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.

4 thoughts on “Overall thoughts on learning language FOR US.

  1. Great to be hearing from you here again. I recon point 2 of country context is a huge one. I’d be interested to hear more about how you see this playing out and exactly how it affects you. E.g. is it that locals speak back to you in English?

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    • Yeah, I didn’t realise how big this would be till I got here. One story that is quite encouraging, was that I was with a missio who has been in country for yonks and is a gun at Khmer. One time we were out and even he struggled to communicate with an unknown local to both of us. His reflection is that often, when we meet someone new they are trying to listen in English (particularly in the city) and so it takes them about 2mins before they’ve come around to thinking, ‘oh he’s speaking Khmer to me’. This really helped me see that sometimes its not necessarily my pronunciation that is the problem (although often it is), but their expectations (which are completely reasonable) that I’m speaking English, rather than poorly pronounced Khmer.

      Further, sometimes the trickier conversation is with those who have some English rather than none as you’re trying to guess which language they are speaking in.

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      • V interesting. What are the reasons for these expectations on the part of locals? E.g. hospitality (want foreigners to feel welcome); English acquisition (want to gain more English for its utility etc)…

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      • Partly exposure (they’re just not used to foreigners who can both because a culture of foreigners not learning Khmer, but probably more about just not having the opportunity to interact with foreigners), partly workplace (they are encouraged or required to speak English in certain stores or hotels) and partly, yes, acquisition (wanting to practice and improve their English).

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