently supports 22 English-language evening schools where 124 volunteers teach 2,350 students.

Ung Sireidy heads the provincial education office, and agrees that youth must improve English-language skills. Compulsory lessons start in Grade 7, but the government would like to see English beginning in Grade 4.

Why English rather than Mandarin or Japanese? Because English, he says, is “the universal language – not only for tourism, but for politics, trade and commerce, and for electronic communications in the world.”

Back at the bar on the riverboat, Salet says she will return to Sam Ruong in April for her annual holiday and teach English to the more than 90 children who regularly turn up. She knows how much that skill helped her family.

“My parents are very, very happy,” she says of their changed circumstances. “They still don’t believe it. They never thought this could happen.”