First year teaching: #2. Add a dash of Khmer.

Being taught how to tie a Khmer dish of sticky rice and banana.

In the lead up to teaching at the Bible school there were days where I felt nervous about teaching in Khmer. Naturally. Partly this was because I was attempting to teach in Khmer after less than two years of language learning. And while I knew it would be really helpful for my Khmer it was also going to be painful as well.

One of the bits of advice that helped calm some of my nerves and continue on with teaching prep was this: “You’re not teaching Khmer, you’re teaching THE BIBLE in Khmer.” This advice was, in some ways, freeing for me. I didn’t need perfect pronunciation. The goal was for my students to grow in understanding the Bible. That could happen even if my pronunciation or use of Khmer phrases left a lot lacking. I needed to remember I’m teaching OT, not Khmer. Khmer, in this sense, is the instrument, not the goal. So even if I only had a few notes to play in Khmer, it was helpful to remember that a skilled musician only needs a few notes to play beautiful music.

In my repertoire was a decent ability to teach theology with a significant weakness in my Khmer. Having clarity on my abilities was helpful as I moved forward in my preparation. The way I visualised this, particularly on the days when I felt more nervous, was that I saw my teaching experience as a prop while my Khmer was in its infancy stages. I could rely on my ability to teach while I waited for my Khmer to improve. Two benefits that came from this thought process. The first is that it calmed some of my nerves when my mind would begin to run away with fears and anxieties. But secondly, and more on this in the next post, it helped shaped how I prepared for teaching and the content that I would use in teaching, including teaching methods.

First year teaching: #1. My non-teaching background?

Board game time on holidays

This series explores my experiences in my first year of teaching; my background leading up to teaching, my preparation, execution and reflection upon finishing.

The phrase “I am no teacher, nor the son of teacher” captures my feelings having found myself preparing to teach the Old Testament at a Bible School in Cambodia without any formal teaching qualifications. While I have much to learn on the teaching front, as I reflected (or at least steeled myself against the coming year of teaching), I realised that my background has provided me with multiple opportunities to exert or practice and refine some teaching skills.

I was explaining the rules of a board-game to someone and they remarked at how well I had explained the rules for them (whether I can play board games as well as I can teach is another matter). It wasn’t that I had taught them every single rule (people will know that details are not my forte). It was that I had captured the essence of the game and strategy in order to assist them beginning to learn and play the game. I feel like this shows some sort of aptitude for teaching.

I’ve heard it said that physio is 70% confidence and 30% skill. I can say that because in a past life, for a very short time, I worked as a physio (don’t get me started on the physio/chiro debate). An important part of being a physio is being able to build a rapport. But when I think more about what I did as a physio, I can see that at its heart are teaching skills. The essence of a lot of physiotherapy is to teach patients; teach patients about their condition and their recovery. Given that a big part of this recovery requires active participation by the patient, physiotherapy is about equipping a patient to help themselves recover. There is a teaching involved here.

As we were preparing for mission, I heard one missionary remark that preaching regularly in a church before teaching at a Bible School overseas was a great form of preparation. Being involved in ministry, from preaching regularly (to young and old) and receiving feedback along the way, to doing one-off talks, or attending camps with a series of talks, to leading small groups and their discussions, and even pursuing further study (with a thesis and so learning how to construct an extended argument), has provided various teaching opportunities in a variety of different formats. Further study in theology also enriched my teaching in terms of content. Ministry, in these senses, was a great preparation for teaching as it helped give me skills in content preparation (curriculum and weekly lessons) and delivery (communication skills). Examination skills were probably and still are one of my weaker areas that I need to grow.

Suffice it to say there were plenty of ways in which my background prepared me for teaching, even if it wasn’t with a formal teaching qualification.

Bridge Kids

An attempt at a bridge made of kids

Before coming to Cambodia I used the basic mechanics of a bridge as an analogy to describe a missionary — the connection that a missionary has between two cultures, their home culture and their new culture (this analogy I stole from another missio friend, Arthur). The basic picture is that a bridge has a connection to two places, but doesn’t really dwell in either but is stranded between.

