Learning Khmer 101

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.

Classes at LEC
The rooftop at LEC where I have my language classes in one of the cubicles

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…

Asking Narith what time he brushes his hair
Asking Narith what time he brushes his hair

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.

a page from my khmer vocabulary book

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.

Published by

Han-Na Cha

English Language Teacher, Academic and Personal Development Skills Trainer, Baker.

10 thoughts on “Learning Khmer 101”

  1. Hey, that sounds like you’re on to a real winner in getting to learn Khmer, like Khmer! That sounds really rare (I’m told doing similar for Portuguese is basically impossible, apparently they insist on teaching formal/written language, often not even recognising how different that can be to informal/spoken language) and I hope you’re finding it invaluable!
    Random big news for you from Jen & I: we move into our new house (no longer renting!) on Radford Road this coming week; and we’ve got all our flights & accommodation sorted for 3 weeks in Brazil (Rio) next June! Lots going on. We’re looking forward to being done with the stress of house moving asap.

    1. This is such exciting news 🙂 I am so excited for you and Jen for the house move and the big holiday to Brazil. I hope that the move isn’t too stressful and lots of people are able to help to make it easier for you. I moved house last Sunday and all my worldly possessions went in a tuk tuk! How about that, eh?

      On learning language – a couple of people have said that I speak clearly and I do think that is because my teacher really wants me to speak like khmer and set me homework from day 1 that made me talk khmer with khmer people.

  2. I found this inspirational because I am having the hardest time trying to learn the language for a friend when I go to see him in his home country. Can you tell me the website to get information on learning Khmer?

    1. The language school I go to doesn’t have a website, unfortunately. Are you in PP? in which case I can get you the address and contact details for the school that I go to.

  3. I am in Phnom Penh and have heard good things about LEC. But I can’t find their contact information. Can you post the contact info?

  4. Hello !

    I would like to know more about the services that LEC can provide, please. I’m really interested by going in Cambodia to learn Khmer for around a year, but there is no real information about LEC on internet.
    Could you give me more info about the pricing, the schedule and other stuff like that please?
    Could you also tell us your level (speaking and writing) after your experience there, please ?

    1. Hi Pierre,

      Phone number for LEC: 023 213010
      That’s right – LEC don’t really do any marketing on the internet, as far as I can see. Currently, it’s $6 per hour if you learn 10+hours a month or $7 per hour for less than 10 hours. They’ve moved location but they’re still close to the Russian Market. The best thing to do is to call them and then go and see them for a consultation. You create a schedule according to your availability and the availability of the teachers. I did a Survival Khmer course, which covers 12 modules from greetings, renting a house, illnesses etc. Students normally complete it within 9-15 months, depending on your motivation and commitment to learning Khmer. I was learning 4 days a week, 1.5 hours a day and I completed it within 5 months, which is not normal. I was able to have a pretty decent conversation with native speakers within 3-4 months of starting the course.

      The survival khmer course is all speaking and listening – so they are really keen that you learn how to communicate with locals. You can ask them to teach you reading and writing too. I’ve started it a few times but with work, I don’t have the time to commit to learning the new alphabet just yet. I do plan to make time for it at some point soon.

      I’ve just been in contact with another language school called Gateway to Khmer, which also focus a lot on teaching culture. And two of my colleagues go to Khmer Friends, which is another language school. I’ve never been to the latter but I believe that it’s good and it’s near the Russian Hospital. I hope it helps.

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