Digital dep #11: Language update

This is the soap I’m currently watching to ‘learn’ Khmer.

It might seem strange that I’m giving an update on where my language is up to while here in Australia at the end of 2020. But actually my language ability has changed, or at least that’s the theory. So a quick summary of where I was up to, then my deputation language learning plan and the results (or hoped for results).

Where I was up to when we returned to Australia at the end of 2019 (feels so long ago now): On arriving in Cambodia for the first time with no Khmer in January 2017, my aim was to attempt to teach the Bible in Khmer, but I was unsure of the timeline. I thought maybe a year of learning Khmer would get me to basic conversations. My first term of learning Khmer involved 1 year of full time language school, then independent language learning till I began teaching at the end 2018. This pace of language learning was only possible with Sam’s help. In that sense I don’t consider my skills an individual but team achievement. In fact, this also includes the support of the wider CMS partnership who has freed me up to focus solely on learning Khmer.

The result was after 4mths I could hear conjunctions and some words. After 8mths I could guess the topic of conversation. After 1 year I was not close to basic conversations like I thought. After 14mths I could get the main point of conversation, but interactions were often minimal, because it’s hard to keep asking friends the basic questions, like their age (even though this is not taboo in Cambodia). My skills moved on to seeking out more conversation with how’s the weather questions in the middle of my second year of learning Khmer.

However, I needed to move to teaching preparation by this stage, so learning Khmer came through making teaching materials for teaching the Old Testament. Two quick reflections on learning Khmer. The first is a more general reflection. To learn language well you need to set up situations where you have comprehensible input. That is, you are familiar with a specific context or text up to about 80% of the words. That 20% left over is the new stuff that you want to add into your repertoire. This is hard work finding situations of comprehensible input, but makes learning possible. The second reflection relates to the language resources in Cambodia. I went to an excellent language school. However, when compared with Mandarin or Arabic, Khmer doesn’t have the language resources like these languages because it doesn’t have the speakers (20 million or so compared with billions or whatever number it is). This makes Khmer language resources trickier to come by.

By the end of our first term, I was teaching the OT in Khmer; a quicker timeline than we had thought. On reflection, teaching in Khmer was a brilliant way to help me learn Khmer. This post gives you a sense of where I was up to as I began teaching.

On return to Australia at the end of 2019 we intentionally had a break from Khmer. The rationale being that just like athletes need to rest from sport, so language learners need to rest from language. There is even scientific support (I think) that in the same way that when an athlete rests from their sport, their muscle memory gets a chance to move a particular skill into a more automatic region of the brain, this same benefit occurs in language learners. So my hope was that resting from Khmer would help to make it more automatic when I pick it up again. Of course there will be rustiness, but the second time you learn a skill you learn it quicker.

With our extended stay in Australia I’ve returned to Khmer through vocab cards (ANKI is the best) and through Khmer soaps. Soap operas provide great comprehensible input as I shared above and it means that I can do my language learning by watching YouTube.

My plan for our second term serving in Cambodia is that I want to build on 1st term skills by improving my listening and my ability to use local phrases and expressions, not just the Khmenglish of my 1st term. Having said that my assumption is I’ll always carry around some Khmenglish, regardless of how ‘fluent’ I become.

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?

Digital dep #3: Culture as sharing

Do you know what that hand hold represents? I didn’t even get the hold right, let alone the meaning.

This is not the first time I’ve got this hand hold wrong. I think I have photographic evidence another time as well. Do you know what it stands for? Its not the standard V shape that you make with your 2nd and 3rd finger. Its not a symbol for money like I originally thought it was (and like my hand hold assumes). It is, as far as I know, a symbol for love: a heart. Contextually, it makes sense: a wedding.

I don’t think I realised how little culture I knew til I was back in a culture I knew well. Granted, I knew that it would take years to learn some culture and I’d still be only scratching the surface. But you don’t realise the storehouse of culture that we imbibe from our home culture. Decades of exposure, compared to a shallow immersion in Khmer culture.

In my home country I understand clothing trends: jean styles moving from bell-bottoms to bleached to straight to tight to so-ripped-there-is-barely-any-jean-material-left. I’m not even a fashion expert, and I know that basic transition. I would have no idea of the current clothing trends in Cambodia or where they have been or where they are going in Cambodia. I feel the lack of culture even more in relation to movies and songs. Being back in Australia and being able to reference lines from movies we share in common like “I’ll be back” or “How’s the serenity” without a strange look of “What did you just say?” Or being able to start a line and not need to finish it, like, “From little things ….”

Does this make me feel despondent, the shallow nature of my cultural understanding in Cambodia? Nah. Does that mean I just feel like giving up? Nah. Two things. I appreciate more my Australian culture and the depth that I have there. And I look forward to days, not when I can know all the cultural references made in a conversation down to the last proverb, but when I can share some of them with my Cambodian friends. The beauty of sharing a joke together. It seems to me that culture is a form of sharing.

Questions please…

I used this photo from an earlier blog. 10 points if you can find the title for the previous post.

Ladies and gentlemen, lend me your questions.

We’re looking forward to catching up with many of you in person this home assignment in Australia. In order to assist us I would love it if you could share questions that you may ask us in person, prior to us meeting in person. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ask us these questions in person. But if I’ve thought about these questions and have a few answers prepared pre-conversation I’m likely to give a better answer.

