Khmer is quite a difficult language to master. It has a variety of vowel and consonant sounds that we don’t have in English. Some of the differences seem unnoticeable to us because we didn’t grow up learning the distinction between them. However, Khmer people tend to easily hear the differences, therefore it can cause problems in understanding.
Furthermore, your brain has a habit of filling in gaps. This can be handy, as it helps you maintain a grasp of what is going on around you. But throw in an unfamiliar language, then it can result in errors and confusion. I find that while listening to the recordings of my Khmer wordlists without the written version, I can sometimes hear something that is wildly different to what is actually being said. Without the visual cues of facial expressions, lip reading or it being written down, it can be really hard to understand what is being sounds are being made. Speaking with drivers who are sitting with their backs to you can be really difficult and it somewhat accounts for the failed telephone call when ordering a gas bottle.
Of course, this mishearing and problems can happen in English too. Here’s a rather humorous video of where you can mishear something to quite a surprising degree.
Of course, Songs of Praise did not allow this to be sung in a cathedral to be aired on the BBC on a Sunday afternoon. The lyrics of this hymn, Blessed city, heavenly Salem, actually go like this:
Blessèd city, heavenly Salem,
vision dear of peace and love,
who of living stones art builded
in the height of heaven above,
and with angel hosts encircled,
as a bride dost earthward move!
From celestial realms descending,
bridal glory round thee shed,
meet for him whose love espoused thee,
to thy Lord shalt thou be led;
all thy streets and all thy bulwarks
of pure gold are fashioned.
Try watching the video whilst flitting back and forth between the two sets of words. It really messes with you.
This video also shows how your native language and your place of birth can affect how you hear different tones and chords.
Another video for good measure:
Discovering this is slightly reassuring. Given that your brain actually makes pianos talk and sounds change, then why am I so surprised when I realise I’ve been saying that word wrong for all this time? However, it also makes me feel a little fed-up and resigned to the fact that there are going to be mistakes and embarrassments and cringe-inducing moments when learning another language. Especially when that language is so different from English like Khmer.