I love learning Khmer. I’m getting to the point where I know some really random words but some normal words pass me by. (I know how to say “circumcised” thanks to reading the Bible in Khmer but I still don’t know how to say “different types of” very well.) One of the biggest struggles is where the definition of a word doesn’t fit neatly with an English definition, so I end up writing an insanely long definition to clarify. So this post is about some of the conceptual differences between Khmer and English. This is of course the same with all languages, but I feel that Khmer has rather stark differences in cases (perhaps by virtue of it not being derived from Proto-Indo-European but in a separate language family – but I’m no linguist). It also makes speaking Khmer harder because you have to remember these nuances rather than just directly translating.
When you’re learning languages at first you learn some basic translations: red = this, blue = that. However, you learn that perceptions of colours are not always the same. Khmer uses colours in ways that English wouldn’t. For example, what we would describe as verdant greens, especially when occurring naturally, Khmer would describe as kheav ខៀវ which is often translated to mean blue.
When you fry meat, you don’t fry it until it is “golden brown” as in English, but until it is “red”. Browny-blond hair (such as mine) is often described as red (which red-heads might see as something sacrilegious or a victory). Dark woods are often red as well.
The pinky sandstone of the temple Banteay Srei is sometimes referred to as gold.
Falling in Cambodia
There are different ways to fall in both English and Khmer. We have different words such as fall (which is mostly general), to tip over, to collapse, etc. The three main ones that give me difficulty are the distinctions between ធ្លាក់ tleak /tleak/, ដួល duol /duəl/, and ជ្រុះ jroh /croh/. Tleak is to fall from a height downwards; to descend. So a waterfall is ទឹកធ្លាក់ (tuk tleak), which is the same as in English.
Duol essentially means to tip over. If you or an object have contact with the ground or a surface, but then find yourself less upright than before, this is the one to use. So if you trip over, you use duol. If you are riding your motorbike, but it slips in the mud, you duol. If, however, you are sitting on the back of a motorbike and not driving it, but fall from it and the motorbike continues, you use tleak.
Jroh is for when something is attached or kept in place and then detaches and falls. So you use this for leaves and fruit falling from trees. Also, if something is in place in your pocket then falls out, this is the version to use.
Hold on tight!
This is where my vocabulary fails and I know there is a distinction between the words but I don’t know what they are yet. Khmer has a different word for carry/hold depending on how you do it. Carrying it on your head, shoulders, back, cradling it in your arms, holding it in your hands, or carrying goods using a bar across your shoulders all have different words. I found this out when reading the Book of Ruth in the Bible. In a part of it, she carries some grain. The translation I was reading told us she was carrying it in a bundle on her head. The English version doesn’t specify this as far as I remember.
You asked for it
One that I always get wrong and my teacher always corrects me on is the word to ask. There is a difference in Khmer between the word to ask a question in order to get information and to ask someone to do something. Because English has no distinction in day-to-day speech (we do in more formal, literary circumstances: to question and to request, etc.), I always use the wrong one.
So learning Khmer can be a real struggle. It has alphabet with the most characters in the the world (over 100); there are really difficult sounds and sound combinations; lots of writing and reading rules; and now these differences I have to remember and get used to.
However, this is of course true for any language. And the more I teach English, the more I think I’d rather be learning Khmer.
I’ve got a whole bit of a series going on about missionary life. A while back, I wrote a post about what questions you could ask a missionary if you were stuck for ideas.I began to answer them. So far I have answered the basic questions and then questions about getting out and about. So this is the third in the series (hopefully there will be more). This one focuses on my relationship with what is sometimes known as the “host culture.” That’s the culture that they are surrounded by the most. This might not be the majority culture within the country as often missionaries work with ethnic minorities and tribal groups. Also, some missionaries will work with multiple cultures.
What is the predominant host culture?
Cambodia is very homogenous, so is predominantly Khmer. There are other minority groups within Cambodia that missionaries live among or work with. However, I do work and live with Khmer people.
Tell me something about what you’ve learnt about your host culture.
I’ve learnt quite a bit in the three years that I’m here, but I know I’m just scraping the surface. I think one major consideration is the difference between urban and rural culture and the intergenerational differences in culture are quite significant.
What do you like most about your host culture?
Their hospitality and how welcome they are, their cheerfulness and light-hearted nature, their care and compassion. In 2016, I wrote a whole list here and not a lot of it has changed.
What has surprised you most about your host culture?