Before coming to Cambodia I also did a seminar on some guesses that I had on mission. I talked about the immersion model of mission (living as completely as you can like the locals). I then opposed this idea with the idea of being connected that now comes to us through the internet and how this has changed mission. Does it mean that it’s harder to be immersed like it was before with so many ways and opportunities to connect with our home culture than before? My basic point was rather than think about these two mission types as ‘either/or’ (both are unattainable ideals as neither is truly possible), I found it helpful to view connection and immersion as two points on a spectrum and that missionaries will sit somewhere on that spectrum based on their goals and situation. Further, missionaries might slide up and down that spectrum at various stages of their ministry overseas.

Having been in Cambodia what I am realising is that this sliding between immersion and connection doesn’t necessarily just occur in the long term, but can occur around short periods of time. As missionaries prepare for furlough (home assignment) and so their head moves more towards their home country.

Having been in Cambodia what I’m also realising is what this idea of immersion and connection means for our kids. We haven’t been immersed as we initially thought and so that changes their experience of Cambodia, but also how much they are affected by Cambodia. Further, with more connection this has also affected their relationships with family and friends in a Australia (often in a really positive way). One example of this is a closeness with grandparents that might not have been possible before (see here, here and here for further details). In my seminar I had been exploring immersion and connection from serving as a missionary point of view. What I haven’t really begun to explore (but we have been experiencing) is how immersion and connection affect our kids.

While I appreciate the term TCK (Third Culture Kid) as a way of describing what it’s like to grow up overseas away from your parents home culture. For me, seeing them as Bridge Kids is a more concrete description of what it’s like to grow up overseas.

Overall thoughts on learning language FOR US.

As we come to the end of our first term, here are some more big picture reflections on language learning in Cambodia for us. I say for us, because this is different for everyone.

A big part of learning a language is having goals (like I want to be fluent or I want to do this with a language). These goals help shape what you’re learning. And we were prepared for this in our mission training. What I wasn’t as ready for was how much a persons context plays into their language learning. While most people have goals in language learning, I’ve been seeing how context plays a big part in how we pick up a language. Three contexts that influence our language learning are the country we reside in, the ministry we are a part of (or hope to be) and our personality that we bring to learning a new language.

Pre-arriving in Cambodia, I was hoping for fluency in the long run and in the medium term the ability to teach in Khmer. I was also hoping that my kids would be fluent too. Now I see how much context plays into our language learning and affects our goals. The short answer is that I’m much more flexible on language goals seeing how much contexts affects us.

It’s been interesting to see how the country that we are serving in plays into our ability to learn language. Below are some observations that I’ve made on how Cambodia, our ministry and my personality context affects our language learning.

Country context:

  • Khmer is an Asian language, so there seems to be a longer acquisition time in comparison with learning a European language. This is important to keep in mind for myself so that I don’t make unhelpful comparisons about rates of language acquisition with missionary friends in other countries.
  • Cambodia seems to have more of a culture of foreigners who don’t learn the local language. Now there good reasons for not learning Khmer and not so good reasons as well (of which I won’t go into). One of those reasons is that you can manage to live in Cambodia with English and only a little Khmer. I’d also like to say I’m no expert, so it may be that other countries have just as many missionaries or expats who don’t know the local language. The main affect of this seems to be that locals are always expecting me to speak in English when we first come into contact.

Ministry context:

  • While my educated guess is that while living in the province it is easier to learn language, we have chosen to learn Khmer in the city (see point below). I think my speaking and listening would have been better if I had learnt Khmer in the province, but I wonder if I could have been reading and writing as well as I can now if I had learned those skills in the country.
  • Our goal has been for me to teach the Bible in Khmer. In order to teach well, while having good Khmer is sought after, what’s more important is that the students understand the Bible better than before the class.
  • Part of our ministry context is also family context. Our kids don’t have the exposure to the Khmer language in the same way that we had expected before we came. This changes our family’s ability to function in different Khmer settings (weddings, holidays, outings and other things). More on this below.

Personality context:

  • I have high expectations. While helpful in some ways, I also need to be aware of pushing too hard. The outcome is that any time I have a chance to lower my workload, this is probably the right move for us given the context of just settling into a new country in this first term.

These are just some of the ways our context has affected our language learning. So where are our goals currently as we finish one term and prepare for another?