My thought is also to blog a few FAQ, not to detract from being asked these in person, but so that we can go deeper together in our experience of Cambodia as we share about our time there. This is essentially a strategy to strengthen our partnership together.

Questions about anything, welcome. Questions about family life, about language, about Cambodia, about anything else related.

So without further adieu, I’ve loved to hear any questions you may have from our first term in Cambodia. Send them to me anyway; comments below, an email, facebook or other.

Fire away.

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: #4. Preparation process (during semester)

What a mess! My Khmer material in diagram.

My preparation looked drastically different for the Book of Kings (the picture above is a summary of the structure) as opposed to my preparation for Genesis. Prepping for my first class, on Genesis, I was going in to the classroom blind in some ways; I didn’t know my own Khmer abilities, or the students abilities, and so I guessed. Prepping for Kings (mid semester 2 as opposed to Genesis early semester 1) was a different story and the picture above captures the heart of the difference.

By the time of mid-semester 2 I had found my preparation stride. I knew more where the students were up to. I was more clear on my own abilities (strengths and weaknesses). Most importantly I’d found my prep stride. I was clearer on what I wanted from my teaching and from the students and so I was able to structure class time around that with a mix of what Chelsea Cooper (an actual teacher) shared with me (‘I do, we do, you do’ framework). Much of the many good ideas that I incorporated (like Chelsea’s above) have come from ‘actual’ teachers as I have sought their advice. There is even some modelling that I’ve taken from the language school that I learnt Khmer at.

So what did preparation look like for me mid first year teaching? Two lessons.

Firstly, early on I realised that rather than using dot points in English, translating them to Khmer and then filling them out in Khmer (the aim being to write more in a Khmer way). I realised I needed to make pretty full English notes and then translate them. That way I wasn’t trying to do two things at once; think of what to write and then thinking of how to say it in Khmer.

Secondly, pictures were my staple. Rather than powerpoint pictures, I’d draw them on the board, giving myself and my students a breather from my Khmer. The benefit of the pictures was that it helped the students to get a sense of a whole book. And in my prep the pictures were my way of getting sense of a book as well. So pictures (like the one above) became one central feature of the way I taught.

Along with learning how to prepare lessons, what I saw during semester was an efficiency improvement. I got quicker at prepping each lecture in the same way that in my first 3 years of ministry I got more efficient in writing sermons. For my teaching, I knew that I needed to have my English notes done by the Thursday or Friday before class the next Wednesday. Then there was translating, checking that translation, turning that translation into activities and handouts and then practising my notes. This efficiency was particularly noticeable in second semester, where first semester was just trying to find my way.

I have much more to learn about how to prep for classes, but this first year of teaching has laid a great foundation for further lessons that I need to learn about teaching.

Post script: I taught a seminar out in the province just last weekend. The pastors comment was a wonderful encouragement. He said “Your pronunciation is not clear. Your drawings are like a child has drawn them. But your teaching is very good.” This showed not only that he felt close enough to me that he could speak in such a direct way, but more that my prep learning had and is paying off in many different ways.

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.

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.

End of 1st term language update

The kids bible (aimed at roughly 10yr olds) is easier reading for me whereas reading a simple Khmer version of the Bible (the Message standard) takes more effort.

So where am I up to in learning Khmer as I edge towards the end of our first 3 year term here in Cambodia?

From my point of view, I feel like I speak like a 6 year old with a slightly larger vocabulary (although, my vocab is heavily weighted towards theological words). I have just finished the academic year teaching at Phnom Penh Bible School in Khmer. Teaching Old Testament subjects this last year has greatly assisted my language skills, not only with vocabulary, but with lots of practice in speaking and listening. I feel like my reading is still ahead of my speaking. I feel like I’m able to read literature that an average 9 year old could read.

What my current language abilities means for straight forward conversations is that I go in fairly confident of decent success. Success for me in language at the moment is not so much about getting perfect pronunciation or understanding every detail (although, this is good if I can). Success for me is about outcome. Is there successful communication? If I have understood what is being communicated or they have understood what I am communicating that is more important than the specific language skills like pronunciation. Communication is how I measure language success at the moment.

A focus on language outcome (communication) over language skills is like team sports for me. You can have an all star team and still bomb out, because no one can work together. Conversely, you can have a team full of average players that absolutely kills it because they all work together well. This is what I’m going for. While I’d love to have a few all stars in my language abilities, I’m much more concerned about how everything is working together and the result. If I come out with a win (comprehension or communication) that’s what matters to me.

So I’m certainly more able at Khmer than I was 2 1/2 years ago. However, my expectations have also grown. Although I can do some things in Khmer, I still desire to go deeper. I still get to conversations and places in conversations where I want the ability to say more or understand more but can’t because I don’t have the vocab or ability to use that vocab or the cultural understanding that comes with years of living in a place. So my expectations for myself have moved on from where they used to be and as always they are ahead of my actual abilities.

BUT I am trying to take the big picture stance, which is that I’m very content with where my Khmer is up to for my first term; I’m thankful for where I am as I look forward to more growth and improvement in the years to come.

Language learning update


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!