Before I moved to Cambodia, I set myself the fun challenge of seeing how fluent I could be in khmer within 6 months. (Khmer being the language that they speak in Cambodia.) 1.5 months in, I’m enrolled onto a ‘Survival Khmer’ course at a school called Language Exchange Cambodia (LEC) near the Russian Market, which is a 20 minute walk or a 5 minute moto ride away from where I’m living now.
You can have group or individual lessons, but since most people turn up at the language school on their own like me, most of LEC’s clients have lessons one on one. I began a week after I arrived, which means that I’m coming up to my fifth week of lessons. I started off with 2 hour lessons, 4 days a week. However, as the one on one teaching is taxing to both teacher and student, I downsized it to 1.5 hours 4 days a week to make them more enjoyable. Learning language is not a sprint race, it’s more like a marathon, so I’m trying to pace myself. After my language lesson, I’ll try and make myself use whatever I have learned in the classroom with anybody who will talk with me. The guard at the school, my motodop driver, the housekeeper have all been subjected to rather random conversations with me. Some topics are easier to practice than others…
LEC’s motto is, learning to speak khmer like khmer. This means that they teach the informal khmer that is spoken first, rather than the formal khmer that people use for reading and writing. It’s quite an unusual approach and it’s certainly raising eyebrows with rather a lot of people, khmer and expat alike: I come out with a lot of slang and drop off the ends and beginnings of words, like many of the native speakers do here. Not only that, but I have also discovered that Cambodians have a quick wit and love to play with language. I don’t know the linguistic term for this, but they often like to swap the sounds around e.g. sok sabbei → sei sabok. From time to time, my teacher unconsciously drops into this slang slang khmer, as he calls it: I’ve dubbed it cockney khmer. Here’s a recording of some numbers in cockney khmer. See if you can work out what he’s done.
My teacher is from Kratié province, in the northeast of Cambodia, which he pronounces K’tech. Therefore, I joke with my friends that I’m acquiring a northern khmer accent, the equivalent of a ‘geordie’ accent. Then, there are some khmer sounds that I find difficult to get my tongue round, and so my teacher occasionally adjusts the way that he says them. ‘This is how they say it in Takeo province, which is south of Phnom Penh. I think that this way is easier for you.’ So, how about that, eh? My khmer accent has even acquired ‘somerset’ notes.
LEC won’t teach me the khmer script on their ‘Survival Khmer’ course, so I’ve come up with my own method to master the different sounds. I have a vocab book, in which I write down all the words and phrases that I am learning. Each page is folded down the middle and on the left hand side I write the english word; on the right, the khmer word in phonetic roman script. And then, more often that not, I’ll write the sounds phonetically in korean too. The korean alphabet is phonetic and there are lots of sounds in korean that are much easier to write than in english, which isn’t a phonetic language. As I lack a khmer alphabet on which to hang the sounds, my brain often visualises the sound in korean, and actually what I end up doing, is seeing the sound in korean, writing it in english, and then writing the sound again in korean so that I can write it phonetically. It does sound rather long-winded and absurd, but that’s how it has to be because my memory fares poorly in remembering korean letters. In fact, on my first lesson, it was a real headache because I was using korean to write some words and english for others, and my poor wee brain couldn’t take in learning a new language using two very different scripts!
I’m certainly not learning perfect khmer. But, for the first time in my experience of learning languages, I don’t care. There’ll be an opportunity to learn the more formal stuff later… In the meantime, watch out inhabitants of Phnom Penh – there’s a wee scottish-korean girl with absurd questions on the loose.