Language learning update

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Visited my old language school stomping ground, G2K.

Thought it was about time for a language update given its been nearly 8 months since my last update. I have now given 2 lectures on Old Testament at Phnom Penh Bible School, in Khmer. My Khmer reading and writing have improved dramatically having now prepared 4 lectures. When working from my English draft I can translate it to Khmer in about 6hrs (that’s about 6-8 pages of written Khmer). My speaking (more of a lecture form of speaking) is improving slowly with each new week of teaching. My speaking in conversations and with questions is still where I find it the hardest. There are many conversations where I can get the main point and answer well. But below are three scenarios that still happen with regular frequency. I’ll be listening to a conversation and the speaker will be talking and I’ll hear:

I’m worried… don’t dare… addicted… [unspecified time] so I don’t want coffee 3 cups… [unspecified time] 3 pigs not in there but there is either pork or chicken… the fish blah blah blah which means blah blah blah and then… it’s cooked.

In some conversations, this is what I get out of the Khmer that I hear. Most of the time I understand a good majority of the words. But because my grammar understanding is still growing and my processing time is also slow, the conversation is onto the next sentence before I’ve processed and understood the last. What this means is that I use the words and other clues and try and guess the meaning and can usually get close. This is at my best.

Then, there will be times like this:

Question: Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer?

Me: Could you please repeat that?

I didn’t catch any of what was being said, but I have enough energy, time or motivation to try and find out what was said.

Then there are times like this:

Person speaking: Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer Khmer (either a question or statement, I’m not sure)

Me: Yes Yes Okay Yes

Me (to myself): I have no idea. What did I just agree to?

Unfortunately, there are also these days. Where I have no idea what is being said, but I just nod yes either because I don’t have the time or energy to figure it out — the bobbing dog head syndrome.

This next year at the Bible School will provide opportunities for exponential gains in my language abilities. Stay tuned!

Transition time: #3. Transitioning to…

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My first go at teaching in Khmer, with a favourite subject of mine Biblical Theology.

I’m about to combine two realms. Training and experience as a minister (spanning 10 years) together with learning Khmer (almost 2 years) to teaching the Bible in Khmer. The past two years, not only have I put the first of these on hold (somewhat), but I transitioned to a realm of complete newness and sucking (learning Khmer). Now I combine my poor Khmer together with teaching the Bible (a realm I feel more confident in, though hopefully never too confident in). This brings excitement (bringing in what I have put on hold) as well as fear (doing it in a new way). But it also brings excitement to the teaching as I do it in a new way and learn new things (teaching in a different context). While I’ve taught the Bible before, I don’t have any formal teaching qualifications. What I have is experience in teaching, but in different situations (small groups, larger groups), but not regular classroom teaching experience. So not only is the Khmer new, but teaching with assessments and that sort of thing is also new. COMING SOON- new blog series on first time teaching.

A further way to look at my transition is in terms of visibility. As a student (Masters or language learning) you are either on your own or in a different position from the teacher. Coming into a teaching role puts you more in the spotlight, particularly in a South East Asian context. Now I’ve had this visibility before as a minister. The difference this time is the context and the high view that teachers are given in Cambodian society. I’ll move from less structured independent language learning to part of a team at the Bible school; part of a facility with its rhythms and community life that I’ll join. In terms of thoughts about how to teach, in terms of vulnerable mission I aim to give away power by being honest about mistakes and showing myself to be a learner even as I’m teaching. So that even though I transition from learning to teaching, I don’t really transition out of learning.

Transition time: #2. Transitioning from…

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Translating a lecture from English to Khmer

In 2018 I have already transitioned from classroom language learning to independent language learning. Now as I edge closer to October I’m transitioning out of full time language learning. With the goal of teaching in Khmer, part of my time this past 6 months has been lesson prep. To streamline my language learning with my lesson prep I geared my language learning towards learning stories from the OT; thinking through how to explain themes and topics that arise from those stories. In a sense, my language learning has been more specific than in the early days. In early days, I was learning basic Khmer for a variety of different situations and on a variety of different topics. Now my language learning (intentional learning) is much more narrowly targeted. Having the goal of teaching in Khmer has actually been really helpful for motivation, a massive carrot.

As I transition away from full time language learning, I’m not really leaving it. What I’m leaving is my independent learning category. For I’ll be still learning massive amounts of Khmer as I teach in it. It’s just that learning won’t be the primary goal, teaching will be. And I guess that’s the case in our native language as well. We never actually leave language learning fully, not even in English. What changes is that it no longer becomes the primary goal, but a secondary bonus. So while I’ll transition from language learning in one sense, in another I’ll never leave it — life long language learning.

