Where am I up to after a year and a bit of language, after 40 weeks of full time language school? The short answer is: I’ve come a long way, but I’ve got an even longer way to go. A more specific question is what’s changed in this last 6 months on from my last update?
Arriving in Cambodia early last year, I had almost no Khmer. Now I’m attempting conversations in Khmer and these conversations are moving beyond the basic fact finding questions of personal data (age, family, work etc). Though I still need to learn much more vocab, I’m finding now that I’m using strategies to keep conversations going, even without having the vocab. This is one major difference between my conversational abilities now and even 5 months ago. 5 months ago, once I asked a quick question and got a quick answer, it was hard to move beyond that point. Sometimes we were just left awkwardly standing there, like one of those scenes everyone fears at a party when the conversation dies. Now with a bit more language what I’m finding is that I have more topics to turn to in general chit chat. A break through in shooting-the-breeze came recently. I’d been struggling to work out what to talk about when I meet up with a friend, beyond the personal data that I’d found out first time I meet with someone. It came as an off hand remark in a seminar, but I’ve found it really helpful. Easy go-to topics in Cambodia are “where have you been?” Or “where are you going?” Through to “have you eaten?” Or “how are family members (either where are they or how are they doing)?” This has given me a couple of topics that I can use as I seek to build my conversational skills.
The result of my language learning so far is that in general day to day life I can function doing simple tasks and having simple conversations in Khmer, conveying some information and understanding some things as well. What this means is that I’m understanding more content on a regular basis. In a recent update, I shared that more often than not I got a sense of the topic that Khmers were talking to me about. Now I don’t just get a sense of the general topic, but I get a sense of the general point they are making about that topic. I’m understanding more conversational content. I still miss many of the details, but I get the general topic and the general point about that topic.
This doesn’t always occur across the board in every conversation and it can often vary based on how quickly Khmer is being spoken (often in conversation it seems to go at machine gun rate) as well as other factors (like background noise and the topic of conversation). But more often than not I’m understanding a decent amount of content. Some of this improvement in understanding more content has come through practice (having similar conversations), some through increased vocab (in my vocab app I have about 2000 words) and some has come through an ability to use questions and responses to check I’ve understood or hear that they’ve understood me.
6 months ago I was hoping to improve my conversation abilities and fluency. And looking back even in the last 6 months I’ve seen that happen. The result is that I’m trying to put myself in more and more situations where I need to use my Khmer and I’ve got more confidence — not confidence to get it right, but confidence just to give it a go and learn something. That’s how I would summarise my conversation ability: confidence to have a go. The result is that I get to practice what I do know and in each conversation I have the chance to learn something new to add to my language arsenal.
One story before I move to reading and writing. Sam and I recently looked at one of my first videos where I tried a bit of Khmer (it was in the first month of arriving here). One of the ways I can see improvement in my Khmer is that as I listen to it again, I cringe. While I gave it a good crack for only being here 1 month, I can now see how my pronunciation was wrong and I can see how I’ve improved in this last year. I’m sure there will be more of that happening as I continue to look back.
In terms of reading and writing, I’m feeling much more comfortable writing and even writing small paragraphs of text. My vocab and reading ability will help improve my writing beyond this, but I’m happy with where my writing is up to. As I finished up with my language school, we were encouraged to keep up our writing if we wanted to keep it. Like a lot of skills, if you don’t use it you lose it. So this is my goal. But more about that in the next post. In terms of reading, while I’m progressing, one of the main difficulties is that my vocab is holding me back. As I add more words to the mix, I think this will help free up my reading. And in this next stage, as you’ll see in the next post, there will be more opportunities for reading.