How far they would go to help you and how, if you are “in” their circle, they will go out of their way to make sure you are looked after. (When I’m talking about circles, I do not mean cliques. In Cambodia, there is a definite sense that you have a group of established relationships. This can be landlord-tenant; colleague; friend; relation. When you fall in that circle you fall into a set of reciprocal responsibilities of care and respect. Those bonds are pretty binding.)
What advice would you give to those visiting to your country about your host culture?
Expect relationships to take time and start off small, gradually allowing that relationship to form. Cambodians are generally quite shy and reticent to make friendships but once you are welcomed in, you’re set.
How is your own culture and the host culture similar?
I think how we form relationships. Someone asked how I had managed to create quite close bonds with Cambodian people. I think he went in trying to be friendly and chatty straight away. I started off with a smile the first few times, then a conversation and then worked from there. In the UK, it can often take years to form strong relationships.
What differences have you found it easy to adjust to?
The food, the friendliness, the karaoke parties. I think just sitting and watching is also perfectly acceptable so there isn’t too much pressure in social situations to be the life of the party.
How integrated do you feel with your host culture?
I feel integrated with my Khmer family (the one I live with). However, a part of this is due to their acceptance and ability to be flexible with foreigners. I think in situations where I’m a stranger, I find myself feeling more alien. Of course, that sounds obvious but when I’m a stranger in Cambodia I tend to stick out like a sore thumb.
What barriers are there for you feeling a part of your host culture?
There’s still a bit of a language barrier. I’m also an introvert so I can often find situations overwhelming and exhausting.
Have you experienced culture shock yet? What do you think contributed to it?
I have been very lucky. I have not had major culture shock. I have had moments of cultural conflicts (not fights but clashes in cultural values and expectations) and they will be on-going for many years. These tend to crop up every now, especially when you are tired, rather than being constant issues. However, I have not felt the need to flee the country or have not had any resentment or long-lasting frustration with Khmer people. One reason is that I often ended up in places where the Khmer people already understood how foreigners might approach things so they were considerate and flexible. Another could be that I had a team that were careful to warn me about potential issues. It could be that, at first, I a short time in Phnom Penh then moved to Siem Reap. Perhaps this transition interrupted the usual process of culture shock slightly. Lastly, I’ve just been blessed by getting to know some amazing Khmer people.
What conflicts are there between your cultural background and your host culture?
I’ve written about some of them here. I also wrote about how I needed to adjust to some of the cultural conflicts created by moving in with a Cambodian family.
Where might your perspective have to change in order to understand your host culture better?
My attitudes have already been changing and it means that I often inhabit a bizarre grey area or have a Cambodian way of doing things and a British way of doing things. One clear example (that fortunately does not come up that much), would be gift-giving and relationship building. “Gift-giving and relationship building” is what I call the social phenomenon you might call bribes. Now, I would probably not hand over a gift at the point of need, especially if it was a judicial matter and if there had not been a prior relationship formed. However, if I was in a role or situation where diplomacy was needed or where I often had to use the services of those in official positions, I would definitely try to establish a good relationship with them just to make the process better for everyone. I am naturally deferential and respectful of authority, so it is just a more tangible expression of that. It is not a bad thing to recognise kindness or the help of those who did not need to help you, is it?
Where are there Biblical conflicts with your host culture?
The drinking at parties can be very enthusiastic. There is idolatry of status and the status symbols. (Of course, there are some other major conflicts with Biblical principles but this is not the whole of the society, only the criminal elements. This is true of all societies.)
What does your host culture do that you feel is in line with Biblical values?
I think their hospitality, desire to show care and community orientation is more in-line with Bible practices.
Which language / languages are you having to learn?
Khmer. I may learn another language after I’ve done this, but just as a hobby (perhaps Vietnamese or a Chinese language).
How is language learning going?
It’s going well, I think. I can read and write quite well. I can type in Khmer, which seems to amaze everyone. It’s just that you have to remember which Khmer letters correspond to which English keys. However, there is a bit of logic to it, so that makes it easier. It’s only when you get to the more obscure letters that it gets annoying and you just end up bashing your keyboard in various combinations. There are about 100 characters (including punctuation markers, etc.) that you need to find so that means they are often found in various wacky combinations of keys.
What have been the biggest successes in your language learning journey?
