Language Learning

I’m taking a Khmer language class, and it is kicking my ass. Luckily, though, we’re only learning the spoken language and avoiding written language, because the Pali/Sanscrit combo is currently beyond the reaches of my Roman-alphabet-centric brain.

On my first day of class, I walked up the stairs, thinking I was supposed to go to classroom #2 (because I stopped to use the toilet and forgot where I was supposed to go). I walked in the door, and the two Western gals in there greeted me in Khmer and then said, “You’re here for level seven?” I replied, “Level seven? Noooooo. Kickstart. Which is like level zero, right?” They kindly laughed and told me which classroom I was supposed to be in.

The kickstart class, an intensive two-week course, has ten people in it. Four are young gals from Denmark here volunteering with some Christian organization doing work surrounding the sex industry. There are also three other young people with another Christian organization (from the USA and Mongolia) here to do similar work surrounding the sex industry. Then there’s a guy who works for an NGO also doing work surrounding the sex industry. The only other person in the class just happens to be another speech-language therapist. Turns out this gal (I’ll call her SLT2) is working for a woman who’s also involved directly in the work I’ll be doing. Small town of 1.5 million!

Learning a second language is just plain hard when you’re not a young child. Several years ago, when I was going to spend a bit of time in Argentina, I used the Rosetta Stone course to learn a bit of Spanish. I studied. I logged the hours listening to the words and phrases. I answered the questions. I repeated things and let Mr. Rosetta tell me just how jacked up my pronunciation was. But I managed to work my way through several levels, giving me a bit of confidence that I’d be able to get by in trying to communication when arriving.

Man, was I wrong. First of all, the pace of language — real language, spoken by real native-speaking people — is immensely faster than anything ever presented via an online course at the level I was doing. And while the content of online courses is usually applicable to things you’d need while traveling, I never had to actually ask for a teacup. And while I could label the color of anything I saw, somehow the lovely people of Argentina never asked me to dazzle them with this skill.

There are things here that I wonder why are on the list of important things to learn, but I do feel like some of the things we learn are glimpses into culture. For example, in the middle of learning greetings and the like, we also learned the phrase, “Help! Fire!” Huh. Really? As common as, “Hello.” Whaddya know. Although, if you saw the electrical wires on streets here and extrapolated this wiring system to homes, you may no longer wonder at all about the necessity of teaching this phrase.

Our teachers encourage us to talk to people about things on the street. “Ask the woman at the market how she’s doing,” or “Negotiate prices with your newly-learned Khmer number knowledge.” (no specific encouragement was given on the “help! fire!” phrase, though.) So I try. I tell my tuk tuk drivers I am learning Khmer. I ask things like, “How are you doing?” There are two possible responses in this situation. (1) Blank stares, letting me know my pronunciation is horrible or my words are wrong. I’m sure I’m saying things like, “You where goes yellow goodbye.” (2) A string of words in response that comes so rapid fire that I have no idea what the words were, much less what they mean. The one good thing from this? I’m learning very quickly how to say, “Please say that again more slowly.” (note: i usually still can’t understand a damn thing anyone is saying.)

And I know it’s incredibly cliche to say that a smile supersedes language (and all that other stuff about communication being so much more than language) but gotdamn if it isn’t true. And laughter? There are few things I find more endearing than laughing together with locals over how horribly I verbally massacred something.

Charmed life example #328? Almost everyone here speaks some English. And if they don’t, they’re usually willing to go round up a helpful young person who does.

Unrelatedly, I ate one of these tiny fried frogs (skewered through the eyes). No, they didn’t taste like chicken. My strolling partner was forced to eat the rest as we couldn’t even give the rest away. Tiny Skewered Frogs

6 thoughts on “Language Learning”

  1. Thanks, I had been waiting for a new Jaunty Julie installment. You are expanding your language and your palate…maybe that little frog should have learned the phrase “help, fire!”


    1. Haha! Next time I see any frog (or anything that may end up in the fryer or over the flames — which, come to think of it is just about anything), I’ll start repeating that phrase!


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