Digital dep #7: Learning local language is selfish

My translator. I have much Khmer to learn from him as he does English from me.

There is a truth to the title that I didn’t realise before I moved to Cambodia. Pre-arriving in Cambodia I was all about learning the local language and helping locals to engage with theology in their own ‘heart’ language. Then any speaking I did with them would be helping both of us as I was learning the language and they were engaging in theology in a language that they are proficient in. So I would try in as many contexts to speak in Khmer, rather than in English. And, to a certain degree, I haven’t changed this view. Learning Khmer is extremely helpful for me and others. What has happened is that, instead of changing this view about learning language, I’ve enriched it, or added to it, even nuanced it.

My view now is all of the above AND for a few people I’m going to speak English with them. For these few people it is actually selfish for me to learn their language. They should be the ones learning language. They need to improve their English.

The reason English is important, and I didn’t see this before, is that for Christians in Cambodia at the moment to progress in theological education they need to do that further study in English. Not only do they need sufficient English to progress, but they need theological English (which might as well be another language). The reason is simple. There are not enough theological resources in Khmer to sustain a Masters level degree or higher. The point could be argued for Bachelor degrees as well, but that’s a whole kettle of fish that I don’t know if I want to get into right now (though I would love to engage this point).

Given the need for English skills to progress in theological education, rather than just seeking to speak Khmer with my fellow Khmer colleagues at the Bible School, I should be using some of my time to help them improve their English. Now this is not an easy swap, English for Khmer, because they have an important role in developing my theological Khmer. However, there is a mutual need that I didn’t see before. They need theological English from a native English speaker and I need theological Khmer from a native Khmer speaker. To just work in Khmer with them all the time would be selfish. There is a mutuality in learning language that I knew in principle from missiology, but needed to expand my approach to others learning Khmer.

This needs further qualifying. While I want to speak with them in English, my thought is that this is best done one to one. In group settings at the Bible school I think speaking in Khmer gives them the power and ability to interact in a language that they are comfortable with rather than in a second language which is harder. So in group settings I prefer Khmer. In one on one relationships with a few, English.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Digital dep #7: Learning local language is selfish

  1. Thanks, Craig – thoughtful as always.
    I think a lot depends on the availability of material in the local language. For example, there is now a vast amount of literature in Chinese and Korean. This means that it is less urgent than it was 100 years ago that a Chinese and Korean student do higher study in another language. I can only imagine that this is not the case for Khmer, which would make it really important for Khmer speakers to have some English.

    I reckon the internet probably changes things too. Even though it is just as hard as it ever used to be to master a language, I think that computers have made language less of a barrier than it ever used to be.

    Like

    • Absolutely. Availability of material is key. Next in line is the English abilities of the population. Cambodia’s tough run in education means their English is not great either. So developing English on a national level is also important, not just for further theological education.

      The internet has made access to English and materials much better. Just from my perspective, being in Australia and being able to learn Khmer through Khmer soap operas on Youtube would have been unheard of even just a few years ago.

      Like

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