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:
របាយការណ៍សិទ្ធិមនុស្សប្រចាំឆ្នាំដែលចេញផ្សាយដោយក្រសួងការបរទេសសហរដ្ឋអាមេរិកកាលពីថ្ងៃព្រហស្បតិ៍បានបញ្ជាក់ថា ការបោះឆ្នោតជាតិថ្ងៃទី២៨ខែកក្កដាឆ្នាំ២០១៣កន្លងមកនេះមាន«ចំណុចខ្វះខាតជាច្រើនក្នុងនោះមានបញ្ហាទាក់ទងនឹងការចុះឈ្មោះ អ្នកបោះឆ្នោត ការមិនទទួលបានសិទ្ធិប្រើប្រាស់បណ្តាញសារព័ត៌មានស្មើគ្នា និងការចេញប័ណ្ណបណ្តោះអាសន្នឱ្យអ្នកបោះឆ្នោតយ៉ាងច្រើនខុសប្រក្រតី»។
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.