I had to write and give two long talks on two different subjects. The first was about the social problems in Cambodia. I spoke about how poverty was the reason, or at least factor, for the other social problems within Cambodia, including trafficking, drug and alcohol dependency, domestic abuse, prostitution, poor health, etc. Although a deep and intense topic, it was interesting to talk about. I also had to give a talk in Khmer about the Bible. I chose Joshua 1. I was really proud I was able to do that.
What challenges have you faced in language learning?
The trilled r sound. In fact, getting my mouth to do what it’s meant to be doing.
How do you feel about language learning?
I generally enjoy it. I love it when I learnt a word or piece of grammar and I get to use it in a real life context or hear it and understand what someone is saying. It might seem a bit sad but it I really enjoy it. There are of course frustrations, when you can’t make yourself understood or when you simply can’t get a word right.
Today, I had another assessment. For this, I prepared a short devotion in Khmer. I was going to record it and maybe upload it, but I kept making mistakes. (I’m probably just too tired to do it right now.) So I have the Khmer here and the English below.
(I will add some bits for clarity in English. They will be in italics. As I had to keep it within a certain time length, I didn’t want to expand on those points too much. I also will rephrase sections just so it makes more sense and has a bit more nuance in the English.)
In my previous post I spoke about cultural clashes. I want to remind you that they are not reasons I look down on Khmer people, but rather where our cultural values conflict. Neither is right or wrong; it’s dependent on whose perspective you see it from. Also, there’s a propensity to see only the differences, and more often than not, the negative ones. I love Cambodia and its people. Yes, there are times when that’s tested more than usual, but I still try and celebrate Cambodians and enjoy living here. So here are things I love about Cambodian culture.
Cambodians are famous for their friendliness, their laughter, their smiles. Their parties are loud and exuberant. Things are colourful. Their chatter playful. They love games and silliness, even as adults.
The word for play is leng /leːŋ/ លេង. It’s often attached to other words to suggest an element of fun or relaxation:
daer leng /ɗaᵊ leːŋ/- to go out for fun (to walk + to play)
niyiey leng /niʔjiᵊj leːŋ/- to joke or tease (to speak + to play)
angkoy leng /ɑŋkoj leːŋ/ -to sit and relax (to sit + to play)
keng leng /keːŋ leːŋ/- to nap (to sleep + to play)
Celebrations, such as weddings and other festivals, are bright, loud affairs. There are games and food and drinks. Cambodians love to laugh and joke and play.
Hospitality in the UK and hospitality in Cambodia is somewhat different. (If you want to see how this difference caused me reverse culture shock read my post melamine plates.) It’s slightly more relaxed (those not used to it would say chaotic) than in the UK. It’s far more easy-come easy-go (like much of Cambodian life, it seems). There’s a vague arrival time and people turn up and plates of food appear.
The welcome is always warm (although sometimes a bit shy and nervous around foreigners) and the beer is always on ice. The cheers “juol muoy!” happens regularly. Basically, any time someone goes to have a swig of beer, you have to clink glasses with everyone then every takes a good swig of their glass, often drain it entirely.
There seems to be an endless conveyor belt of food. There are multiple dishes, ranging from soups, seafood, snails, bbq meat, stir fried greens and, of course, rice. It’s a relaxed affair and you just sit eating. This can go on all day. During this time, neighbours, friends, family, passing acquaintances will be invited in or appear and eat then go. There’s a lot of greeting and farewelling or others popping to the nearby store to pick up another case of beers.
There can be (very loud) music and karaoke and children playing.
This hospitality is more casual than in the UK. There are no napkins (maybe some tissues to wipe your fingers), you can use fingers or lettuce leaves or chopsticks or spoons to eat with, there are few manners to worry about. The karaoke doesn’t matter on the prowess of your singing voice. (This can make it entertaining for all sorts of reasons.) This is the type of hospitality I love. Hospitality that is devoid of social barriers such as etiquette (etiquette is always designed to divide people between social status, so think about that when you next tell your child to take their elbows off the table) and special talents. You come, you eat, you sing. It is hospitality designed to welcome.
Cambodians can be naturally shy and a bit hesitant with foreigners, but once you are in, you are very much in.
Social networks are important in Cambodia, and often the connections made can be long lasting and strong. Also, when you’ve made a strong friendship with others, you adopt many of their connections as well. There’s a concept of bong-p’oun. This little means older and younger siblings, but it really refers to your circle of close friendships and family members. There’s a sense of responsibility to care and look out for those in this circle. It’s a tight, reciprocal bond.
