In a 10-square-metre classroom on the second floor of St Clements Institute on Street 598, John Giovanni, an Italian priest from the Cambodian Catholic Community Association, is taking his Khmer language lesson – a twice-a-week routine he has undergone for the past two years.
His teacher is none other than Pen Molika, a well-known Khmer language instructor and the director of Khmer Language Classes for Foreigners (KLCF).
The class involves reading and translating Thoun Chey, a Khmer folktale about Chey, a clever young man who outsmarts everyone around him, including the King. On a desk in the room is a pile of Bibles in Khmer, which Giovanni plans to use to teach Christianity when his Khmer is good enough.
“Khmer language is very difficult, no thanks to its many characters and unique sounds which cannot be found in Italian or English. But, I am lucky to study under a teacher who is the most well-known among missionaries in Cambodia,” he tells The Post in fluent Khmer.
When he reaches a word he does not understand or cannot pronounce, such as souy, which means “eat”, and is used only when addressing royalty, Molika will explain it to him with contextual information and examples.
“Many Khmer language instructors in Cambodia hold that teaching the language to foreigners is just like teaching children, but for me they are wrong. Adults are already capable of thinking critically, and we have to take advantage of that in teaching them languages,” Molika said.
Founded in late 2015, KLCF is widely recognised for the quality of its instruction and curriculum, which help expats learn to speak Khmer rather quickly. However, for Molika, the school is not an overnight success, nor was her career.
When she completed high school in 1998, Molika’s parents wanted her to be a typical Cambodian housewife instead of a career woman.
Although they succeeded in urging her to get married the following year, they could not persuade her to stay home. Because of her love for teaching, Molika went to the School of Pedagogy to become a middle-school teacher.
A year later, she started working as a teacher at the Khmer Language Classes for Expats, which was located next to Phnom Penh’s Lycée français René Descartes. It was then that she discovered her talent in teaching her mother tongue to foreigners.
“Soon, word spread about my teaching methods and within a few years, I became a teacher-trainer there.
“The force behind my achievement is perhaps my enthusiasm in exploring different approaches to teaching and creating new teaching methodologies. At the same time I also believe God created me to be the teacher,” she said.
In 2003, Molika was hired as a Khmer language and cultural instructor by the US Embassy, where she would work for the next 10 years.
“In additional to language training while working in the US Embassy, I helped students pass the US government’s standard test in Khmer,” she said.
In 2013, Molika decided not to renew her contact because she was expecting her second child. However, she began home tutoring as word of her teaching skills continued to spread, and more expats sought her services. But she had always dreamed of owning a business, so she opened KLCF, which has since made a name for itself.
“We used up-to-date resources, including the latest books and YouTube videos, so students could be exposed to everyday language rather than standard materials which covered only what the authors had written,” Molika said.
“It is very important for our teachers to have a strong general knowledge of issues, mainly in politics, history, economics, health, and many other fields within the Cambodian and international context.”
KLCF’s programs, which are flexible to students’ schedules, range from basic Khmer language classes to cultural seminars. Tuition costs between $120 and $150 a month. The teachers are university graduates and trained by Molika.
“I paid the most attention to the quality of our teachers, as this decides our success. Having Khmer language teachers who are not clear about what they are doing is a grave danger for the school and the language itself,” Molika said.