Post-arrival #4: It takes a village of institutions to raise a language learner

An overview of the course I’m teaching

This post follows on from the previous post about where I’m up to in my language learning with a wider reflection on the things that assist us as we learn a new language.

One of the things that has struck me as I continue to develop my Khmer language skills is the number of supports it takes to learn a language. It takes a whole village, or a village of institutions, for me to be where I am now in Khmer language ability. 

Firstly, a vital institution for language learning is the CMS fellowship, with both its priority on long term mission and the importance it places in learning the local language in order to be able to stay long term. Added to this is all those churches and individuals who support us through CMS to enable us to devote good time to language learning. 

Secondly, there is the language school that I attended, G2K (Gateway to Khmer). This second institution gave me the foundation I needed to begin learning Khmer and continue learning Khmer in years to come. This school provided me with all the basics for speaking, listening, reading and writing Khmer as well as setting me up to continue learning Khmer once I had finished their program. It is the most well rounded language learning institution in Cambodia at present. It’s classroom model is invaluable.

The third institution that has helped me develop my Khmer has been the Bible School where I teach, Phnom Penh Bible School (PPBS). The opportunity to begin teaching in Khmer with the help of a translator has meant that all those skills that I picked up when I was full time language learning I was able to continue to hone as I taught. Beginning with teaching the Old Testament I was able to pick up a whole lot of new Christian Khmer vocabulary that would serve as a wonderful foundation for now as I teach theology. The school relationships that I have built have also provided a rich help in my Khmer both with time to practice and assistance with learning new words and concepts in Khmer. 

Finally, most importantly, the institution of my family has provided me with the stability to live in Cambodia and learn Khmer in different ways. It is these relationships (including my extended family and how they formed me as a person and language learner) that continue to play a part in my language development. 

God has been at work through this village of institutions to help me to learn and grow in my ability to communicate in Khmer.

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?

First year teaching: #5. ‘We’ made it.

We made it! I made it through my first year of teaching OT in Khmer. My students made it after suffering through my poor Khmer in order to understand God’s Word better (treasure in a jar of clay). They have managed to decipher meaning from my poor pronunciation. One time I was talking about sin, ‘the enemy within’, and they all heard about some sort of animal inside us. Other times I called the disciples horses instead of students (the vowels are similar). And I know the word for help can often sound like a very rude word if pronounced slightly wrong. Basically, my students were doing a lot of interpretation just to sit through my classes in Khmer. But I’m confident they were able to learn things too, not just struggle with my pronunciation.

As a teacher, I was constantly learning too. My students, whom I love dearly, helped me to learn. Some of their teaching was ‘brutally’ honest. One student remarked in a conversation, ‘Teacher, you sound like Google translate’. It was just an honest assessment and I needed thick skin in order to receive.

I have also learnt a lot this past year about teaching from my mistakes. I learnt on day 1 that while you can have good things to teach, there is a right and a wrong time to teach that stuff. Day 1 is not the day to give an overview of the history of OT theology. Important as it is, probably better a mid-semester topic so I don’t scare too many away on the first day.

There were also easier lessons to learn. One time I looked over at my translator waiting for him to translate and he looked back at me weirdly. Then it dawned on me; I’d been speaking in Khmer and hadn’t realised it and was wanting him to translate for me, but he didn’t need to at that point. The Khmer was coming to me so easily I had not realised I was speaking in my non-native tongue. So there were times where I learnt that my Khmer was better than I thought it was (a nice lesson to learn sometimes, particularly in the context of often learning that your language is not as good as you think).

One capstone of the year was a random conversation over lunch near the end of second semester. Some students asked me a question about a story from 1 Kings (some of the content from our classes). We were able to have a discussion together about this question for a decent amount of time.

To survive the first year of teaching the OT in Khmer was my major goal of this year. To converse in Khmer about a biblical topic was the cherry on top.

First year teaching: #2. Add a dash of Khmer.

Being taught how to tie a Khmer dish of sticky rice and banana.

In the lead up to teaching at the Bible school there were days where I felt nervous about teaching in Khmer. Naturally. Partly this was because I was attempting to teach in Khmer after less than two years of language learning. And while I knew it would be really helpful for my Khmer it was also going to be painful as well.

