a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Sunday, February 5, 2012


For the past six months my life has been full of teaching and learning language. Not simply for fun or enrichment, but because I feel it's important to pursuing other goals, my own as well as my students'. And during this time, I've been driven by a "sense of urgency". "I have to learn Khmer so I can communicate with my students and teaching assistants better!" "I need to give my students as much English as I can while they are at this age because their brains are so primed for learning language!" And I have to do it NOW. Hurry hurry hurry! Teach teach teach! Learn learn learn!

But fluency is not something that can be achieved quickly or easily. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort.
My students have learned many words like colors and numbers and names of animals. They can communicate things that they want: "drink water", "toilet", "eat", "no food", "play outside". And they respond to "sit down please", "stand up please", "clean up", "books away", "turn in your paper", "line up please". And even though I had more grandiose expectations for myself and for them, they've learned a lot in half a year. I'm happy with their progress and satisfied that I've done a good job exposing them to what the English language sounds and looks like.
Of course my pronunciation is American English with a Pacific northwestern accent. And the spellings of words as well as usage are American from my part of the United States. I don't spell colors with a u: "colours" and I don't say "wotah" for water I say "wahder".You can click on this link to hear the British and American pronunciations. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/water I call pants pants not "trousers". And at the end of a sentence I call this [.] a "period" not a "full stop". I also call the letter Z "zee" not "zed". There are teachers at my school who are from the UK and there is one teacher from Australia. Both are English speaking countries whose people say and use the English language quite differently from the way I do. I've noticed that both Aussies and Brits use the word "lovely" in a way I almost never would, as in "It was lovely to meet you." On our trip to Ha Long Bay I noticed two instances when Australians used familiar words in an unfamiliar way (to me). "Heaps" was used where I would say "a lot". "All out" was used where I might use "altogether". Such as: "We are going to be in Siem Reap four days all out."

Most of these examples are curious to me and I just smile and think "hmmm interesting". But a common British word actually makes me a little crazy: learnt. This is the past tense of learn in British English. In American English we use "learned" for the past tense of learn. Another one is "maths". The British, and I think Australians also, call  math "maths". I guess mathematics does have an "s" at the end but still, I'm used to hearing "math" so "maths" sounds weird to me.
So that's English, then there's Khmer. The written Khmer language comes from Sanskrit and Pali. These letters on my little blackboard are the 33 Khmer consonants. In addition to the consonants there are dependent vowels, independent vowels, and sub-consonants. "Khmer" is the English phonetics which is really only an approximation of the actual sounds. This common spelling causes many English speakers to say something like /kuh mare/ or /kuh mur/. But Cambodians say /kuh my/. Stephen and I have been wondering why this is ever since his first trip here. After six month of language study we might have an explanation.
If you look at the Khmer script (the upper left collection of characters is the word Khmer) you see that the last character is consonant "rho" making a sound similar to the English letter "r". But it's silent. In the same way that the "e" in "time" is silent. So this makes me wonder if a foreigner sometime way back wrote the English phonetics based on the script not knowing that the "rho" was silent.

Our language study goes slowly. I'm quite confident that my students have learned more English than I have learned Khmer. :) But then they have lessons 5 days a week and Stephen and I have lessons only once a week. And I think they have a better teacher than we do. (wink) For me, I think writing the script will be my gateway into understanding the language. Khmer clip off the end sounds of their words. At least the Khmer people we've spoken with. We often can't tell if the end sound is a /p/ or a /b/ or /t/ or a /ch/. The formal way to say "hello" is "chome reap soo uh" but the word "reap" is actually spelled with the consonant "baw" similar in sound to "b". It's kind of like solving a puzzle, one of those really hard puzzles where the pieces fit even when they are in the wrong place!

Even though learning Khmer is a challenge, made more difficult by poor materials and poor quality teaching because it's the best there is available at this time, I really want to learn to become proficient in Khmer. I think it's going to take equal parts creative energy and persistence. I'll let you know how that goes. :)