Post-arrival #7: Two Cambodian resource recommendations

Can you guess the topic?

In my teaching at the Bible School, while there have been some good Khmer theology resources produced, one remains my favourite. J.I Packer’s ‘Concise Theology’ has been translated by the current Principal of Phnom Penh Bible School (PPBS). It remains my favourite text as I teach my theology subjects. At present I would call it the gold standard for Khmer theology. It has helped me learn Khmer more, particularly theological Khmer, and provides a great resource that my students and I read and discuss together in my theology classes.

For those who are podcast listeners and want an indepth history of Cambodia to listen to, particularly in relation to the Khmer Rouge, then I can’t recommend enough Lachlan Peter’s podcast, Shadows of Utopia. This podcast is worth the listen.

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.

Post-arrival #3: Language update

See the books near my drink bottle? They are the Khmer and English versions of key textbooks

Since my last language update, a lot has changed, a lot of time under the bridge. I get the question now, more than I used to: Are you fluent? My answer: Enough. Maybe you could call it functional fluency. When I speak to new Khmer people and they comment on my Khmer, my answer is usually ‘some days enough, some days not enough’. I can enter a conversation with a Khmer person now and most days I can understand what they are trying to communicate with varying degrees of clarity concerning details. I don’t feel nervous talking in Khmer anymore. Five years of language investment and I’m reaching the stage where I am generally comfortable communicating in Khmer. Do I still get lost when two Khmer people are speaking to each other? Absolutely. Are there times when I need to use English because I don’t understand? Yup. But these times are becoming less and less.

In the classroom my need for a translator is diminishing. Since January I’ve started to teach without a translator present. I say to people that the quality of my content that I can deliver would go from an 80% with a translator to a 70% without one. I would be missing some insights and descriptive clarity, but I can get the most important points across now.

One thing I have noticed. When I began teaching I couldn’t really read technical Khmer language so I used to write my own notes in Khmer and get them checked and then use that. Since returning I have moved to a situation where I write my notes in English then get a translator to translate it into Khmer for me. My reading ability means that I can use their translation in a way that I couldn’t in the beginning. As a result my reading of Khmer has improved while my typing of Khmer has slowed and become more tricky.

The way I look at my learning of Khmer up till now is that my language learning has been an investment that I now get to reap the rewards. I can go deeper relationally. I can go deeper in my ability to communicate and I don’t get a headache from using Khmer too much like I used to. I still get tired after using Khmer. I still get lost when using Khmer. But I’m content with my ability while all the while still seeking to improve. Improvement at present is particularly around listening to Khmer sermons to flood myself with input language times where I’m just getting more and more used to local phrases and ways of expressing things.

Intro New Blog Series: Pre-arrival to Post-arrival

Image

Ice-blocking down a hill at a recent holiday

It’s been a while. Apart from our latest post, the post before that was one we did from Australia in 2020, before we knew our flights would be canceled, again. So what has been happening since then? This next series catches you up, not only on some of the details of our goings-on, but also adds in new cultural and missiological insights that we’ve picked up along the way. For those who receive our monthly updates, the beginning of this series will be a helpful reminder of our journey in recent years giving good context to where we are up to as well as going into details that we can’t always fit in our monthly updates. Hope you enjoy the ride.

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.