One of the bits of advice that helped calm some of my nerves and continue on with teaching prep was this: “You’re not teaching Khmer, you’re teaching THE BIBLE in Khmer.” This advice was, in some ways, freeing for me. I didn’t need perfect pronunciation. The goal was for my students to grow in understanding the Bible. That could happen even if my pronunciation or use of Khmer phrases left a lot lacking. I needed to remember I’m teaching OT, not Khmer. Khmer, in this sense, is the instrument, not the goal. So even if I only had a few notes to play in Khmer, it was helpful to remember that a skilled musician only needs a few notes to play beautiful music.

In my repertoire was a decent ability to teach theology with a significant weakness in my Khmer. Having clarity on my abilities was helpful as I moved forward in my preparation. The way I visualised this, particularly on the days when I felt more nervous, was that I saw my teaching experience as a prop while my Khmer was in its infancy stages. I could rely on my ability to teach while I waited for my Khmer to improve. Two benefits that came from this thought process. The first is that it calmed some of my nerves when my mind would begin to run away with fears and anxieties. But secondly, and more on this in the next post, it helped shaped how I prepared for teaching and the content that I would use in teaching, including teaching methods.

First year teaching: #1. My non-teaching background?

Board game time on holidays

This series explores my experiences in my first year of teaching; my background leading up to teaching, my preparation, execution and reflection upon finishing.

The phrase “I am no teacher, nor the son of teacher” captures my feelings having found myself preparing to teach the Old Testament at a Bible School in Cambodia without any formal teaching qualifications. While I have much to learn on the teaching front, as I reflected (or at least steeled myself against the coming year of teaching), I realised that my background has provided me with multiple opportunities to exert or practice and refine some teaching skills.

I was explaining the rules of a board-game to someone and they remarked at how well I had explained the rules for them (whether I can play board games as well as I can teach is another matter). It wasn’t that I had taught them every single rule (people will know that details are not my forte). It was that I had captured the essence of the game and strategy in order to assist them beginning to learn and play the game. I feel like this shows some sort of aptitude for teaching.

I’ve heard it said that physio is 70% confidence and 30% skill. I can say that because in a past life, for a very short time, I worked as a physio (don’t get me started on the physio/chiro debate). An important part of being a physio is being able to build a rapport. But when I think more about what I did as a physio, I can see that at its heart are teaching skills. The essence of a lot of physiotherapy is to teach patients; teach patients about their condition and their recovery. Given that a big part of this recovery requires active participation by the patient, physiotherapy is about equipping a patient to help themselves recover. There is a teaching involved here.

As we were preparing for mission, I heard one missionary remark that preaching regularly in a church before teaching at a Bible School overseas was a great form of preparation. Being involved in ministry, from preaching regularly (to young and old) and receiving feedback along the way, to doing one-off talks, or attending camps with a series of talks, to leading small groups and their discussions, and even pursuing further study (with a thesis and so learning how to construct an extended argument), has provided various teaching opportunities in a variety of different formats. Further study in theology also enriched my teaching in terms of content. Ministry, in these senses, was a great preparation for teaching as it helped give me skills in content preparation (curriculum and weekly lessons) and delivery (communication skills). Examination skills were probably and still are one of my weaker areas that I need to grow.

Suffice it to say there were plenty of ways in which my background prepared me for teaching, even if it wasn’t with a formal teaching qualification.

Transition time: #3. Transitioning to…


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.

Series wrap up: Fav Provs 28


I’ve found this series helpful for me. Spending time thinking through a number of proverbs in some detail has helped reinforce my reading of the book as a whole. The result is hopefully that they may more ‘ready on [my] lips’ than before (Provs 22:18). But more than that, I hope they’re shaping my actions as well, that I may not only be reading and learning the path of wisdom, but walking in it as well.

I look forward to another chapter of my Fav Provs to come at some stage in the future (maybe later this year).

Next week I hope to start a series on settling into Cambodia. It should complement the facebook posts of our time so far, but go into more depth with some reflection.


Fav Provs 28: Eye’s open!

Proverbs 28:27

Those who give to the poor will lack nothing,

but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.

We convince ourselves that the above proverb can’t be true. ‘We need to look after me first’, we say. We make this argument assuming that resources are finite.  But God’s Word throws this logic back in our face. Those who lack nothing are not those who look after ‘number 1’ first. Those who actually lack nothing are those who are generous to others. Want to be in want of nothing, then, the answer is give.

