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.
In January it was six years since we first arrived in Cambodia. I’m about to start my seventh semester of teaching at the Bible school (PPBS). It’s the first year I’ll be able to teach the same subjects a second time and I’m looking forward to tweaking content rather than weekly content creation for the first time. Its also the first time I’m teaching without a translator in class. Look at me with my big boy pants on.
I remember speaking to a missionary at Summer School (CMS’s annual conference) and he was talking about the missionary timeline. He said something like this. First term just aim to survive. Don’t die. Stay married. Second term aim to make a list of all the things you might want to do. Third term address the first point on that list. What was useful about this observation was keeping my expectations realistic about the slowness and patience required in mission work. This has been a helpful frame that has proved true from experience so far.
There has also been a change in how I serve here in Cambodia. In the beginning it was very individually based. Though going to a language school, language learning is essentially something that you do yourself. You set your goals and work towards them. When I started teaching it was a similar phenomenon. I would set the syllabus and the content would come from there. Over the last year or so, as my proficiency in Khmer and teaching in Khmer has improved, I’ve taken on more responsibility at the school in a different way. Being involved in a more administrative capacity has meant that that essentially individual feature of the last five years has morphed to a more team or group approach at work. In essence working more as a team is just a different mode from primarily on your own at your own pace. This has been a change that has really only occurred in this second term.
It’ll be interesting to see what change(s) occur as we finish out this second term and look to our third.
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.
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.
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.
I wrote previously about the missionary as bridge between two places (or two cultures). I stand by this description. But I want to add another metaphor. The bridge metaphor captures our in-betweenness. When I think about our relationship with locals, the metaphor changes. And I can’t decide. Am I a goalie or the coach? The description of goalie and coach resonate with how I see myself as a missionary.
A missionary like a soccer (or hockey) goalie is not up the front pushing play forward and scoring goals. They’re not making the new developments happen. They’re more like the back stop. To even mix metaphors, we could say we deal with the tricky things in the expression “let that one go through to the keeper” (yes I realise that’s for cricket). A soccer goalie has different resources. They can use their hands. We come with a different perspective and different training. However, a goalie is limited. Outside the box they are just like any other player. In fact it’s better for them to not leave too much. This “contained to a box” feeling echoes my ability to travel round. I’m not as useful on the go as I am in my one spot. You could say that a goalie has limited mobility (in a ministry or vocation perspective, not just physical mobility) and that’s how I see my experience. Further a goalie has a different perspective on the action and is able to lead and direct, but not as coach or captain. The goalies main job is to stop goals. This could be described as a defensive stance or protective and again this resonates with what I’m doing in Cambodia. There are many things about a goalie that resonate with my missiology.
But coach also resonates in a different but similar way. A coach has a specific role that is different from the team. They can’t make the players play, they are an assistant to the players. A coach, when they are at their best, is neither doing too little or too much in how they lead, direct or manage the team. And their very inability to get too involved in the actual play feels like a helpful way to look at mission from one perspective. And in the end the glory often (and rightly so) goes to the players. The coach is valuable, but they have their limitations.
The emphasis on limitations helps me to find my spot as a missionary (whether as a goalie missionary or coach missionary) and it speaks to the vulnerable mission thoughts that I’ve mentioned at other places (here, here and here).
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.
There were so many unknowns as I started to prep for teaching. The big unknown was: would I be able to do it? Would I be able to teach the Old Testament in Khmer? The second big unknown was: how would I do it?
I began my teaching prep thinking I would read an OT book in Khmer to learn the vocabulary and help give me ideas for teaching. That plan soon changed. My new plan became; research in English, write notes in English, then translate those notes into Khmer.
My next big worry came about whether I would be able to read those Khmer notes. I had talked with some long term missionaries who said they prepared in English and translated on the go, rather than reading Khmer. I pushed ahead, partly because while I was learning new Khmer words as I went, the value of this plan was that I was using a level of Khmer that I could read. But also, from Bible college days, I remembered the phrase “writing is thinking”. So as I practised writing in Khmer, it also help me to think in Khmer as I prepared.
