Language barriers in Cambodia


Learning a new language is a part of the expat process. Let's find out how crucial it is to know the language in Cambodia.

What is the official language in Cambodia, and what are the other popular spoken languages?

Is it possible to live in Cambodia and get by without speaking the language?

How do you manage to communicate with the locals if you don't speak the native/official language fluently?

What are some popular and useful phrases that expats absolutely need to know?

Can you share some tips about how to survive in Cambodia on a daily basis without speaking the language?

Thank you for sharing your experience.


Well, some of the questions are possible to answer easily ;)
In my experience is possible to live here just with English or special in Kep with France.
In every restaurant, store and departments is someone who is more or less able to speak these languages.

Despite of this I try to learn Khmer, for personel interest and as a sign of respect to the country and people here.

The very clear grammar and the words are not so difficult.
But the pronounciation can be frustrating!
You ask someone how to say this or that.
You get an answer, you learn the answer, you try to use what you learned -- and nobody understands you.
You ask again another person and he or she gives you another answer, another sound of the words.

Well, the main special phrases I would recommend to learn are:
- How do you call this?
- What is the Khmer word for ... ?
- Please, could you say it again, slowly?
- Sorry, I don't understand ;)

It is possible to live in Cambodia without speaking Khmer, but your interaction will be much more limited. It also depends on what you are doing. If you spend the majority of your time at resturants and bars/ clubs whose focus is foreigners, gymns and western style stores as mentioned there are usually people who can speak English to some degree. The local market place you can use basic laguage with the limited English the vendors know, but will make bargaining difficult.

If you are living here long term then learning Khmer is critical if you plan on a long term relationship as interaction with your partner's family is important.

Also, learning Khmer locals can teach you some basic phrases, but to learn more than basic you need a teacher who speaks your language as well as knows how to teach Khmer. Remember that just because you can speak a language doesn't mean you can teach it well. For example my girlfriends little sister has spent a good bit of money studying English for 6 months yet has only a very basic understanding of English. She knows enough to interact with foreigners as a cashier at a bar and grill  but in depth conversation still eludes her. She has the desire to learn, which is critical, but has had very poor teachers. The same applies to learning Khmer, first you need a desire to truely learn and then a good teacher who is patient, can explain in your own language and undestands that to truely learn a language you need to learn to read, write and speak. If you are willing to spend the time and money on a good teacher you can learn.

  Decide how much you wish to learn and procede accordingly. Also do not be afraid to practise, it might be a bit embarrassing and even frustrating, but you will never get better unless you practise.

Hello Priscilla.

It is very well possible to live in Cambodia without speaking Khmer, although living in remote areas gives more problems with that than living in big city Phnom Penh.

Adding a basic knowledge of Khmer helps a lot. When I go to the market I cannot speak English. So I have learned some basic words and phrases, on top pointing and gestures make everything easy.
I find it very important to know numbers in Khmer, so I can count to 100 in Khmer, say how much?, mention the number of pieces I want or the weight in kg. It's problem free that way.

As I'm single most of the time it's a plus if you can tell a girl that she is beautiful, if you can ask her how old she is, if she is single, and [in case that is applicable] that you would like her to be your girlfriend.
Also if you happen to meet her family it is of advantage if you can at least greet them in their language, telling them what your name is, where you come from as that is what they like to hear.

One problem is that if you need a document to be signed by an official they are not allowed to sign if it is not in Khmer. E.g. I need each year to provide an Attestation de Vie for the pension institute, the form is in English and no police official, state official will sign it. I found a solution by letting a doctor of a hospital or clinic sign it.

The problem with the language is that in several parts of Cambodia they pronounce words differently or even use other words. Here in Phnom Penh people hear immediately where someone comes from, when a local from another part talks. So if they have already so different ways of speaking, how would we Westerners get on with it?

