Below is a visual representation of what I heard when someone is speaking to me in Khmer about a month ago:
Blah blah blah blah blah BUT… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah ME… blah blah blah blah SO… blah blah blah blah blah YEAR… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah DAY… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah THANK YOU.
Have you figured out what the above paragraph is about??? Me either.
A month later (now) it’s more like this:
Blah FATHER blah blah blah BUT… blah DEAD blah EXCITED blah blah MONEY blah ME… blah JESUS blah blah SO… blah SAD blah blah blah YEAR… blah blah blah blah blah GOD blah blah blah DAY… blah blah LOVE blah blah (I THINK HE SAID TEACH) blah blah blah blah blah THANK YOU.
So its been about four months of full time language learning. Where are we up to? Well, in one sense, “not far” is the short and obvious answer. But in another sense, we’re exactly where we should be in learning the language. I’ve just started learning the Khmer alphabet a few weeks ago. Our language learning centre has emphasised listening and speaking first, to enter into the language and culture more verbally through conversation–speaking and listening. This approach is in contrast to a method that begins more through books–reading and writing. Neither is necessarily more right. Both have their strengths and weaknesses.1 One strength of this method is that we are both often complimented on our pronunciation.
Our language classes have been working at growing our capacity to speak and to listen. So what does that look like? With speaking, we’ve gone from no ability to being able to ask simple questions in order to get to know people. And recently we’ve been able to ask simple requests from our house helper and tuttuk driver, or even say thank you for particular jobs that our house helper is doing.
This has made a huge difference. For one, the other day I understood when our house helper asked to come in early and finish early because she wanted to go somewhere. I worked out the next day that it was to a family wedding. So there are improvements in our langauge, of which I couldn’t have done that even a month ago. With our tuktuk driver, we can organize pickup and drop off times in person and on the phone, as well as interact in little conversations about how we are going.
An example of our listening ability is to a sermon in church. I’ve gone from no word recognition to understanding about 1 in every 20-30 words and probably more now. Unfortunately, they are mostly just connecting words like ‘but’ or ‘I’ or other simple words that don’t really give the sense of what is being said (like the above visual representation). But even this is a cool win. There are many times when our house helper or someone similar mistakes how much language we have and go off into a very long winded and fast description… and I’m left just nodding saying ‘Yes’ (‘baht’ for boys, ‘ja’ for girls) though I have no idea what she said. Hopefully, it’s nothing too important…
At our language school we’re at the level of ‘survival Khmer’ or just above–enough Khmer to get around Cambodia doing basic tasks. By early next year I am hoping to be able to have moderately deep conversations, delving further into relationships. As far as writing and reading, my best guess is that our language centre emphasised speaking and listening first so that we could be growing that skill while we do the long and arduous task of learning the alphabet and putting those letters into words. So while reading and writing will come later this year, that hasn’t stalled us communicating and building our vocabulary from verbal means.
One encouragement we have had in learning Khmer is that many of our Cambodian friends are surprised with how well we are doing learning Khmer. The context in Cambodia is that many foreigners pick up only a little Khmer or none at all (even after many years of living here). Our efforts in learning Khmer are often appreciated by those we meet.
- I think one of the advantages going into a language orally is that you are more dependent on people in your host country guiding you. I feel like this is a more ‘bodily’ entrance into a culture as opposed to a more intellectual approach that you might get through books. With books you are more the guide. But with people it is much more obvious who the guide is. Hopefully the end result is that we not only can speak Khmer, but we develop similar mannerisms and habits to really inhabit Khmer culture. But who knows? ↩