I’ve been seen grateful for the connections and friendships I’ve been able to make. There’s a definite sense that I have a collection of people who have my back and will care for me whatever happens.
So, I’ve lived in Cambodia twice now. One for a year, where I was mostly in Siem Reap (there were 10 weeks at the start when I was in Phnom Penh). This time I’m in Phnom Penh. These are the two major differences and they mean that there are other differences as well.
Siem Reap versus Phnom Penh
I’ve been asked which I prefer. The answer is both. Siem Reap is more green and works at a slower pace. The traffic is less chaotic and there is a lovely river sleepily drifting through the centre. The centre of Siem Reap is very touristy, which can be good if you want to escape to cafes and restaurants. It also has quite a buzz during the evenings.
Phnom Penh is chaotic and crowded and the traffic is bad. It can be hot, noisy and exhausting. However, it is also colourful and vibrant and is one of my favourite places in the world. There are some many amazing things going on and it’s great to see Cambodian life in full swing. Phnom Penh is also changing and developing so rapidly it’s crazy seeing it grow literally before your eyes. There are also so many cool restaurants, bars, malls, cinemas and places to go.
South versus North
Whilst I was in Phnom Penh last time, I stayed in the south of the city, so the area around the Russian Market and Boeing Tompun were really familiar to me. I definitely did not know the Toul Kork and north of the city at all. I only knew if from journeys around the airport and the few times I visited Vitou’s in-law’s house.
Now I live in the very far north of the city, in Phnom Penh Thmei. There’s a road, with houses on one side (where I live) and fields on the other. There are occasional cows wandering about. This area was pretty much unfamiliar to me, and it left me feeling a bit disorientated and bereft of my familiar surroundings. However, I’m getting to know this area better and I feel I have a wider knowledge of Phnom Penh as a whole.
Khmer versus Expat
Last time I worked in a Khmer school and spent most of my time outside of work with expats. Now, I work in a n international school and spend most of my free time with Khmer people.
My school is a bit of an expat bubble. There are Khmer staff, and sometimes I sit with them an subject them to my poor language skills. However, apart from the temperature, the A/C and the insects, it’s easy to forget that you are in Cambodia.
A lot of my old expat friends are in Siem Reap still, or have moved elsewhere in Cambodia. Also, many of them visited home for a couple of months as soon as I arrived. This means I’ve not actually had an opportunity to see former expat friends.
Last time, I made a good Khmer friend, Vitou. However, he lived in Phnom Penh, whilst I lived in Siem Reap. However, now we live about 5 minute’s drive from one another. Our friendship has grown really close, and I also know his family well now. I’m glad that they all have pretty good English as my Khmer is still quite limited. Most of my free time is therefore spent either just with Vitou or with his family.
Working in an international school is great, but it does mean there are added pressures. The work is a bit more intense than last time (although nowhere near as intense as working in a UK mainstream school). Last time, I was the only English teacher, I set my own curriculum and I decided how that would run. I think the autonomy meant that I could decide which pressures and difficulties I would take on. (Setting and marking homework: no; reports and grade setting: no.) There were other factors determining my choices as well, but it did mean that I was able to make my life easier. The basic level I was teaching at also meant that very little written work was being produced, so it could all be marked in class.
However, here I’m a part of a department, following set curriculums and having to work within a wider school framework. This means that you have to do the things you don’t want to do or do things in a way that would not be your first choice. Obviously, when you have to work within systems that have to meet a whole variety of needs, it means that sometimes the way you do them is not perhaps what is easiest for you.
Also, I’m doing Khmer in the evenings. The pressures of my Khmer assessment and the normal pressures of end of term collide, so that was a painfully intense period. Being a glutton for punishment, I’ve enrolled in level 4, and this semester has very few breaks.
I’ve also offered to help with teaching in the village and I’ll soon be helping play music on Sundays at church. I keep taking on little things and sometimes it becomes a bit much and feels like death by slow slicing. However, most of it is really rewarding but I’m going to have to practise pacing myself better. Therefore, it does feel as if I’m a bit more busy than last time. This means that the last six months have gone by incredibly quickly. I’m already a quarter of my way through my second stint here. That’s quite scary.
I’m attempting to answer some of your questions, or questions that I’ve had asked of me by others or perhaps questions I’ve perceived or felt were implied.
