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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.