Learning Khmer – it’s about time too!

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve lived and worked in Cambodia for over 6 months now and have only picked up the most basic of words – Hello; thank you; 1 coffee please (and another!), goodbye and a few other random words.  Actually, it’s inexcusable that I know so little Khmer.  I live and work in a place with several Khmer staff and interact with them daily using sign language and the few words I know.  Really, by now I should have a fairly decent vocabulary.

My excuses for not having made any real effort to learn the language include, ‘I’m too busy’ and ‘It’s too difficult’. The ‘too busy’ excuse is just that.  An excuse.  If I’d spent  10-15 minutes a day learning a few words a day I’d be speaking Khmer easily by now.  The ‘It’s too difficult’ excuse has a tiny ring of truth in it. While it’s unlike Thai, Vietnamese and Lao in that it is not a tonal language, that is, one word doesn’t have several meanings according to the tone you pronounce it in, it does have a LOT of sounds that don’t exist in the English language.  Learning new sounds is very tricksy indeed as I have no reference point to work from. I have almost zero understanding of grammatical terms but according to wikipedia.org, Khmer is primarily an isolating language there are no inflections, conjugations or case endings. Instead, particles and auxiliary words are used to indicate grammatical relationships.  Whatever any of that means.  What I do know is that there are no articles (a, an, the) in the Khmer language and it follows a very simple subject-verb-object sentence structure. For example, the sentence
This is a book
becomes
This is book
That should make things a lot easier right?!

Every day I realise more and more how speaking Khmer would benefit not only myself, but the people I work with and the people I am in contact with on a regular basis. If nothing else, it’s a sign of respect.  After all, what would I say to someone who had been living in England for so long and couldn’t speak the language. I would, in all truth, probably judge them quite harshly.

For a start, I’d love to be able to speak with our Khmer staff.  They are always laughing and joking and it’d be lovely if I could join in and laugh along with them. It’d be nice if I could ask them about themselves and understand more about them and their lives.  They must think I am a really lazy barang! 

There are also certain people that I really wish I could communicate with – namely the people living here in the village.  There is an old woman in the village that I see on a regular basis. I always call out ‘Hello, how are you?’ to her as she cycles past me smiling away.  One day, quite some time ago, I bumped into her in the local market and she pulled from her bag a cake and gave it to me. From then on, if I ever saw her and she had cakes she would always give me one.  I later found out that she sold them so I was honoured that she always gave one to me for free.  I sometimes see her in my local ‘coffee shop’ in the market and she always talks to me in Khmer. If only I knew, or at least had a rough idea of what she was saying.  I’d love to be able to communicate with her.  Then there’s Mr. Yim and the Coffee Shop Crew – a group of old men that are always at Mr. Yim’s shop, hats on, shouting away to each other and always laughing when I say ‘Som muay thiet’ (one more coffee please). I’m sure they’ll help me in my attempts to speak Khmer and I can guarantee it’ll be the cause of plenty of laughter!

An Australian guest that speaks very good Khmer kindly wrote me out an A4 sheet of useful words – who; why; where; what; this; that; here; there etc.. so I got myself a little notebook today and created my own dictionary. I’m planning on carrying it around everywhere I go and using it as much as possible while adding useful words to it as I go along.  It’s something I’ve done before when learning a language and have found it a very useful tool indeed.

So, here goes. Khmer language here I come!

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2 responses to “Learning Khmer – it’s about time too!

  1. Hi there, interesting post. I spent 5 months living in Cambodia last year and must admit that my vocab was limited to about 20-30 words! Pretty shameful indeed! I think the problem (besides laziness) is that almost everyone can speak a high level of English. I had a laugh when I read about your mini dictionary…it’s exactly the smae thing as what I have done! I made it up at work in Australia and put a picture of myself with my Cambodian friends on the cover to remind me what I was working towards and why it was so important,

    I am going back to live next year and my adopted Cambodian father has told me that he will ensure I am fluent in Khmer within 3 months! I would love to be able to surprise him with a bigger vocab when i arrive.

    So, how are you finding learning the language? Pronunciation is the hardest bit in my opinion and is even harder when you are not in the Country to hear the words being spoken. I’d love to hear more about how you are going.

    Thanks,

    Clare

    • Hi Claire, thanks for stopping by my blog and sorry for the late reply. Argh, learning Khmer, it’s like 1 step forward, 5 steps back! The prounciation is really tricky, and my ears must be blocked because I can hear the same word said by several people and it always sounds different to me! I’ve got the very very basics down but no-where near enough yet. If your Cambodian grandfather can teach you Khmer in 3 months I might have to adopt him 😉

      There are some good resources (downloads etc..) on the Siem Reap Expats Page on Facebook if you need extra help!

      Good luck with the learning, don’t give up on it – the way I see it, at least everyone in the local market gets a good laugh every morning as I attempt to speak Khmer to them 🙂

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