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.

Settling in: #7. Language learning is like tennis

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Wing: the place I pay my bills in Cambodia (unless I’m late and then I have to go an hour into town). BTW I now can read WING in Khmer.

Maybe God had a better plan than me when he put tennis in my background. Not maybe, definitely. I’ve found a few similarities between playing tennis and learning a new language in a new culture.

Firstly, learning in a new culture is like learning a complex skill in sport. You don’t pick up a tennis racquet and hit a serve straight away. You break down the skill into parts and work at each little bit. It feels a bit weird doing each part, but once you get good at the little bits you add a few of them together like building blocks until you work your way to the full serve. Learning a new language and learning how to function in a new society are similar. We learn to do more complex jobs based on learning simple jobs and adding them together. So now I can pay a bill–ON MY OWN–because of four smaller parts of this more complex skill. NOW I can ride a bike in a new country. NOW I know where to go to pay the bill. NOW I know how to use money in Cambodia (Go figure… 4000 Riel to each US Dollar). And NOW I’m familiar with the process for paying the bill at the shop (Wing). Put it all together and though it’s not the most complex job, I certainly couldn’t have managed it by myself in the first week.

The other way learning in a new culture is like tennis is those good and bad days for no apparent reason. In tennis you have those days where you can’t miss a ball. You hit all the lines. You’re in the sweet spot. The next day… You can’t hit a backhand. Your ball toss is all over the place. You just don’t have it. What’s changed? Often nothing. What’s the difference? Who knows? It’s just the ups and downs of playing sport.

It feels the same with language learning. Some days you come to class and your pronunciation is spot on. You remember all your vocab and you’re able to form questions with relative ease. The next day… You get pulled up for saying everything slightly wrong. Words are just lost in your brain somewhere… and don’t even get me started on trying to put a question together! What’s changed? Nothing! What’s the difference? Who knows?! It’s just the ups and downs of language learning.

The pay-off in all this skill building and up-down days is that one day you get to play a real a game of tennis–all the skills come together. The joy of all those hard days and training comes in a game well played. This is what we’re aiming for with language learning.

The bigger picture however, is that we’re not just language learning, we’re discovering a new world (Thanks MILL for that insight). That is, we’re not just doing language learning for itself, but as a means to enter into a new world. This bigger picture of participating in a new world helps put those down (and even up) days in perspective.