Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Language of Hunger

I am currently in Siem Reap, Cambodia with my mother and her side of the family. It’s what you’d call a long awaited family reunion. We usually gather at Christmas but during the past few years, Christmas meetings have become a little elusive.

Anyway, the purpose of meeting in Siem Reap is simple – we’re here to view the world heritage site known as the Angkor Wat. The building is amazing and as you walk through the place, you can’t help but be struck with the intricacies of the artwork that decorate the place. In the two days that I have been climbing up the temples, I’ve come to see the Angkor Wat as a symbol of the Cambodian or more precisely the Cambodian people. – This was the center of a great civilization that was allowed to decay. It has seen the best and the worst in human nature.  Ironically, it is probably the thing that will revive Cambodia or at least this part of the nation – Siem Reap is poor but you get the sense of an up and coming place.

The economy is being driven by tourist heading to the Angkor – the place is filled with all sorts of things a good tourist could want. This place is ideal for anyone on a budget – food and booze is incredibly cheap (drinking beer at $2.5 a mug)

One of the things that I’ve been impressed with about this visit is the linguistic talents of the tour guides in the Angkor Wat. As well as English, I’ve heard guides speak fluent Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish and Russian. You could say that they seem to have found a guide for every nationality that may visit the Angkor.

OK, speaking English isn’t special. English has become the ‘universal’language for the world (so much so that a Finnish friend of mine made the point that speaking English and your mother tongue doesn’t count as being bilingual). I guess French shouldn’t be such a surprise either, since Cambodia was a former French colony. Given the Chinese presence in Cambodia, you could say that some of them should speak the language. However, as my brother, Christopher points out – “How many Polish speakers do you expect in Cambodia?”

This ability to communicate is even more impressive when you consider Cambodia’s state of development – this is a developing country that has spent the last 40-years struggling to recover from a brutal civil war and a dictatorship that saw its government literally go to war against its own people. Pol Pot,the Khemer Rouge dictator killed a greater percentage of the total Cambodian population than Hitler or Stalin in their hey day. While Germany at the end World War II had Marshal Aid – Cambodia had nothing....

In a way, it puts Singapore’s inability to master languages into perspective. We are by far and away the most developed nation in Southeast Asia and yet we still need a endless of “Speak Good ....English, Mandarin and Malay”Campaigns.

Seriously – if people who are poor and struggling can learn different languages – why can’t we? 

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