I’m assuming that this proverb speaks more than just about our money. It seems it could be applied to being generous with our possessions, time, energy (emotional energy included) or even speaking about a generosity of heart. And I’m assuming that the poor are not those who are only financially poor, but are poor in other ways or even those who are under us or in our care.

For me this proverb, again, relates to my high expectations as well as my material wealth. The cure for me is to give, to be generous with my family and friends and those around me. I need to keep my eyes open to them.

The irony is that those who end up poor are those who are probably materially rich, but their poverty is in curses received. Those who may be materially less well off are the ones then who actually ‘lack nothing’ (assuming there situation is as a result of generosity).

So keep your eyes open (to the poor) and you won’t get hit (with curses).1


NB. I was watching a TED Talk the other day on giving and taking. Even secular research agrees with the Bible’s stance on generosity.



  1. By curses, I don’t see this as some sort of witchcraft, but the active judgment of God in our lives that is often imperceptible to us. 

Fav Provs 28: Look within! Really??

Proverbs 28:26

Those who trust in themselves are fools,

but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe.

Although it’s hard to admit, there is actually a right distrust of ourselves. We want the opposite to be true. We want to be trustworthy in ourselves. We want it to be true, and, led astray in this wish, we’re bolstered by the messages around us. Our culture says, ‘Trust yourself’, ‘believe in yourself.’ Our culture says, ‘Look within,’ to find truth.

In reality, however, wisdom isn’t found within, but comes from without. The first line of the proverbs puts wisdom-found-within myth to rest. It poses another paradigm. Wisdom is external to us, not internal. The proverb flips ‘proverbial wisdom’ and says that ‘we need to be in wisdom’. That is, us-in-wisdom rather than wisdom-in-us. The result is that the way we receive wisdom is not by looking within, but by being ‘in’ it ourselves. As the proverb says, we ‘walk in wisdom’. In this sense wisdom is not internal (not in us) but we need to become internal to wisdom.

Wisdom can still become internal, but that doesn’t happen till we are internal to wisdom (walking in wisdom). Even then, wisdom still will remain external. We will always be dependent on God and others for wisdom, for walking in wisdom. The outcome of this way of wisdom is that the wise person knows they remain dependent on God and others for wisdom, even while seeming to possess an ‘internal’ wisdom themselves.


Fav Provs 28: Blessings as side affects.

Proverbs 28:20


A faithful person will be richly blessed,

but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished.

Two surprises arise from this proverb. The first is that blessing comes not from seeking blessing (as the one eager to get rich). Blessing comes to the one who is faithful. In this sense blessings are indirect. The problem, then, is not riches per se, but the eagerness to get rich. We can enjoy blessing,1 but eagerness for riches pushes us past proper conduct into punishment. I think the proverb is underlining that the one who is eager to get rich pushes past others, pushes others down or forgets about others. They end up hurting others in the pursuit of riches. In contrast, the one who is faithful (I take faithful as thankful the blessings God has given them) already as “the other” in mind, since thankfulness is the implicit recognition of a gift from someone else. The take home is that blessings are side affects and shouldn’t be the goal.

The second surprise is that those eager to get rich don’t just end up poor, as you’d expect. Instead they’re punished.

On a slight tangent/rant…

I wonder if this proverb also speaks to the faithfulness/fruitfulness debate.2 The usual answer to this dilemma, made by those who are aiming at fruitfulness, is that it doesn’t need to be one or the other, but both. However, those on the faithfulness camp would argue that faithfulness is more important that fruitfulness.

This proverb might say something to both, affirming the priority of faithfulness, but also the importance of fruitfulness. It could do this by affirming that its fruitfulness through faithfulness.

In the end, I can’t help but wondering whether both sides (me included) should heed the warning of Proverbs 14:12 – “there is a way that appears right, but in the end it leads to death.” To me, I see this as a caution about siding with one particular approach as “the right” way.

  1. I wouldn’t be surprised if the use of blessing and riches is intentional. In this proverb, riches becomes an adjective of blessing, a description or one part of it. You could say riches-as-blessing is a narrow view, or just one part of blessing. 
  2. The faithfulness/fruitfulness is the debate over which approach is better – to seek to be faithful (stay true) or to seek to be fruitful (spread and grow).