One question I’ve not been directly asked but it seems to hang in the air a bit is “are you fluent in Khmer yet?” The answer to that is no. That’s the short answer and if that satisfies you, you can stop reading here. If you would like a fuller explanation of why not and why it probably isn’t happening anytime soon (despite my best efforts), then carry on.
First, the idea that Khmer can be learnt within a short time is usually expressed only by people who have never attempted to learn Khmer. They may have experienced learning another language, maybe French or German or Spanish. However, this is not quite the same.
There’s the “fluent in 3 months” idea that is bandied around the internet or people who have a vague awareness of foreign languages. And yes, it is perhaps possible to learn a language to a level of fluency in just three months. It is not possible, however, to learn all languages to fluency in three months. It depends on what your mother tongue is, your previous knowledge of language learning and your knowledge of linguistics. Also, it depends on what type of fluency you are aiming for.
The idea I think somewhat originated from the US Foreign Service Institute. That is the governmental body that heads up the training of diplomats and other foreign service workers. They rank different languages according to how long it would take an English native speaker to acquire that language to various levels of fluency in reading, writing, listening and speaking. The end goal for this scale is for an overall professional fluency, which would be more demanding than a conversational fluency. And when they determine how long a professional fluency would take, that is how long it would take someone with 25 hours of class time a week, with an addition three to four hours of self-directed study a day (so around 45 hours of study a week). These classes are conducted by a team of linguistic experts, native speakers trained to teach and training specialists.
Even with that amount of dedication, the shortest amount of time it would take to meet their required standards for a language is 24 weeks, or 6 months. That’s for languages such as French, Italian and Spanish. These languages are considered closely related enough to English to make it easier.
Japanese on the other hand is considered one of the hardest and would take around 88 weeks.
So, where is Khmer? It’s in the group that would take about 11 months to learn. 11 months of 25 class hours a week. That’s 1,100 hours of Khmer class. Khmer is significantly distinct from English. It has a plethora of sounds that English does not have and are difficult to produce, it has a script that seems to read in spirals and comprises of the longest alphabet in the world, as well as a complex system of social registers.
You may say, but you’ve been in Cambodia 16 months already. That should have been more than enough time. I would like to remind you that the Foreign Service Institute provide 25 hours of class time a week. At my most intense learning stage, I did ten weeks of ten hours a week. That’s 100 hours. So, after that, I only had 1000 more hours to go. During my first year in Cambodia, I probably did a further 70 hours and another 5 hours of classes in the year I returned to the UK. Recently, I have done 10 weeks of 4 hours a week at G2K, 1 hour a week at school (a maximum of 18 hours) and a further 10 hours with Vitou helping me.
Therefore, I have around a further 897 hours of classes to go until I reach the Foreign Service Institute’s required standard.
Of course, I have the additional benefit of living in the country. However, my work means that I often live in a very English-speaking bubble and the Khmer I do get to use tends to be very repetitive and doesn’t progress beyond what I know already. (How long have you lived here? Where are you from? Do you like Cambodia? I would like to go to AEON Mall II. Yes, I went there yesterday.)
I shall persevere as much as I can. I need to not put too much pressure on myself and not to expect perfection straight away. I have definitely made progress since being back but there are still constant and daily struggles and mistakes. Once I am fluent, I will let you know.
I’ve been trying to learn new Khmer songs, especially ones that I sing at church each week. I’ve started off simple, often with children’s songs and ones with familiar tunes. This is because it’s hard enough trying to learn the words in a foreign language, let alone learn unfamiliar tunes that a culturally different, with unexpected trills or chord sequences.
Christian songs provide quite a good opportunity as often they are closely translated and keep the original tune. So that makes it easy for me to understand and to learn the new vocabulary!
I’ll provide a video, the Khmer script, then a Romanised version, then the IPA for linguistic nerds. If you want to find out what system I used or why I made the choices I did in transliteration or transcription, see my Khmenglish page. I will also provide a link to a pdf of all versions side-by-side, as well as a list of each of the words and their meanings.
I’m trying to build up my repertoire of Khmer songs. Christian ones are particularly helpful: I know the tunes and I can get the gist of what they are singing as it’s pretty close to the English. Therefore, I’ve been using simple and rather repetitive songs to build my knowledge of Khmer words and phrases.
Again, I’ve transcribed it and transliterated it twice, using two different systems. Read (or don’t) about some of the thought processes behind how I’ve done it here. It goes some way to explain why what you read might not be exactly what you hear, especially in songs.