I was still concerned as to whether my plan would work out or not, so as I prepared I came up with a range of contingency plans. These plans ranged from my plan A teaching in Khmer using my own notes, plan B having a translator translate my notes and I use their notes, plan C (if I wasn’t keeping up) to prepare in English and be translated. These plans allowed flexibility; it could have meant a combination of me starting by teaching in Khmer, but if the workload got too much, switching to being translated in order to finish the content. You can tell that I wasn’t sure how it would go and so contingency plans allowed me to aim high while still having a back up plan.
More, later, on how my preparation process changed during semester.
My first go at teaching in Khmer, with a favourite subject of mine Biblical Theology.
I’m about to combine two realms. Training and experience as a minister (spanning 10 years) together with learning Khmer (almost 2 years) to teaching the Bible in Khmer. The past two years, not only have I put the first of these on hold (somewhat), but I transitioned to a realm of complete newness and sucking (learning Khmer). Now I combine my poor Khmer together with teaching the Bible (a realm I feel more confident in, though hopefully never too confident in). This brings excitement (bringing in what I have put on hold) as well as fear (doing it in a new way). But it also brings excitement to the teaching as I do it in a new way and learn new things (teaching in a different context). While I’ve taught the Bible before, I don’t have any formal teaching qualifications. What I have is experience in teaching, but in different situations (small groups, larger groups), but not regular classroom teaching experience. So not only is the Khmer new, but teaching with assessments and that sort of thing is also new. COMING SOON- new blog series on first time teaching.
A further way to look at my transition is in terms of visibility. As a student (Masters or language learning) you are either on your own or in a different position from the teacher. Coming into a teaching role puts you more in the spotlight, particularly in a South East Asian context. Now I’ve had this visibility before as a minister. The difference this time is the context and the high view that teachers are given in Cambodian society. I’ll move from less structured independent language learning to part of a team at the Bible school; part of a facility with its rhythms and community life that I’ll join. In terms of thoughts about how to teach, in terms of vulnerable mission I aim to give away power by being honest about mistakes and showing myself to be a learner even as I’m teaching. So that even though I transition from learning to teaching, I don’t really transition out of learning.
One of many big transitions for our kids; ready to get on the plane to Cambodia
You could say that life is about transitions. We transition from childhood to adulthood. We transition from study to the workforce. We transition from job to job. We transition as family life changes, from being children to either having children or being part of an extended family as an adult.
My life prior to Cambodia had many transitions (from tennis to physiotherapy to ministry and further study), and life in Cambodia continues to have transitions too. But the transitions feel different at the moment. Maybe it’s because of the pace and size of these most recent transitions. So much change! Prior to coming to Cambodia we moved down to Melbourne for some missionary training. Then we transitioned to partnership raising for 6 months. Then we moved to a new country and completely new culture. In this transition came learning the language. And soon I face another major transition; teaching in this new language. As I mentioned previously, this first three year term is like three first years back to back.
As I reflect on transitions more, what I think mission transition brings to the equation is often all those normal transitions we have (study to work, changing family situations) continue in a midst a different context or in the transition from one culture to another (backwards and forwards between two countries). These more normal transitions take on a different light in a different place that has different values and way of life. Such that smaller transitions feel bigger and so we just seem to be going from one big transition to another. My thought is that even as we settle longer into Cambodia (and so may have less transitions here), missionary life (for us) means backward and forwards between Australia and Cambodia. So while other life transitions in Cambodia may settle down some what, just around the corner is another major transition.
I feel like where this leaves us is that transitions become a normal, regular part of life. Maybe that’s where transitions feel different as a missionary. I feel like most transitions are big events that come along once every little while. Whereas here it feels like there is always one just around the corner. Maybe missionary life normalizes transitions. They become the new norm.
At any rate, these next two posts will explore what this latest transition is shaping to look like, even before I’ve fully transitioned.