Mid-year musing #9: Language update

Below is another visual representation of where my language is up to since the last update .

First he blah blah for breakfast, then after blah blah blah he arrived at work. He told blah blah blah blah. Good work not enough but still need to have help with selling. At the market he bought fruit and veges he thought blah blah blah and so he could only get 1 mango as they were expensive and he wanted an ice cream. He didn’t like the veges and so he went and played soccer with his friends blah blah blah blah blah (by this stage I’m lost and so I get less and less) blah blah home blah blah blah family, brothers and sisters, friends blah dinner, sleep blah blah blah.

So where is my language learning up to now? Earlier this year I passed an exam which identified me at the level of being able to get the main topic of a conversation. I now feel I have more ability in getting the main idea, whereas before I was more just hearing connecting phrases (and, so, then, but etc). However, I’m still left guessing from context and other cues about what is actually being said about that topic. This is a start. The task now is to grow in my listening ability which includes using other listening tactics more, like listening for emotion and body language, to guess what is being said about a topic. You could sum up my listening abilities currently as an educated guess. Picture me having a 3 year old’s vocabulary and listening ability and you’ll have me pinned.

What this means for conversation is that I have the foundations set. I feel much more confident with fairly mundane questions and answers about myself and others (family info, where I live in Phnom Penh and how long I’ve been here). What’s next is taking those educated guesses and exposing myself to lots of conversations. Only, the trick is not to go for perfect understanding, but more … going for the gist, the vibe, the mabo.

The danger at this stage is that I’ll want to work out each little bit that I don’t understand. While clarity is a good thing to have, stopping at each point that I don’t understand will slow conversations down to the point of non-existence. That is, if I get so fixated on one detail I’ll actually miss the chance of experiencing conversations. One fellow language learner, who is a few modules ahead, affirmed this ‘guessing’ over ‘stopping’ approach. What I miss in trying to understand every new word is the bigger picture–the forest gets lost for the trees. So I need a bit more ambiguity tolerance required here as I listen.

Last time felt that my listening was far worse than my speaking. That may be the case. What I think is far more likely is that I probably had an over-inflated sense of my speaking ability. What I feel like now is that I’m starting to get to the point where I understand more when I listen, but now don’t have the words or ability to express similarly to what I am hearing. So that’s where my listening and speaking is up to.

But wait… there’s more now… I’m not just listening and speaking.

I’ve also started to learn the alphabet and some basic reading rules. The trickiness is that learning new reading rules for a new alphabet is like a double whammy. It’s not like I’m just learning a new maths equation that I can apply to a number system (1,2,3…etc) that I know so well. It’s like trying to learn a new rule for a completely different number system that is still quite new to me–so which order do ថ​តេរតសដថងសង​ go in? My brain is doubly strained. First I’m trying to remember the new rule and then trying to apply it to a system that is not familiar either. Weak consonants follow strong consonants, but which ones are the weak ones again and which are the strong?

On a more positive language note, I’ve been noticing that as I use more Khmer phrases at home, my kids are picking some of these up. They can ask for things in Khmer and describe their preferences. But far above anything else, my kids all love to say ‘no’ to me in Khmer. Another positive is that my pronunciation seems to be improving. A friend of mine commented on my clear pronunciation (a product of our school). On the family side, my kids are no longer pulling me up on saying the number ‘one’ incorrectly–within two weeks of us arriving in Cambodia they knew that I was mispronouncing ‘one’. So either I’ve improved in my pronunciation or they’ve given up correcting me. Both are possibilities.

What I’m looking forward to about the next few modules is working at increasing my fluency in both reading and conversations. Part of this will come through practice–in a sense doing what I can do now, but slightly better and slightly faster. It feels like these first four modules have given me the basics and now its time to build on them.

Another thing that has happened in my current module at language school is that the teachers have phased out the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Not completely, as I’m sure I’ll still use it in some way. But now we are being taught new words in Khmer script, rather than using the IPA. This means I rely heavily on remembering the Khmer script.

