Why study a language that only 15 million speak?

khmer sign

The language of Cambodia, called “Khmer” and usually pronounced K-mye, is hardly heard around the world.  No one who doesn’t live here needs to speak, understand or write it.

It happens that I have an aptitude for language.  I can get along somewhat in French and Spanish (the latter sadly falling into disuse now that I have left New York) perhaps because I took the not unusual path in olden times of studying Latin for a year or two in junior high school.

Thus did I decide to pick up a little Khmer when I decided last year to move to Phnom Penh. With echoes of the Ugly American reverberating in my brain, I considered it appropriate to study the language if I was to be a resident of the country.

Not to learn the language struck me then and strikes me now as arrogant.

The irony is that English is widely understood here.

Young people here invariably study English in school.  Even if one of them is not part of a communication, there always seems to be someone around to interpret a short conversation such as one that begins in the market with “how much are the oranges?”

I cannot think of an instance in a simple restaurant, with a vegetable vendor or at the gym where it was necessary to speak Khmer.  Yet I continue to view its basic mastery as the right thing to do.

Clearly, I am in a minority, and I don’t say that as a boast.  I just am surprised that expats from wherever — Australia, England and the U.S., for example — don’t trouble to learn the language even during years of residence. Still, I am not alone in thinking that learning Khmer is a good thing.

In my case, I began with a book and CD recommended online six months before leaving New York.

It is hard to achieve only so much alone, but I managed to learn the Sanskrit-based alphabet of some 74 letters plus nine numerals, the longest alphabet in the world.  With letters and words seemingly run together when written and two or three vowels attached to consonants in ways mysterious to me, I quickly decided against ever trying to read and write the language.

That decision now seems well justified now that I have seen how variable the characters look when printed, written or stylishly shown on signs such as the one at the top.

I haven’t the slightest idea of the meaning or pronunciation of what you see below (and hope I have avoided profane or smutty words), but it gives you a pretty good idea why I have given up on reading Khmer:

របាយការណ៍​សិទ្ធិ​មនុស្ស​ប្រចាំ​ឆ្នាំ​ដែល​ចេញ​ផ្សាយ​ដោយ​ក្រសួង​ការបរទេស​សហរដ្ឋ​អាមេរិក​កាលពី​ថ្ងៃ​ព្រហស្បតិ៍​បាន​បញ្ជាក់​ថា​ ការ​បោះឆ្នោត​ជាតិ​ថ្ងៃ​ទី​២៨​ខែ​កក្កដា​ឆ្នាំ​២០១៣​កន្លងមក​នេះ​មាន​«ចំណុច​ខ្វះ​ខាត​ជាច្រើន​ក្នុង​នោះ​មាន​បញ្ហា​ទាក់​ទង​នឹង​ការ​ចុះ​ឈ្មោះ​ អ្នក​បោះឆ្នោត ​ការ​មិន​ទទួល​បាន​សិទ្ធិ​ប្រើ​ប្រាស់​បណ្តាញ​សារព័ត៌មាន​ស្មើ​គ្នា ​និង​ការ​ចេញ​ប័ណ្ណ​បណ្តោះអាសន្ន​ឱ្យ​អ្នកបោះឆ្នោត​យ៉ាង​ច្រើន​ខុសប្រក្រតី»។

Still, the spoken language is deceptively simple: Acquiring vocabulary is the biggest challenge along with making sounds that don’t occur in English.

The grammar is easy. Like the romance languages, adjectives generally follow nouns, there are no conjugations (though sometimes a word signifying time is added to a sentence), articles don’t exist and there is virtually no gender as in Spanish and French, among other tongues.

A bonus with verbs is that they often are omitted altogether.  So, “His car is fast” would be rendered in Khmer as “Car his fast.”

With respect to gender, I am oversimplifying.  As in Thai, women and men say “yes” in two ways, and there may be other exceptions that don’t come to mind or I have yet to learn.

Pronunciation takes some doing.  Imagine trying to say correctly the following transliterations: “dtrung,” “tnong” or “keaung.”

As I write this, I am at the end of six weeks of formal instruction (and have many more to go).  

My tutor comes to my apartment for 90 minutes three times a week, charging me his usual rate of $15 a session.  We sit by the building’s rooftop pool, and I have learned enough to practice the simplest of sentences in the outside world.  How frequently I am able to make my meaning clear is a question best left unanswered for the time being.

When I do attempt to speak the language, I tend to get two reactions.  One is a giggle of appreciation — for example, from the cleaning women in my building when I say “hello, how are you” in their language.

The second reaction is confusion. I’d like to think it is because they are listening for English while hearing Khmer.  For example, the students who wait on me at my favored coffee house almost invariably don’t get it when I order “cafe Americano regular g-dau.”  The only purely Khmer word in the phrase is the eminently pronounceable “g-dau,” which means “hot,” but the impossibly gracious servers always repeat it twice to be sure.

Well, okay, another possible explanation comes to mind for my limited success at communication in Khmer: Maybe I’m not as good at the language as I’d like to think.

E-mail: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Why study a language that only 15 million speak?

  1. Great post, Malcolm. I agree that often when speaking Khmer it can get frustrating because your listener may be expecting English, and consequently doesn’t understand a word that you are saying. Sometimes I laugh and ask them if they speak Khmer and then start over, and then they understand.

    Also, spare a little sympathy for those expats who haven’t learned Khmer. Learning a new language is a skill that not everyone is good at. Khmer is very difficult for some people, even with intensive studying and lessons. I really hate it when people in the US pick on immigrants (usually from Asia) who speak abysmal English, and I don’t think this is any different.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s