Currently: We want our kids to love Cambodia whether or not they learn the language. This is more important to us. They can function in Cambodia without a lot of Khmer, so if they come away from our time here loving Cambodia and the people, but not knowing a whole lot of Khmer, that’s a win for us. In terms of Sam’s language, we want to be mindful of the gap between Sam’s Khmer and mine. However, what’s more important is not so much the gap between us, but that Sam’s language continues to improve at the pace she is able to go at.

Being on location has shown us how, while language goals are important, context also plays an important part in learning language.

End of 1st term language update

The kids bible (aimed at roughly 10yr olds) is easier reading for me whereas reading a simple Khmer version of the Bible (the Message standard) takes more effort.

So where am I up to in learning Khmer as I edge towards the end of our first 3 year term here in Cambodia?

From my point of view, I feel like I speak like a 6 year old with a slightly larger vocabulary (although, my vocab is heavily weighted towards theological words). I have just finished the academic year teaching at Phnom Penh Bible School in Khmer. Teaching Old Testament subjects this last year has greatly assisted my language skills, not only with vocabulary, but with lots of practice in speaking and listening. I feel like my reading is still ahead of my speaking. I feel like I’m able to read literature that an average 9 year old could read.

What my current language abilities means for straight forward conversations is that I go in fairly confident of decent success. Success for me in language at the moment is not so much about getting perfect pronunciation or understanding every detail (although, this is good if I can). Success for me is about outcome. Is there successful communication? If I have understood what is being communicated or they have understood what I am communicating that is more important than the specific language skills like pronunciation. Communication is how I measure language success at the moment.

A focus on language outcome (communication) over language skills is like team sports for me. You can have an all star team and still bomb out, because no one can work together. Conversely, you can have a team full of average players that absolutely kills it because they all work together well. This is what I’m going for. While I’d love to have a few all stars in my language abilities, I’m much more concerned about how everything is working together and the result. If I come out with a win (comprehension or communication) that’s what matters to me.

So I’m certainly more able at Khmer than I was 2 1/2 years ago. However, my expectations have also grown. Although I can do some things in Khmer, I still desire to go deeper. I still get to conversations and places in conversations where I want the ability to say more or understand more but can’t because I don’t have the vocab or ability to use that vocab or the cultural understanding that comes with years of living in a place. So my expectations for myself have moved on from where they used to be and as always they are ahead of my actual abilities.

BUT I am trying to take the big picture stance, which is that I’m very content with where my Khmer is up to for my first term; I’m thankful for where I am as I look forward to more growth and improvement in the years to come.

How to change a lightbulb in Cambodia

20181113_0735416282266139826269407.jpg “How many people does it take to change a lightbulb in Cambodia?”

Inspired by Tamie Davis’ (another CMSer) post on changing a lock in Tanzania, we wanted to give you a sense of what it’s like to try and get a job done around the house.

So basically, we’ve noticed the light in the kitchen flickering for a week. It is annoying enough that it becomes one of the jobs that we decide that we are going to do something about (many jobs don’t make it this far because of what we are about to describe).

Sam mentions it to our house helper. She suggests we ask our tuktuk driver (who is supremely helpful majority of the time) and he proceeds to remove the faulty fluorescent globe in order to replace it. However, in removing it either he busts the socket or the socket is already busted. Good chance for the latter as there is a bunch of water damage in a number of areas in our house, combined with cheap construction. So at this point we need to call in an electrician. Sam and our helper don’t know who to call, so our tuktuk driver makes a call. This moves from a job where we are chatting to one Khmer person (our tuktuk driver) to a full on Khmer conversation with multiple Khmer voices and opinions. We have our tuktuk driver chatting with our house helper about the situation who are both chatting to the Cambodian electrician.

We watch on as the electrician removes the damaged light fitting, and attaches a new, smaller, fitting. There are some questions about tape, and Sam finds the electrical tape and sticky tape. Both are used, electrical tape on the light fitting, and sticky tape to secure the empty globe box to the hole in the ceiling. Job complete, the light is turned on, and it is declared that this light is “brighter than before,” and so obviously better. To us, there is a loss in aesthetic quality, but it’s still functional. Then there’s negotiating payment.