What this looks like in practice can be seen when I contrast pre-August break and post-August break. In both periods I was doing language learning and lesson prep. But, pre-break, with my language helper I was more getting help with language learning stuff (rather than lesson prep). Once I came back I got my language helper to help me with my lesson prep. Though, because I am seeking to teach in Khmer, there was still a lot of language learning going on. I’d ask him to show me where my mistakes were, but not fix them, so that hopefully I’d learn from my mistakes and not make them as often. In this sense my language learning and lesson prep had merged. Pre-break, they felt like slightly different streams. It’s kinda nice just having one project to work on rather than two, particularly when the language learning side of things is never ending. But teaching has a definite goal and end point (the end of semester). The brilliant thing about the merge is that I’m getting to work on a long term thing, with the advantage that teaching gives the sense of accomplishment when you’ve finished the semester.

Transition time: #1. Transitioning tonnes

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One of many big transitions for our kids; ready to get on the plane to Cambodia

You could say that life is about transitions. We transition from childhood to adulthood. We transition from study to the workforce. We transition from job to job. We transition as family life changes, from being children to either having children or being part of an extended family as an adult.

My life prior to Cambodia had many transitions (from tennis to physiotherapy to ministry and further study), and life in Cambodia continues to have transitions too. But the transitions feel different at the moment. Maybe it’s because of the pace and size of these most recent transitions. So much change! Prior to coming to Cambodia we moved down to Melbourne for some missionary training. Then we transitioned to partnership raising for 6 months. Then we moved to a new country and completely new culture. In this transition came learning the language. And soon I face another major transition; teaching in this new language. As I mentioned previously, this first three year term is like three first years back to back.

As I reflect on transitions more, what I think mission transition brings to the equation is often all those normal transitions we have (study to work, changing family situations) continue in a midst a different context or in the transition from one culture to another (backwards and forwards between two countries). These more normal transitions take on a different light in a different place that has different values and way of life. Such that smaller transitions feel bigger and so we just seem to be going from one big transition to another. My thought is that even as we settle longer into Cambodia (and so may have less transitions here), missionary life (for us) means backward and forwards between Australia and Cambodia. So while other life transitions in Cambodia may settle down some what, just around the corner is another major transition.

I feel like where this leaves us is that transitions become a normal, regular part of life. Maybe that’s where transitions feel different as a missionary. I feel like most transitions are big events that come along once every little while. Whereas here it feels like there is always one just around the corner. Maybe missionary life normalizes transitions. They become the new norm.

At any rate, these next two posts will explore what this latest transition is shaping to look like, even before I’ve fully transitioned.

 

 

No-Longer New: #16. Yet still settling in

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A year ago, having lived in Cambodia for 6 months, I could say that both we had settled in, but that we were still settling in. I chuckle to myself. Now a year later, it still rings true. Settled, and still settling in. Even with the kids we say the same thing.

I was talking with a good friend of mine (he has come up a few times before). He compared our first term of mission to having 3 back-to-back first years. Generally, in a new job, the first year is hardest, the second slightly easier and the third, you get the picture. He remarked that our first 3-year-term will be like having three first years in a row. Sure, there are things that are easier. We’re not completely new, and so newness tiredness isn’t quite as taxing as it was last year. But because in another sense we are still new, we’re still expending a decent amount of emotional energy. This perspective helps explain our experience so far, of which we were prepared well for in training. First term, survive, second term start to get some momentum, third term things are clicking along nicely. Helps makes sense of this second year, anyway.

I was speaking with a missionary friend who has lived here in Cambodia for around 12 years. She said that it was around the 6 year mark that she noticed that she wasn’t expending all that emotional energy that is the common experience in those first years. This is also a helpful perspective as we continue along. So after a year and a half we’re settled and still settling. Like this time last year, we’re taking a break from Cambodia (language and culture learning) to rest and refresh ourselves for a new school year for all of us, the kids at school, Sam at language school and myself, teaching at the Bible School.

 

No Longer New: #15. Mission and self-awareness

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Is mission a catalyst for growing in self-awareness? Or was I just self-deluded before coming to Cambodia and this last season just so happens to have involved a growth in self-awareness? I guess the question underlying these two questions is: is a growing self-awareness incidental to the missionary or essential?