There is another reason why I don't want to be fluent in Khmer:
If girls talk and one of them is your girlfriend or wife, they like to talk also about you, and there is no hesitation to tell their friends everything about you, even the size of your .... or the frequency of having intimate contact. They tell their friends everything, reason why there is a lot of laughter. It's fine with me, I don't need to hear and understand what they talk about. If I'm good for my girlfriend she will tell good things about me, if I'm bad she should not stay with me ;)



I have been living in Cambodia since mid-July, and visiting since November 2017. I have found the language very difficult to learn. Partly because I cannot read it. When learning other languages I always have the written form available to sound out. But Khmer is all memory based, and my memory is not great.

I have found that locals are very happy (they might be laughing at me) even my limited Khmer. The see many westerners that do not bother at all. I agree with JoeKhmer too. It is hard to be offended by someone speaking about you if you cannot understand. hehe

I am learning at a slow pace.

I have found this website to be a great, free resource It is a bit "all-over-the-place" so I have extracted all of the above into about 6 pages of a powerpoint presentation. The powerpoint was good because it allows embedding the audio. (Happy to share if anyone wants to play)


I forgot to mention something in my reply.

When I chat with someone Khmer, most of the times a girl, and I notice her English is not good, I offer her to write in Khmer, she loves that and it improves the quality of the contact.

I then use Google translate, which is not reliable, but I work like this:
She writes in Khmer, I copy and translate in GT [but not sure if the translation is correct].
I then answer in English and translate into Khmer.
In order to prevent wrong translations I reverse translate back into English. That way I can see what she will see. Sometimes it's necessary to adjust my text so that the translation is exactly what I want.

This is a long way to translate into Khmer, but the result is a happy girl that can write in her own language and by that giving more of her personality than when struggling with English.

It's more work but it's worth it, Khmer girls are so friendly and cute.....


Never try to understand family relationships, as they are very confusing, this goes for the whole of SE Asia.

She: This is my sister
Me: I thought you had no sister
She: yes, but her mom and my mom are sisters, so she is my sister too.....
Me: she is your cousin, your parents are different, only your mom and her mom are sisters.

Another one:
She: This is my older brother
Me: I thought you were the oldest of the children
She: yes, but he is the older of my two brothers.....

One more:
She: This is my brother
Me: I thought you had no brother
She: Yes, but he is married to my sister
Me: ah ok, he is your brother-in-law

Last: the difference in answering with yes or no.
Me: You don't like Italian food?
She: Yes
It means she says yes you are right.

Always worth a chuckle, never a problem, they are so cute.


Think I've got  most strong experience at study Khmer.

Few facts and advises from me:
1) Understand of Khmer language can split for 2 cases: Simple utility/everyday usage. And full(strong) academic knowledge.
For first case you can look for dumb and simple teaching videos in "youtube". Only with native speakers!  No need to learn alphabet.
For second case you need begin with next resources:
- lessons - … mp;index=1
- books for the lessons - … 0ZkdTA1bXM
- true vocabulary -

2) Most hard thing in Khmer is alphabet! Thai and English alphabets is noting rather than Khmer. In native schools 1st year learn only alphabet in the language lessons.

3) Khmer pronunciation as hard as alphabet. Only native speakers can teach you right spell!
4) Books about the subject can have big mistakes. Do not trust it on 100%!
5) Khmer teachers dumb and can pass your mistakes because they lasy.
6) Shared karaoke videos very helpful
7) Big (school)posters with alphabet very helpful.
8) Khmer educated spouse very helpful. Much more than teachers. I know some peoples who have studied Khmer "by the sexual way",  but nobody with classic academic way. (Of course, you have chance!)
9) Some of Khmer people need to practice in English. You can try exchange experience with that people. Found they in local schools.

Have good luck with Khmer language!

Very informative.  Thanks.

Thank you billyd1967  for posting the website.
This is by far the best online instruction tool I have come across. It is very difficult and disheartening to see that a lot of online resources happened to have wrong translations. I know this because my wife is Cambodian and considers most resources underqualified.
One of the reasons I think is very difficult to learn Khmer. Also the lack of good instructors a dedicated teachers as well.

Rick N.

Yep, that is all so true, been there, done that and still doing it.... :/   My best strategy is sign language. always amazed.  Not against learning the language just the problem you mentioned and the fact that my tongue gets so tied up in my mouth that it gets stuck!!!

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