Here’s how we see the conversation. We have our house helper who is extremely loyal and who we assume is going in to bat for us. We have our tuktuk driver who is extremely well connected in the neighbourhood and is loyal towards us but not in the same way as our house helper. We overhear the Cambodian electrician state a higher price than our house helper is happy with, with the reasoning being we are foreigners living in a gated community.

We get lost in this cacophony of Khmer. Leaving aside the Cambodian electrician who seems to be overcharging us for dismantling a light fitting and leaving our new bulb just hanging from the wires that protrude from the ceiling. We are comforted because we have our helper who is supremely looking out for us and a guy who knows everyone involved. This mediatorial grouping means that we have connections and a decent chance of not being fully ripped off despite the lack of language.1

The job gets done in some fashion. Not the way we had thought or would prefer. But done according to them and so (for this time) done according to us as well. So how many people does it take to change a light bulb in Cambodia? We would say at least 4.


  1. My guess is that language is one of the major barriers to being able to function in any new culture. So a lack of language already puts you at a distance, even while living in the culture. Just trying to do basic jobs in a new culture is stressful unlike doing them in your passport country. 

Language learning update

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Visited my old language school stomping ground, G2K.

Thought it was about time for a language update given its been nearly 8 months since my last update. I have now given 2 lectures on Old Testament at Phnom Penh Bible School, in Khmer. My Khmer reading and writing have improved dramatically having now prepared 4 lectures. When working from my English draft I can translate it to Khmer in about 6hrs (that’s about 6-8 pages of written Khmer). My speaking (more of a lecture form of speaking) is improving slowly with each new week of teaching. My speaking in conversations and with questions is still where I find it the hardest. There are many conversations where I can get the main point and answer well. But below are three scenarios that still happen with regular frequency. I’ll be listening to a conversation and the speaker will be talking and I’ll hear:

I’m worried… don’t dare… addicted… [unspecified time] so I don’t want coffee 3 cups… [unspecified time] 3 pigs not in there but there is either pork or chicken… the fish blah blah blah which means blah blah blah and then… it’s cooked.

In some conversations, this is what I get out of the Khmer that I hear. Most of the time I understand a good majority of the words. But because my grammar understanding is still growing and my processing time is also slow, the conversation is onto the next sentence before I’ve processed and understood the last. What this means is that I use the words and other clues and try and guess the meaning and can usually get close. This is at my best.

Then, there will be times like this:

Question: Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer?

Me: Could you please repeat that?

I didn’t catch any of what was being said, but I have enough energy, time or motivation to try and find out what was said.

Then there are times like this:

Person speaking: Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer (either a question or statement, I’m not sure)

Me: Yes Yes Okay Yes

Me (to myself): I have no idea. What did I just agree to?

Unfortunately, there are also these days. Where I have no idea what is being said, but I just nod yes either because I don’t have the time or energy to figure it out — the bobbing dog head syndrome.

This next year at the Bible School will provide opportunities for exponential gains in my language abilities. Stay tuned!

Transition time: #3. Transitioning to…

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My first go at teaching in Khmer, with a favourite subject of mine Biblical Theology.

I’m about to combine two realms. Training and experience as a minister (spanning 10 years) together with learning Khmer (almost 2 years) to teaching the Bible in Khmer. The past two years, not only have I put the first of these on hold (somewhat), but I transitioned to a realm of complete newness and sucking (learning Khmer). Now I combine my poor Khmer together with teaching the Bible (a realm I feel more confident in, though hopefully never too confident in). This brings excitement (bringing in what I have put on hold) as well as fear (doing it in a new way). But it also brings excitement to the teaching as I do it in a new way and learn new things (teaching in a different context). While I’ve taught the Bible before, I don’t have any formal teaching qualifications. What I have is experience in teaching, but in different situations (small groups, larger groups), but not regular classroom teaching experience. So not only is the Khmer new, but teaching with assessments and that sort of thing is also new. COMING SOON- new blog series on first time teaching.

