Walker Hedgepath had yet to visit the Kingdom when he became fascinated by Cambodia, its people, language and culture.
While studying for a bachelor’s degree in the US, he got to know Cambodians at university and became interested in learning the Khmer language.
“Hello, my name is Walker. I am 26 years old and American. I have been learning Khmer for three years with the Be Like Khmer Language School in Siem Reap town and another half a year at university in the US.
“I have been interested in learning Khmer since studying for a bachelor’s degree in the US. My room at university was next to two Cambodians’ and they taught me all about Cambodia.
“I am trying to learn Khmer to get to know the Cambodian people and better understand their culture,” Hedgepath wrote to The Post in Khmer.
Seng Kimhong, 33, the founder of the Be Like Khmer (BLK) Language School, told The Post: “We have an intensive courses lasting from months to years, with a Khmer survival course for one or two hours over two months.”
Kimhong said students could choose part-time or full-time classes. BLK not only teaches Khmer at all levels to businesspeople, employees of organisations and tourists, but also promotes the culture and traditions of the Cambodian people.
Kimhong taught English at an organisation in Battambang from 2008 to 2012, working with and getting to know many foreigners.
At the request of foreign colleagues and tourists to teach them the Khmer language, as well as Cambodian traditions and culture, he began teaching the national language from 2012 to 2016.
“I stopped working for that organisation and became a full-time Khmer teacher in Battambang province.
“After teaching for some time and loving my culture, I did some research. We help students to live more easily in Cambodia by introducing them to Khmer culture and traditions.
“We want to share our culture and language, and have seen the problems foreigners working in Cambodia can have finding a good place to learn,” Kimhong said, adding that BLK’s students included many nationalities.
“We are proud that we are among the few who can help foreigners understand Cambodia to really make the Kingdom their second home,” Kimhong said.
The number of foreigners living in Battambang dropped sharply in 2016, forcing him to relocate to Siem Reap province.
Seeing great potential in the tourist town, he looked to open a Khmer language school and train young people to teach the language to foreigners, with BLK was established in 2017.
‘I want to sing in Khmer’
“Of course, many people in Siem Reap speak good English, so foreigners do not necessarily need to know Khmer to communicate. But many want to respect our culture and our country, and speaking our language shows a great level of respect.
“Many of our students work in organisations that help in education, hygiene and health in rural villages, where the vast majority of people do not speak English. So overcoming language difficulties requires them to learn Khmer,” Kimhong said.
BLK currently has students from Japan, Korea, Italy, France, the UK and the US.
“Hello, my name is Shelli. I am from the US. I am 34 years old. I am a singer, and I want to sing in Khmer so Cambodians can understand. My band has translated some songs. Now I am learning to write and read in Khmer. I am at Grade 5 now.
“I have been living in Cambodia for four and a half years. I have been learning Khmer for three and a half years because when I first came to Cambodia, I did not learn the language as I did not intend to stay here.
“But I have been living in Cambodia longer than I thought, and I need to learn the language because it is important for me to communicate with Cambodians,” Shelli told The Post in fluent Khmer.
Shelli, who teaches singing and the piano, said she needed to learn Khmer because she worked in an all-Cambodian team, most of whom did not speak English.
She said that BLK’s teachers had helped her a lot about living in Cambodia.
‘They always smile’
Kimhong said students could learn fast if they practised regularly, with them able to communicate in simple, everyday Khmer after six months.
“Some students, even though they are young, work full-time so they can only spend one or two days a week learning, which means their level will be weak.
“But with the intensive course, they will be able read the newspaper, listen to the news and write in Khmer. They will be able to communicate smoothly, and even use slang words. This could take about one and a half to two years of learning,” he said.
Despite closing due to the Covid-19 pandemic, BLK continued to operate through online distance learning via Zoom. Over the past five years, BLK has taught nearly 1,000 foreign students.
“We currently have between 60 and 70 students studying at the school, with 10 teachers. Some of our students, including from the UK, the US, Australia, France and Italy, study online,” he said.
In addition to teaching the Khmer language, BLK integrates cultural knowledge through workshops. Cambodia is celebrating Pchum Ben this month, so the school is conducting workshops on this and next month’s Water Festival.
“We teach students all about our Khmer character, Khmer culture and Khmer food,” said the founder of the school, which offers a free hour every Friday those wishing to study with a Cambodian teacher.
“Cambodians are friendly, they always smile and will encourage you once you meet them and start speaking Khmer.
“I would encourage all foreigners to learn the Khmer language and be like Khmer,” Kimhong said.