Languages in Cambodia

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Languages in Cambodia

The official language of Cambodia is Khmer. Unlike Mandarin and Vietnamese, Khmer is NOT a tonal language (think about the difference in your voice when saying "yes." versus "yes?" - that's tonal), but despite this, everyone will appreciate any attempt you do make so pick up a phrasebook and give it a go. Khmer is a language with many dialects, though the Phnom Penh dialect, also known as Central Khmer, is used as the standard and is taught in all schools. Language schools can be found in all larger Cambodian cities, including Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

In the west, dialects of Thai that are largely incomprehensible to speakers of standard Thai are spoken. Various dialects of Chinese are spoken by the ethnic Chinese community, with Teochew being the dominant dialect in Phnom Penh, and Cantonese speakers also forming a sizeable minority among the Chinese community.

Public signage is generally bilingual, written in both Khmer and English. There is also some prevalance of Japanese and Chinese signs. Where there is English, it will usually be fairly phonetic - for example "Soorssadey" (meaning hello) is pronounced just as it reads: soors-sadey. There is no universal agreement on how to transcribe Khmer letters that don't have an English equivalent. Maps with names in both Khmer and English make it easier for locals to try and help you.

Most Cambodian youths learn English in school, so many young people have a basic grasp of English, though few are fluent. Most "front desk" people in the travel industry speak at least enough English to communicate, and many are relatively fluent; some also speak one or more other languages popular with their clientele, such as Chinese, Japanese, German, etc.

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