In thinking about writing this post I had imagined writing about how our language school, G2K (Gateway to Khmer), was the best language school in town! As I got closer, I realised I couldn’t do that as I don’t know objectively whether it is. G2K has had many good reviews. And I’ve found my time there really helpful. But I can’t say it’s the best place in town as I haven’t experienced all the other places. So instead what I’ll do in this post is outline three of the distinctive aspects of this language school.
I wanted to check my facts, so I went to the director, the lady who basically got the school up and running. In my conversation with her there were three things that stood out. The first thing was the stress placed on pronunciation. One of her reasons for this was that Khmer people are not used to having people try to speak their language (see the last paragraph of this earlier post). This means they won’t really be listening for my ‘bad’ Khmer like we might listen for bad English from someone who has just moved to Australia. What they’ll probably assume is that I don’t speak Khmer and so be trying to listen for my English. Foreigners attempting to speak Khmer to locals are often told “I don’t speak English,” leaving both people a bit confused. The director and I didn’t really spend long on the reasons for this situation, but more just noted that it is like this. Good pronunciation becomes more important in this context.
The way G2K have approached attaining good pronunciation is through the system called IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). It is an alphabet of all the sounds found in languages internationally. The kind of funny thing is that we came to learn Khmer and we’ve kind of had to learn two languages. IPA, then Khmer. On my bad days, it feels like this. But the value of IPA is that it is a tool that helps move my Aussie English pronunciation slightly closer to Khmer pronunciation. IPA won’t get me all the way to sounding Khmer, but it does help (particularly in the early stages). The benefits that I have found of IPA is that it gives me a way to try and fix the problems I have in pronouncing things more Aussie English than Khmer. I think it would be a lot harder to move my pronunciation without this tool.
The second aspect of the school that I want to mention is the focus on levels. You have may seen us posting pics of us passing our exams on Facebook (FB LINK). Each level runs for 5 weeks (full time, 3 hours day/5 days a week). At the end is an exam. The underlying structure is the ACTFL scale, a scale set up to measure communicative competency (how well you can listen, speak, read and write). The value of this scale is that it gives you a concrete sense of how you are improving and it provides a way for teachers to teach in order to help you to reach the next stage. While every system has its benefits, what I’ve found helpful here is that teachers are better equipped to try and teach me at a level that is just beyond where I am currently at. This enables the classroom to be consolidating the learning that I have already done, while pushing me slightly out of my comfort zone in order to help me progress. This is particularly valuable in terms of listening. Sometimes when I tell locals that I can speak Khmer, in their excitement, they prattle on in Khmer at 100 kilometres an hour and I’m left standing there like that dog on the dashboard, nodding their head, but nothing is going in. What the classroom provides is opportunities for me to practice my listening by giving me listening texts that are just beyond what I can cope with. They have the vocab I am familiar with, but push me forwards, either by speeding things up or by adding in words or phrases that I am about to learn.
The third aspect of the school that I wanted to mention is their aim to get us speaking polite Khmer. What some people find hard is that polite Khmer is not always used, such as in the market, just like we might use more slang in our English conversations than formal, essay type language. And yet G2K aim at polite. If we only learn street-talk and find ourselves in a formal setting, we can do a fair bit of damage socially by being less formal than we ought. Whereas no damage is done if we are more polite than we need to be. So G2K teach us polite Khmer and then it is our job to slowly, and with help from friends and others, work out when to speak less formally.
The focus on pronunciation, teaching at levels and teaching polite Khmer are three aspects of our language school that we’ve found helpful.
 I remember another missionary stressing the prime importance of pronunciation in the early stages of learning another language.