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.

How to change a lightbulb in Cambodia

20181113_0735416282266139826269407.jpg “How many people does it take to change a lightbulb in Cambodia?”

Inspired by Tamie Davis’ (another CMSer) post on changing a lock in Tanzania, we wanted to give you a sense of what it’s like to try and get a job done around the house.

So basically, we’ve noticed the light in the kitchen flickering for a week. It is annoying enough that it becomes one of the jobs that we decide that we are going to do something about (many jobs don’t make it this far because of what we are about to describe).

Sam mentions it to our house helper. She suggests we ask our tuktuk driver (who is supremely helpful majority of the time) and he proceeds to remove the faulty fluorescent globe in order to replace it. However, in removing it either he busts the socket or the socket is already busted. Good chance for the latter as there is a bunch of water damage in a number of areas in our house, combined with cheap construction. So at this point we need to call in an electrician. Sam and our helper don’t know who to call, so our tuktuk driver makes a call. This moves from a job where we are chatting to one Khmer person (our tuktuk driver) to a full on Khmer conversation with multiple Khmer voices and opinions. We have our tuktuk driver chatting with our house helper about the situation who are both chatting to the Cambodian electrician.

We watch on as the electrician removes the damaged light fitting, and attaches a new, smaller, fitting. There are some questions about tape, and Sam finds the electrical tape and sticky tape. Both are used, electrical tape on the light fitting, and sticky tape to secure the empty globe box to the hole in the ceiling. Job complete, the light is turned on, and it is declared that this light is “brighter than before,” and so obviously better. To us, there is a loss in aesthetic quality, but it’s still functional. Then there’s negotiating payment.

Here’s how we see the conversation. We have our house helper who is extremely loyal and who we assume is going in to bat for us. We have our tuktuk driver who is extremely well connected in the neighbourhood and is loyal towards us but not in the same way as our house helper. We overhear the Cambodian electrician state a higher price than our house helper is happy with, with the reasoning being we are foreigners living in a gated community.

We get lost in this cacophony of Khmer. Leaving aside the Cambodian electrician who seems to be overcharging us for dismantling a light fitting and leaving our new bulb just hanging from the wires that protrude from the ceiling. We are comforted because we have our helper who is supremely looking out for us and a guy who knows everyone involved. This mediatorial grouping means that we have connections and a decent chance of not being fully ripped off despite the lack of language.1

The job gets done in some fashion. Not the way we had thought or would prefer. But done according to them and so (for this time) done according to us as well. So how many people does it take to change a light bulb in Cambodia? We would say at least 4.


  1. My guess is that language is one of the major barriers to being able to function in any new culture. So a lack of language already puts you at a distance, even while living in the culture. Just trying to do basic jobs in a new culture is stressful unlike doing them in your passport country. 

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: #10. My independent language learning

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It’s all Khmer to me???

One of the things I love about independent language learning is that on ‘home days’ (learning at home rather than in the classroom) I get to wear what I want, what’s comfortable. At school, I wore more culturally appropriate clothing; long sleeves and long pants. This stage of learning reminds me of when I was studying for my Masters in Theology in Australia, though that time was winter and I was wearing my jumper and uggies (read sweater and ugg boots). Still wearing comfortable, but in a different way.

My last post hopefully gave you a general sense of the changes in my language learning. This posts delves into some of that detail of my independent language learning to give you a better sense of the changes.

Planning:

So what will this next phase look like? Well, it won’t be full time classroom (3hrs a day, 5 days a week). Instead, the first step is to set up some goals. These goals will then help direct how I set up my time. The more concrete these goals are the better. This is because the more specific these goals are, the easier it will be to plan steps needed to reach the goal. This in turn will mean that each step has clarity, helping me to execute each step and get feedback on how I’m tracking. On an aside, in chatting with a mentor of mine back in Australia, success in this sort of plan will include the plan’s flexibility. Because I’m diving into new waters, a good plan won’t be one where I know if the goal is achievable from the outset. A good plan at the moment is one that adapts to new situations, even if those changes occur weekly.

