This may (will) come across as a humble-brag, so I’m sorry. But I want to explain some of the difficulties I am facing when learning Khmer.

Someone just told me tonight that I am obviously a natural linguist. This was a really nice compliment to receive. So, if you’re reading this, thank you.

However, being someone who understands languages reasonably well does not necessarily mean that it is easier to for me to communicate and it can result in a lot of frustrations. Sometimes, it feels like I am a toddler again.

A part of the reason toddlers go through the terrible twos is because they begin to have quite complex wants and needs and feelings. However, they have yet to develop the language skills to communicate them, creating tension, confusion and the rejection of every choice offered to them. 

Another analogy is when I learnt to drive a car. I would be able to explain to anyone the concept of driving a car and some of the mechanics of what happens. I’d be able to tell you what the pedals and the levers and big wheel at the front were all for. I’d even be able to explain how you used them. Yet, I didn’t have the skills to actually drive a car. 

I find the gap in my understanding of a skill and the ability to do it incredibly frustrating. It’s the reason why I’ve never successfully learnt a second instrument (I play piano). I understand how instruments work; I know that they are designed to create different frequencies of vibrations through various mechanisms, whether by changing airflow or string length or tension. I know that different combinations of notes create different types of sounds with different associations (e.g. C+E+G= happy, C+E+G#= mysterious). For a few instruments I could probably instruct a person how to play it. However, I cannot actually do it.

It is really, really annoying.

It’s similar with Khmer. There are sounds I know I should be making, I know where my tongue should be and what my airways should be doing but actually saying the words so it sounds comprehensible is really challenging.

Here’s an example. Say the word “baa” (like what sheep do). Put your finger in front of your lips (the shh gesture) and feel what happens when you say it. Air comes out of your mouth. Now try to say “baa” without the air coming out. That’s a sound I have to learn to make. (I hope you’re trying to do it because that will really amuse me.)

Or the R sound. I blame my French teachers for this. When I was at school we were drilled on how to produce the French R. The sound is made towards the back of your throat, so it sounds quite guttural. This is not how the Khmer say it. In fact, if I make this sound, they will not recognise what word I am trying to say. (It’s like that frustrating moment you misspell a word and your spell-checker tells you “I’ve got nothing”.) 

This all means that there is often a discrepancy between what I know how to do but what I actually can do. It’s hard to accept this difference especially when it feels illogical that theoretically knowing how does not always mean actually knowing how. This is something I’m going to have to learn to live with. I will need to learn perseverance (something I lack) and patience with myself. And a lot of practice. 

Baa, baa, baa, baa, baa…

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