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What Language Do They Speak in Cambodia?

What Language Do They Speak in Cambodia
Key TakeawayDescription
Official LanguageKhmer
Secondary LanguagesFrench, English, Chinese, Vietnamese
Language FamilyAustroasiatic
Writing ScriptKhmer script
Language RegulatorNo official language regulator
Interesting FactKhmer has its own numerals, although Arabic numerals are widely used.

Cambodia, known as the Kingdom of Wonder, holds a rich tapestry of languages, with a heritage stretching back to ancient times. At the heart of this linguistic diversity is Khmer, the official language. However, the linguistic scene is far more colorful, with influences from neighboring countries and colonial history. This article unravels the linguistic threads that weave together to form the rich cultural fabric of Cambodia.

A Glimpse into Khmer: The Dominant Thread

Khmer is the official language of Cambodia, spoken by approximately 90% of the population. It’s an Austroasiatic language with roots tracing back over a thousand years, making it one of the oldest languages in the region.

Phonology and Grammar

Khmer phonology is distinct with its lack of tone, a rarity among Southeast Asian languages. Its grammar is relatively straightforward with subject-verb-object word order similar to English.

Phonological FeatureDescription
Consonant Sounds33
Vowel Sounds24
Syllable Structure(C)V(C) – Consonant Vowel Consonant

Script and Writing System

The Khmer script, an abugida derived from the Pallava script of ancient India, is a visual feast with its curvaceous characters and subscripted symbols.

  • Abugida: A writing system where each character represents a consonant followed by a specific vowel, with other vowels denoted by additional markings.
  • Subscripts: Khmer uses subscripted versions of characters to represent certain consonant clusters.

This ancient script is a living testament to Cambodia’s historical and cultural ties to India.

Colonial Imprints: French and English

Cambodia’s colonial past under French rule (1863-1953) left a significant linguistic imprint. French was the administrative language and is still understood by some of the older population. Moreover, it’s used in government circles and signage.

English, on the other hand, gained traction post the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. It has become the second language of choice among the younger population, primarily due to its global significance and the country’s growing ties with the Anglophone world.

Language in Education

LanguageLevel of Education
KhmerPrimary to Tertiary
FrenchOffered as a second language
EnglishWidely taught as a second language

The Colorful Strands: Chinese and Vietnamese

The Chinese and Vietnamese communities in Cambodia contribute to the linguistic diversity. Their languages are often spoken within their communities and in business settings, reflecting the enduring historical and economic ties between Cambodia and these nations.

Embracing Globalization: The Rise of English

The growing influence of English is emblematic of Cambodia’s steps towards globalization. English language schools have proliferated, and it’s becoming a lingua franca in business and tourism sectors.

  • Tourism: With the booming tourism industry, the demand for English-speaking guides and staff has surged.
  • Business: The influx of foreign investments has spurred the need for English proficiency to liaise with international partners.


Cambodia’s linguistic landscape is a vibrant blend of ancient tradition, colonial history, and modern-day globalization. At its core is the enduring legacy of Khmer, around which other languages orbit, each contributing its unique hue to the country’s cultural mosaic.