A further way to look at my transition is in terms of visibility. As a student (Masters or language learning) you are either on your own or in a different position from the teacher. Coming into a teaching role puts you more in the spotlight, particularly in a South East Asian context. Now I’ve had this visibility before as a minister. The difference this time is the context and the high view that teachers are given in Cambodian society. I’ll move from less structured independent language learning to part of a team at the Bible school; part of a facility with its rhythms and community life that I’ll join. In terms of thoughts about how to teach, in terms of vulnerable mission I aim to give away power by being honest about mistakes and showing myself to be a learner even as I’m teaching. So that even though I transition from learning to teaching, I don’t really transition out of learning.

Transition time: #2. Transitioning from…

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Translating a lecture from English to Khmer

In 2018 I have already transitioned from classroom language learning to independent language learning. Now as I edge closer to October I’m transitioning out of full time language learning. With the goal of teaching in Khmer, part of my time this past 6 months has been lesson prep. To streamline my language learning with my lesson prep I geared my language learning towards learning stories from the OT; thinking through how to explain themes and topics that arise from those stories. In a sense, my language learning has been more specific than in the early days. In early days, I was learning basic Khmer for a variety of different situations and on a variety of different topics. Now my language learning (intentional learning) is much more narrowly targeted. Having the goal of teaching in Khmer has actually been really helpful for motivation, a massive carrot.

As I transition away from full time language learning, I’m not really leaving it. What I’m leaving is my independent learning category. For I’ll be still learning massive amounts of Khmer as I teach in it. It’s just that learning won’t be the primary goal, teaching will be. And I guess that’s the case in our native language as well. We never actually leave language learning fully, not even in English. What changes is that it no longer becomes the primary goal, but a secondary bonus. So while I’ll transition from language learning in one sense, in another I’ll never leave it — life long language learning.

What this looks like in practice can be seen when I contrast pre-August break and post-August break. In both periods I was doing language learning and lesson prep. But, pre-break, with my language helper I was more getting help with language learning stuff (rather than lesson prep). Once I came back I got my language helper to help me with my lesson prep. Though, because I am seeking to teach in Khmer, there was still a lot of language learning going on. I’d ask him to show me where my mistakes were, but not fix them, so that hopefully I’d learn from my mistakes and not make them as often. In this sense my language learning and lesson prep had merged. Pre-break, they felt like slightly different streams. It’s kinda nice just having one project to work on rather than two, particularly when the language learning side of things is never ending. But teaching has a definite goal and end point (the end of semester). The brilliant thing about the merge is that I’m getting to work on a long term thing, with the advantage that teaching gives the sense of accomplishment when you’ve finished the semester.

Transition time: #1. Transitioning tonnes

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One of many big transitions for our kids; ready to get on the plane to Cambodia

You could say that life is about transitions. We transition from childhood to adulthood. We transition from study to the workforce. We transition from job to job. We transition as family life changes, from being children to either having children or being part of an extended family as an adult.

My life prior to Cambodia had many transitions (from tennis to physiotherapy to ministry and further study), and life in Cambodia continues to have transitions too. But the transitions feel different at the moment. Maybe it’s because of the pace and size of these most recent transitions. So much change! Prior to coming to Cambodia we moved down to Melbourne for some missionary training. Then we transitioned to partnership raising for 6 months. Then we moved to a new country and completely new culture. In this transition came learning the language. And soon I face another major transition; teaching in this new language. As I mentioned previously, this first three year term is like three first years back to back.

As I reflect on transitions more, what I think mission transition brings to the equation is often all those normal transitions we have (study to work, changing family situations) continue in a midst a different context or in the transition from one culture to another (backwards and forwards between two countries). These more normal transitions take on a different light in a different place that has different values and way of life. Such that smaller transitions feel bigger and so we just seem to be going from one big transition to another. My thought is that even as we settle longer into Cambodia (and so may have less transitions here), missionary life (for us) means backward and forwards between Australia and Cambodia. So while other life transitions in Cambodia may settle down some what, just around the corner is another major transition.

I feel like where this leaves us is that transitions become a normal, regular part of life. Maybe that’s where transitions feel different as a missionary. I feel like most transitions are big events that come along once every little while. Whereas here it feels like there is always one just around the corner. Maybe missionary life normalizes transitions. They become the new norm.

At any rate, these next two posts will explore what this latest transition is shaping to look like, even before I’ve fully transitioned.