My views about learning Khmer language have evolved


My teacher with one of his lessons at Brown coffee house, where I often do my language homework.  On this day, however, Meng tutored me there prior to my upcoming travels.

It was seven or eight months ago that I started studying the Khmer language.  I wrote in this space that I felt it was wrong to live in Cambodia or any other foreign country without trying to learn the language.

My opinion has not changed, but circumstances have forced to me think hard about my goals. One such circumstance is a few weeks of travel starting Aug. 13.

(The travel means that you can expect only sporadic tweets should you be following me as well as irregular posts here or on Facebook, if any, for a while.)

Since sometime in January, if I recall correctly, I have met three times a week for one-and-a-half-hour sessions with a tutor whose patience, sense of humor and teaching ability have helped me communicate quite modestly. We skipped only two weeks, once when Lin and I visited Bangkok and once when I fought a cold.

Seng Heng Meng has been a terrific resource, whose company and conversation in Khmer and English I have found to be most stimulating on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 2:15 p.m. (Any expats in Cambodian with ambitions to learn the language would do well to e-mail me for his contact information.)

Although I have learned many hundreds of words, I also have forgotten many, many of them. The study of additional vocabulary weekly makes it hard to review words learned month ago but then hardly or never used since.  At least, the grammar is not a monumental challenge.

Even though I have made it a practice to go over older lessons all the time, little used or unused vocabulary naturally fades from memory.  I have not once had the need to ask for a stapler or to say someone acquitted himself confidently in Khmer and so find it next to impossible to summon those words from the deep recesses of my mind.

Another issue is that I despair of understanding most of what Cambodians say at their normal pace.

Moreover, I never expected that someone of my age would achieve very good pronunciation, and I was not disappointed in that prediction.  It seems that the stresses and the sounds have to be just about perfect for anyone to understand me.

Should I refer to electricity as a-ki-SA-nii as opposed to a-KI-sa-nii, I am certain that I would have no hope of being understood.  So it of no benefit to have figured out how to pronounce strangely abutted consonants (call them super diphthongs) such as dtr and tng pretty well when I get nowhere if I stress the wrong syllable in a word containing them or mispronounce the rest of the word.

Meng — he prefers to use his family name — explains that the difficulty Cambodians have in guessing what I am trying to say has something to do with the way they are taught, by rote and without analysis of what or how they speak.  I don’t quite know what to make of that observation, but I know most Americans are accustomed to being able to unravel what foreigners are trying to say in a language that is not their first.

Still, I did manage to get across in a forbiddingly intimidating telephone conversation a restaurant reservation with a man on the other end who professed to speak English.  He did, but my Khmer turned out to be more useful than his English, and I was proud to have booked a table successfully.

I should add that, although my friend Amanda (whose absorption of the language in a short time shames me) enlists Meng to teach her reading and writing, I decided at the outset that mere conversation would be challenge enough.  Indeed, I was correct.  For example. . .

ខ្ញុំត្រូវការលុយថែម That’s Khmer for  “I need more money.”  Who doesn’t?

I have saved until the end of this post the ultimate reason that my thinking has evolved: The fact is that most of the Cambodians I encounter comprehend enough English for me to get by without becoming fluent in Khmer.

One explanation for that situation is that I live in Phnom Penh, and in a largely expat neighborhood at that; the provinces would be another case altogether.  Another is Lin, who always is available for situations that demand fluency.

There is no compelling need for me to speak Khmer.

It was the prospect of my upcoming trip and the consequent suspension of my tutoring that spurred my reconsideration of what I have been trying to accomplish.  I am pleased with my decision to make informal what has been a rigid responsibility that I remain glad to have assumed.

On my travels, I hope to be faithful to my goal of continuing to review some of what I have studied.  But I am not naive about the difference between hopes and realities.

When I return, Amanda and I want to establish a small group of expats who will meet regularly to speak only Khmer and thereby practice and learn from each other.  That promises to be fun as well as a source of additional friendships.

And then there is Meng.  I imagine as of now that he and I will spend an hour or so weekly just talking when I get back.  In Khmer.


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