Aiming at different skills:

The way I’ll work out the goals is basing them on developing and strengthening skills that I’ll need in order to be able to teach in Khmer. So these goals will cover all modalities: listening, reading, writing and speaking. In terms of speaking there are two basic types of speaking (and tied very closely to that, listening) that I want to work on: presentational and conversational. In one you have more control, the other being more dynamic, and so each requiring different skills. So on the first I’ll need to work on clarity and precision and on the latter adaptability and reactivity. In terms of reading and writing, I’ll be aiming at building my vocabulary surrounding biblical terminology and themes. While I’m aiming for my reading to enhance my vocab and so also my speaking and listening ability, I’m conscious that I need to work on Khmer conversations in order to not end up sounding just like a book. In order to execute this plan I aim to be around the Bible school (in an informal way) more over the coming months in order to use this context as the location of building these skills and reaching my language goals.

Targeted and random language learning:

Flowing out of the independent language learning seminar was a strong emphasis on what I’ll call targeted language learning. The key in this sort of learning is what’s called comprehensible input. That is, you aim to learn one or two new things from a piece of text or conversation where you already know a significant amount of the material. That way you’re not being flooded with all this new stuff that you are unable to use. Instead, you aim to learn one or two new things. Then take those one or two new things and use them in other ways, to build understanding through using them, to remember them and make them more familiar. What this requires is a good amount of preparation. Tutoring sessions, in this manner, will require a good amount of preparation. Which means that if I want to do 3-5 hours of tutoring a week, I’m easily spending that amount of time in preparation or follow up. What this means is that if I was doing 15 hours at language school, I can’t expect to do the same amount given that I’ve got the prep to do as well. The exciting thing is that I get to direct how this goes. I’m looking forward to some more self-direction. I valued it when I did my masters and so I’m looking forward to it now in this different context.

The other sort of language learning is what I’ll call random. In this model, I’m aiming not only to practice and become more fluent in what I know. But I’m also aiming to glean new things as I come across them in different situations, where I haven’t prepared. I see this occurring around lunches, during sport, in casual conversations. I’ll learn just by being there, rather than by being prepared. So as well as planning and setting goals, part of my language learning time will be planning just to be there, immersing in a different way.

 

 

 

 

No-longer New: #9. Next steps language wise

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This is a mix of present teachers and students at a games day where we had our graduation from the school. Some fun Khmer games were played that day

Having completed all 8 modules of Khmer at my language school, my language learning now shifts gears (this post builds on my last post about where my language is up to). In order to look forward, a brief look back.

What G2K has given me:

I think their name, Gateway 2 Khmer, sums up their role. They help prepare students to delve deeper into the Khmer language and culture. So in that way they’re a gate. What they’ve given me is what I would call the skeleton of Khmer language. I’ve got the basics and some structure. But a skeleton on its own doesn’t move far. Now I need to go and add some meat or flesh so that this body can move. Plenty more work to be done, obviously. But it will build on the work that G2K helped to set up. They’ve given me a great foundation in the Khmer language.

Not only have they given me a great foundation, but they’ve also prepared me to continue to learn more Khmer post-school. As part of the 8th module in the language course we did a two day seminar on independent language learning, thinking about life post-G2K.

Life post-G2K:

So now my language learning shifts from classroom based learning to independent or more field based learning. I’m excited about this next phase. Part of the brilliance of G2K is they’ve given a broad language entry into various different subjects regarding Khmer life. What I’m looking forward to now is taking that broad base and adding some depth. This depth won’t be across the board, impossible, but will be focused on particular topics—such as delving into biblical Khmer (vocab that I’m only just embarking on).

However, it’s not just about learning new; it’s also about practising old. I’m excited about the chance to use what I’ve learned. One of the phrases that they drill into us in language learning is ‘learn a little, use a lot’. I’m looking forward to this second half of the equation, even as I continue to learn more. Thus, I’ll be making opportunities just to have normal conversations on a more regular basis and going for more fluency.

 

No-longer New: #8. Language update

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This is a shot from the role play I wrote as part of a in-class presentation that I gave in Khmer.

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?

Conversations:

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.

Content:

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.

Confidence:

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.