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.