This is the question I keep asking myself here in Cambodia. We prepared for this case in our training. Over the past year and half I feel like I’ve have come to understand more about myself, as my expectations turned into experience. Obviously there’s still much more to learn–long way to go there, Craig. But, there is a saying that as you leave your home culture you learn more about it. So in learning about my home culture I learn more about myself; my tendencies, loves, etc. There is a sense in which we forget some of our home culture as we move to a new place. As we encounter a new culture, we lose touch with some of our first culture, such that there is a forgetting. We have less of those day to day experiences that get bound up with our home culture. But in another sense in encountering the new, you learn about the old because the new asks questions of the old, that the old doesn’t always ask of itself. So in this sense, self-awareness seems to come from the interaction of two cultures in one person. So in this sense, growing self-awareness seems essential to life as a missionary.

But in another way, maybe growth in self-awareness is more incidental to mission. That is, the growing self-awareness that I’ve experienced has come from being pushed to our limits. And this can happen in our home culture or a new one. As we are pushed beyond our boundaries (our abilities as a person), we learn where those limits are and so learn more about ourselves. In those extreme times we find the clash between our loves and abilities and our context or circumstances can show us more of who we are. This is not always a pretty picture or particularly uplifting. But it’s helpful nonetheless.

The safe answer is probably that it’s both incidental and essential. Growing self-awareness seems to be part and parcel with mission. I say ‘seems to be’ because I’m not convinced that it is guaranteed. Just like wisdom is not guaranteed with age, so self-awareness is not guaranteed on mission. The combination of a new culture and being pushed to our limits both play a part in our growing self-awareness. As missionaries, we are on display to the new culture, but we are on display to ourselves as well. The picture above captures our ‘on displayness’.

No-longer New: #14. Set and forget

One of the things I’ve come to enjoy, daily, in Cambodia is my cold brew coffee. You make it the night before then BAMMM, first thing next morning, coffee to go. I set it the night before and then essentially forget it.

Last post I mentioned that I had underestimated the change from language learning in a classroom to language learning independently. In the classroom, you don’t really need to think about the future, you just come for the day as the teacher has thought about the future for you. As you learn independently you need to think about the future in order to know what to do today. The problem is, when you think too much about the future it can get stressful. What I need to do is set my language plans and forget, kinda like my cold brew coffee.

In the seminar for learning a language independently that G2K held for their students, they talk about the importance of planning in learning a language. On the one hand you need to be flexible as you learn a language, living with much ambiguity, being able to laugh at yourself and be okay with failing. By complete contrast you also need to PLAN. Insert overused motivational quote ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’. Anyway, planning is important.

The reason I bring up planning is that in the first few weeks of beginning to learn Khmer independently I needed to do some thinking about my plan, my goals–sort out where I would like to be. Now as I mentioned earlier, on needing to be flexible, I just needed to have a stab at where I wanted to be in order to make some goals and make a plan around those goals. Just give planning a go. In the early days of making this plan, I was doing more planning than doing. What I found was that I was getting more stressed than I needed to be in the early days. I was living too much in the future and not enough now (actually, Sam can tell you this is a common issue for me). Given that I was six months out from my goal of teaching, if I stayed as stressed as I did in those early days then I would burn to a crisp pretty quickly.

It was after chatting with a friend that I realised that I just needed to get it over with and set some goals. They didn’t need to be perfect.1  I needed to set and forget (somewhat forget anyway). Rather than stress about whether it was right, I needed to stop thinking about the future too much and start doing. As I did this, some of that early days stress melted away. Sometimes encountering the beast is easier than worrying about encountering the beast. So, what I’ve learnt from this planning is; to plan. Don’t stress over it too much. Then give it a go. And as I keep saying to myself, over and over again, BE FLEXIBLE.


  1.  One of the things I’ve learnt about productivity is that 80% is a good point to aim for first time round. You’ll never get anything 100% right, so don’t aim for it. Get a plan to 80% and then give it a go. As an even further aside, creativity (got this from a TED talk) comes when you start early, give it a break and then come back to it near the due date (giving time for good simmering). 

No-longer New: #13. Clunky transition

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Not time for driving lessons just yet

In my last two posts I had overestimated my language abilities as I made my language plan. What’s also become clear is that I’ve also underestimated the change that has recently occurred in my language learning. That is, I had assumed that because I was continuing in language learning (transitioning from classroom to independent language learning) that it would be a fairly smooth transition. Well, was I wrong (again).

Instead of being a smooth transition, it has felt like the gear change of a 16 yr old first learning to drive stick (drive a manual car). A clunky beginning. I had underestimated the discontinuity between classroom and independent learning.