Finally, my Khmer will improve as I build my Khmer word vocabulary. I currently have about 1000 words in my vocab that are usable. I’m back at the daily ANKI1 slog (which I love). I remember someone saying, somewhere, that to read a newspaper in a foreign language you need about 2000-3000 words. This is what I’m aiming for by the end of the year or by the beginning of next year.

So that’s roughly where I’m up to. The result of all this is that I’m really enjoying the interactions I’m able to have with locals as I build relationships and seek to point them towards Christ in not only my actions, but also in my Khmer.

 


  1. A language learning app that I thoroughly recommend. 

Mid-year musings #8: The benefits of our language school

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Sam ready to do a role play about a farmer during language class

In thinking about writing this post I had imagined writing about how our language school, G2K (Gateway to Khmer), was the best language school in town! As I got closer, I realised I couldn’t do that as I don’t know objectively whether it is. G2K has had many good reviews. And I’ve found my time there really helpful. But I can’t say it’s the best place in town as I haven’t experienced all the other places. So instead what I’ll do in this post is outline three of the distinctive aspects of this language school.

I wanted to check my facts, so I went to the director, the lady who basically got the school up and running. In my conversation with her there were three things that stood out. The first thing was the stress placed on pronunciation.[1] One of her reasons for this was that Khmer people are not used to having people try to speak their language (see the last paragraph of this earlier post). This means they won’t really be listening for my ‘bad’ Khmer like we might listen for bad English from someone who has just moved to Australia. What they’ll probably assume is that I don’t speak Khmer and so be trying to listen for my English. Foreigners attempting to speak Khmer to locals are often told “I don’t speak English,” leaving both people a bit confused. The director and I didn’t really spend long on the reasons for this situation, but more just noted that it is like this. Good pronunciation becomes more important in this context.

The way G2K have approached attaining good pronunciation is through the system called IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). It is an alphabet of all the sounds found in languages internationally. The kind of funny thing is that we came to learn Khmer and we’ve kind of had to learn two languages. IPA, then Khmer. On my bad days, it feels like this. But the value of IPA is that it is a tool that helps move my Aussie English pronunciation slightly closer to Khmer pronunciation. IPA won’t get me all the way to sounding Khmer, but it does help (particularly in the early stages). The benefits that I have found of IPA is that it gives me a way to try and fix the problems I have in pronouncing things more Aussie English than Khmer. I think it would be a lot harder to move my pronunciation without this tool.

The second aspect of the school that I want to mention is the focus on levels. You have may seen us posting pics of us passing our exams on Facebook (FB LINK). Each level runs for 5 weeks (full time, 3 hours day/5 days a week). At the end is an exam. The underlying structure is the ACTFL scale, a scale set up to measure communicative competency (how well you can listen, speak, read and write). The value of this scale is that it gives you a concrete sense of how you are improving and it provides a way for teachers to teach in order to help you to reach the next stage. While every system has its benefits, what I’ve found helpful here is that teachers are better equipped to try and teach me at a level that is just beyond where I am currently at. This enables the classroom to be consolidating the learning that I have already done, while pushing me slightly out of my comfort zone in order to help me progress. This is particularly valuable in terms of listening. Sometimes when I tell locals that I can speak Khmer, in their excitement, they prattle on in Khmer at 100 kilometres an hour and I’m left standing there like that dog on the dashboard, nodding their head, but nothing is going in. What the classroom provides is opportunities for me to practice my listening by giving me listening texts that are just beyond what I can cope with. They have the vocab I am familiar with, but push me forwards, either by speeding things up or by adding in words or phrases that I am about to learn.

The third aspect of the school that I wanted to mention is their aim to get us speaking polite Khmer. What some people find hard is that polite Khmer is not always used, such as in the market, just like we might use more slang in our English conversations than formal, essay type language. And yet G2K aim at polite. If we only learn street-talk and find ourselves in a formal setting, we can do a fair bit of damage socially by being less formal than we ought. Whereas no damage is done if we are more polite than we need to be. So G2K teach us polite Khmer and then it is our job to slowly, and with help from friends and others, work out when to speak less formally.

