At the Mahasarakham University’s (MSU) Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Thailand, a remarkable Cambodian educator stands as a beacon of cultural exchange and linguistic diversity.

Un Channary, a Khmer language professor, is dedicated to sharing the richness of her language and culture with students, fostering cross-cultural understanding, and contributing significantly to the academic community.

“My decision to become a Khmer language teacher for foreigners is driven by a profound passion for teaching. My love for the teaching profession is a central motivator, as I find genuine enjoyment in imparting knowledge and fostering cross-cultural understanding,” Channary told The Post.

Her journey into the field of education was marked by a passion for language and culture.

Her educational journey began in 2016 when she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Khmer Literature from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, a testament to her fascination with the intricate nuances of language.

Channary, aged 29 and hailing from Tbong Khmum district, in Tbong Khmum province, used her knowledge as a stepping stone for her pursuit of higher academic success.

In 2021, she further enriched her linguistic expertise by graduating with a Master’s Degree in Thai Language from Mahasarakham University (MSU) in Thailand.

“My commitment to education led me beyond my homeland. Currently, I am fervently engaged in doctoral studies at MSU, working toward a Ph.D. in Thai Language,” said Channary.

Her educational trajectory underscores her dedication to the study of languages, the exploration of their cultural context, and her contributions to the academic discourse in this field.

MSU is a Thai public university located in Maha Sarakham province, about 470km from Bangkok, known for its unique programmes.

In 2022, MSU boasted more than 41,000 students across various fields, including Humanities and Social Sciences, Science and Technology, and Public Health, according to the university’s website.

Remarkably, the Department of ASEAN Language and Culture resides within the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, offering a dedicated ASEAN Language and Culture degree programme with an available focus in Khmer language.

In a field where Khmer is typically presented as a secondary or optional language, Mahasarakham University stands out as a centre of comprehensive linguistic education.

Channary plays an instrumental role in this program, shaping the academic journeys of Thai students. Her responsibilities encompass a diverse range of subjects, from Khmer writing and pronunciation to Khmer literature.

Moreover, her expertise extends to practical applications, with courses such as Khmer for contract work and law, as well as Khmer for health and hygiene.

“Students embark on a four-year journey that not only includes classroom study but also enriching internships within local and foreign institutions, with a particular focus on Cambodia,” said Channary, who now lives in Kantharawichai district in the northern part of Maha Sarakham province.

Challenges and rewards of teaching Khmer

Teaching the Khmer language to a multinational group presents distinctive challenges. Thai learners must differentiate consonant sounds into “Or” and “Uh” groups, navigate constructive consonants and unique syllable structures, and master pronunciation complexities associated with certain Khmer consonants.

Additionally, Thai students often carry over their native language grammar forms, making Khmer’s distinct grammatical rules a hurdle.

“Despite these challenges, dedicated learners can conquer these linguistic nuances and gain a deeper appreciation of Cambodia’s culture and heritage through their Khmer language studies,” she says.

To make the learning process enjoyable and interactive, Channary employs innovative teaching methods. She focuses on helping students familiarise themselves with Khmer phonemes and syllables, using games related to spelling consonants and vowels.

Encouraging students to practice both pronunciation and guessing the sound of consonants and vowels enhances their auditory skills and speaking confidence.

Channary said as students’ progress, they transition to reading and spelling words and creating short sentences, building their vocabulary and communication skills.

She said she employs the comprehensive teaching methods to ensure her multinational learners not only learn Khmer effectively but also gain the confidence to communicate and engage with the language in practical contexts.

The significance of learning Khmer

Learning the Khmer language holds profound importance, as emphasised by Channary. Khmer proficiency opens up numerous opportunities for Thai students in various sectors, including government, education, healthcare, and the private sector.

“Graduates can explore careers as Khmer language teachers, translators, and professionals in diverse industries, showcasing the versatile and invaluable applications of Khmer language proficiency,” she told The Post.

She said Khmer language proficiency boasts a 100 per cent job opportunity rate, given its high demand in the job market particularly in the areas of Surin, Buriram, and Sisaket, or her students can contribute as translators in the military, facilitating document translation and international relations.

The scope of job opportunities expands even further, encompassing roles in emerging digital platforms like TikTok, telecommunications companies, animal feed factories, global corporations like PTT, and the field of home construction, according to Channary.

Channary’s impact reaches far beyond the classroom. Her former students Ninnakorn Ngonthong and Laddawan Yasri have continued to champion Khmer language and culture.

Ninnakorn, originally from Surin province, shares a deep appreciation for Khmer Surin culture and now employs the Khmer language for communication and translation in Phnom Penh.

Regardless of whether it pertains to art, music, beliefs, customs, way of life, or magical practices, they all share Khmer roots. But that Khmer language is the northern Khmer dialect, also known as Khmer Surin, according to Ninnakorn.

“After delving into these aspects, I became curious about the differences between the cultures in Surin and Cambodia. That curiosity led me to study Khmer culture and language, and I have been doing so ever since,” he told The Post.

Laddawan Yasri, on the other hand, teaches Khmer language in Surin, further spreading the knowledge she gained during her studies.

After completing her studies at Mahasarakham University in 2019, she continued her education at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, enrolling in a two-month Khmer language course designed for Thai students.

“Initially, I had never contemplated becoming a teacher. However, I found joy in teaching friends who shared similar interests,” said Laddawan.

“In addition to language proficiency, this experience provided me with valuable insights into communication, building friendships, understanding love, culture, customs, and lifestyles. It also gave me the opportunity to exchange and share diverse knowledge with Cambodians,” she told The Post.

Sharing culture and food

Beyond personal joy in teaching, Channary is fuelled by a deep desire to promote the beauty of the Khmer language, culture, and her homeland to speakers of other languages.

Her commitment extends to elevating Khmer language and culture onto the international stage, striving to ensure that the richness of Cambodia’s heritage is appreciated and shared globally.

“I endeavour to bridge cultural gaps and facilitate meaningful connections between individuals from diverse backgrounds,” said Channary.

Other programs, such as ASEAN food fairs, arts and cultural performances, and Khmer public speaking contests, provide a dynamic platform for students to immerse themselves in Khmer culture beyond the classroom.

Channary said engaging in such events allows learners to witness and appreciate the real-world applications of their language studies, forging a deeper connection to the language and its cultural context.

“These multifaceted experiences not only broaden students’ horizons but also inspire a genuine passion for Khmer language and culture, making the learning process more meaningful and impactful,” she says.

Channary’s dedication to advancing Khmer language and culture education on an international platform is a testament to her commitment to promoting the beauty of the Khmer language and culture to Thai students.