In one, you turn up and the teacher has prepared the content and there are others who are in the same boat as you. Both of these are helpful for motivation. There is also clarity because the teacher is the one guiding you.

In independent learning, you have prepare the lesson. There is no-one else when motivation is low and you are the ‘expert’ guiding yourself. I actually quite like learning on my own. I loved it when I was completing my Masters in Theology. But I had become used to classroom learning again. And so it’s taken me a while to get into the groove of doing it myself. What I had thought was going to be a ‘productive May’, has turned into a ‘sorting things out for the first time May’. It’s all good. I just hadn’t anticipated the clunkiness. It kind of feels like I’ve started a new job, even though I’m doing the same thing; language learning.

The result of this learning is that what the next (almost) 6 months looks like. It’s two lots of 2 month language learning blocks with a break in the middle. Initially, I had thought these would be fairly identical–language learning and lesson prep. But because it’s going to take a while to get into the groove of this new dynamic of language learning, the first block will look different from the second block. Once I get a groove, the later months will look different from the first. As I say this now, it makes complete sense. But as I was initially planning, I hadn’t factored in the clunkiness of the gear change.

There was another reason I found the first few weeks of independent language learning stressful. More on that next post.

No-longer New: #12 Another language reality check

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Which book am I currently reading?

It’s funny to think of how your dreams or thoughts change when faced with the bare reality. Last post I mentioned that I had to change my language plan within the first week. Why?

When I first began thinking about preparing to teach from the Old Testament (OT), my mind had gone to things I would do to prepare. I was thinking, ‘Maybe I could read through the Pentateuch in Khmer to prepare’. Hah! As I got closer to preparation time and saw my actual ability in Khmer, my early dreams morphed. So I thought, “Maybe instead I could just read through a summary book of the class I’m teaching and then just read a couple of the more important passages from the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible)”. Hhhmmm.

Then came day 1 of that plan. Bomp-bom (think two thumbs down). Not so much. Even this plan was well beyond my ability in Khmer.

So my plan changed again. Now I’m reading a kids Bible! The sentence structure and vocabulary are much closer to my reading level. I also skim read an easy Bible  translation in Khmer. But that’s usually after reading the kids Bible first. After this, I summarise a Bible story in my own words. This makes it comprehensible input, while developing the vocab I’ll need for the subject I plan to teach. What I aim to do with these summaries is practice saying them, then recording them. Then I will get a local to make their own summary of that same bible story. The result is that I’ll have two recordings of the same story. I’ll take from the local retelling some helpful phrases and add them to my summary. Thus improving my ability, bit by bit, to tell a story in Khmer.

So this early reality check on my language learning plan helped me tweak my language learning and lesson prep goals in order to tailor it more to the new situation–me understanding my actual language abilities and what I need to do to develop them. I just keep saying to myself flexibility is the key to success at the moment.

 

No-longer New: #11. Success through flexibility

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There’s a difference between achieving a goal for the first time and achieving that same goal multiple times. The second or third time you set out to achieve a goal, you have a precedent, past experience, to help guide your planning and goal setting. You’ve given it a go once and then the second or third time you can tweak or modify the plan in order to achieve the goal. Seeking to achieve a goal for the first time is slightly different. There’s more unknowns and you don’t really have experience or a precedent to follow.

I was chatting with a good friend (a mentor) about my aim of teaching in Khmer later this year. He urged me to see success in a different way. Success was not so much about whether I achieved the goal or not. Success, in this case, is about the flexibility of my plan. With so many unknowns surrounding this plan and goal, the best plan was going to be one that was supremely adaptable. Adaptability is key, because success would come via flexibility.

In later attempts I will have more idea of capabilities and what is required. But on this first time round it’s about giving it a go and adjusting as I go. Aim, fire, readjust and fire again. Give one plan a go. If it doesn’t seem to be working, tweak it or make a new plan.

So, how quickly did I need to readjust? The first day. I had to be flexible on the first day of a new plan. I had somewhat planned out three months of language learning. I started day one, and by the end of the day (with the help of a local) I had realised that this plan wasn’t going to work. Good idea. Nice in principle. But not going to happen.

So the plan changed. And because of the advice that I’d been given, I was more okay with it. So I’ve readjusted and shot again. This time, with a new plan, I got a little closer to the target. That is, the plan I’ve made is working, so far. So what was wrong with the first plan? Why didn’t it work? That’s for next time. Stay tuned.