The focus on pronunciation, teaching at levels and teaching polite Khmer are three aspects of our language school that we’ve found helpful.

[1] I remember another missionary stressing the prime importance of pronunciation in the early stages of learning another language.

 

Settling in: #8. Language ability update

Below is a visual representation of what I heard when someone is speaking to me in Khmer about a month ago:

Blah blah blah blah blah BUT… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah ME… blah blah blah blah SO… blah blah blah blah blah YEAR… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah DAY… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah THANK YOU.

Have you figured out what the above paragraph is about??? Me either.

A month later (now) it’s more like this:

Blah FATHER blah blah blah BUT… blah DEAD blah EXCITED blah blah MONEY blah ME… blah JESUS blah blah SO… blah SAD blah blah blah YEAR… blah blah blah blah blah GOD blah blah blah DAY… blah blah LOVE blah blah (I THINK HE SAID TEACH) blah blah blah blah blah THANK YOU.

So its been about four months of full time language learning. Where are we up to? Well, in one sense, “not far” is the short and obvious answer. But in another sense, we’re exactly where we should be in learning the language. I’ve just started learning the Khmer alphabet a few weeks ago. Our language learning centre has emphasised listening and speaking first, to enter into the language and culture more verbally through conversation–speaking and listening. This approach is in contrast to a method that begins more through books–reading and writing. Neither is necessarily more right. Both have their strengths and weaknesses.1 One strength of this method is that we are both often complimented on our pronunciation.

Our language classes have been working at growing our capacity to speak and to listen. So what does that look like? With speaking, we’ve gone from no ability to being able to ask simple questions in order to get to know people. And recently we’ve been able to ask simple requests from our house helper and tuttuk driver, or even say thank you for particular jobs that our house helper is doing.

This has made a huge difference. For one, the other day I understood when our house helper asked to come in early and finish early because she wanted to go somewhere. I worked out the next day that it was to a family wedding. So there are improvements in our langauge, of which I couldn’t have done that even a month ago. With our tuktuk driver, we can organize pickup and drop off times in person and on the phone, as well as interact in little conversations about how we are going.

An example of our listening ability is to a sermon in church. I’ve gone from no word recognition to understanding about 1 in every 20-30 words and probably more now. Unfortunately, they are mostly just connecting words like ‘but’ or ‘I’ or other simple words that don’t really give the sense of what is being said (like the above visual representation). But even this is a cool win. There are many times when our house helper or someone similar mistakes how much language we have and go off into a very long winded and fast description… and I’m left just nodding saying ‘Yes’ (‘baht’ for boys, ‘ja’ for girls) though I have no idea what she said. Hopefully, it’s nothing too important…

At our language school we’re at the level of ‘survival Khmer’ or just above–enough Khmer to get around Cambodia doing basic tasks. By early next year I am hoping to be able to have moderately deep conversations, delving further into relationships. As far as writing and reading, my best guess is that our language centre emphasised speaking and listening first so that we could be growing that skill while we do the long and arduous task of learning the alphabet and putting those letters into words. So while reading and writing will come later this year, that hasn’t stalled us communicating and building our vocabulary from verbal means.

One encouragement we have had in learning Khmer is that many of our Cambodian friends are surprised with how well we are doing learning Khmer. The context in Cambodia is that many foreigners pick up only a little Khmer or none at all (even after many years of living here). Our efforts in learning Khmer are often appreciated by those we meet.


  1. I think one of the advantages going into a language orally is that you are more dependent on people in your host country guiding you. I feel like this is a more ‘bodily’ entrance into a culture as opposed to a more intellectual approach that you might get through books. With books you are more the guide. But with people it is much more obvious who the guide is. Hopefully the end result is that we not only can speak Khmer, but we develop similar mannerisms and habits to really inhabit Khmer culture. But who knows?