What is it like to learn Khmer

Every beginning is difficult, and Khmer especially!

Shortly after my arrival in Phnom Penh, I decided to learn Khmer because I believed (and still am) that this was the only way to get a deeper insight into the culture and tradition of my host country. We EED students had already received the first basics of the language during the two-week orientation seminar, but, as it turned out, that wasn't even the beginning!

First of all: learning Khmer is not easy! This is not only due to the language itself, which is unfamiliar to European ears (and tongues). What is more, it is the sheer confusing market for language teaching that has developed particularly in Phnom Penh. In Phnom Penh there are a large number of so-called expats - UN employees, employees of various aid organizations and emigrants who potentially want to learn Khmer. Language teaching is therefore a lucrative business, especially since many Cambodians initially think foreigners are rich anyway. Of course, this also applies to me, whether I want to or not!

Since my arrival in Phnom Penh I have struggled with the language, with myself, but above all with my teachers. It all started during the 2-week orientation seminar. Our teacher was nice and was happy to answer our questions, and there were quite a few of them at the beginning. When we EED’s then tried out what we had learned on the street or in our host family, the disillusionment came: the way we learned Khmer, no Cambodian speaks. Supposedly useful phrases like, "How are you?" ("Ter neak sok-sabey chia te?"), Nobody understood! - Why? Because Cambodians are very sparing with their language and only say what is really important. In this case it is enough to say: "Sok-sabay?" which means something like: "Happy and good?" It took some time to understand that, but now I think it's really good because it makes everything easier. - The answer is correspondingly short: "Sok-sabay!" You know yes now what that means.

With this one example, I would like to leave it at this point. But I can tell you that such situations still happen to me. In the meantime, however, I can only smile.

After the orientation seminar, I quickly found a new Khmer teacher. This time one-to-one lessons. I told him I want to learn to speak Khmer. At this point in time, I didn't trust myself to learn the script. What the cause of it might be? Well, on the one hand there are 33 consonants and 24 vowels in Khmer. To make matters worse, these are combined and then "new" sounds are added. But that's not all: some of the letters stand for sounds I've never heard before. It is funny and difficult to learn this confusing number of letters and to pronounce them correctly.

Foreigners - including myself at first - learn Khmer mostly with the help of so-called transcriptions, i.e. converting Khmer into written Latin. In the meantime there is a confusing number of transcriptions, but these usually only help to a limited extent or not at all to learn the language. In my case, it turned out to be easier to practice pronunciation of words with a Cambodian. My experience is that learning the language on the basis of the transcriptions alone is not possible. I came to this sobering insight quickly, because the words I had learned myself were simply not understood and always gave rise to amusement.

My first teacher was certainly a good teacher: he had many students, even his own textbook, and only taught the ability to speak. So ideal for me. We met in street restaurants. Sometimes there were Cambodians around our table who probably thought it was funny to watch a "Westerner" take language lessons. If everything was so great, why isn't he my teacher anymore? Well, he left me after a week and a half. I describe how this came about in "As a German in Cambodia".

In the meantime I have settled in well. I have lively contact with Cambodians. I am often invited to so-called parties. Everyone wants to be friends with me, so I already know everyone from the nearby gas station. My neighbors are also very welcoming. I live on a small street and spend a lot of time with my neighbors and have a little Khmer conversation with them. Many speak little or no English, so Khmer is the only way to converse with each other. They like to improve me, are patient and never annoyed when I make mistakes. Everyone is happy when I try Khmer. Every time they say: "Oh, your Khmer has gotten better!". Then they laugh. But not mocking, but welcoming and warm. This is how it is fun to learn a language.

So I decided to go out of my way to learn the language. Just to be able to entertain me. And of course I hope that this will help me better understand the culture and behavior of Cambodians. I think language is the key to that.

I have also overcome my initial respect (fear?) For the Scriptures. I think it's even helpful to speak and to be able to write. In any case, it seems to improve my pronunciation considerably. A teacher at my school has agreed to teach me to write. I teach them in English for that. So a "win-win" situation! My first attempts, and these are only individual letters, as you can see. It's not at all comparable with the Latin letters we know, right ?! In addition, I have a teacher with whom I speak vocabulary timpani. It's my third now :)

Why am I writing all this? Because I learned a lot about the country and its people just with my numerous attempts to learn Khmer. And I've only been here - or already - 3 months, but I still have the feeling that I am only gradually beginning to understand what is going on around me. And Khmer is crucial for that!