Note: I’ve just discovered this post that was written, but never published, in April 2017 at the start of 8 weeks of laughter filled lessons where my Khmer language knowledge (and my confidence in using it) improved dramatically. Sadly, thanks to a 3 month return to the UK and a failure to get ‘straight back on the speaking Khmer bus on my return, I have forgotten most of what I’d learnt and lost my confidence to try once more. I desperately need to get back to the books and start to speak again and in putting this post out there am inviting you to nag me into submission in this regard. And in the meantime, enjoy the post!
There are five of us (six if you count Norman) attending our first Khmer class. It’s 5pm on a balmy Monday evening in Kampot and we sit anxious and expectant as our teacher, an American (white) Rastafarian, introduces us to the alien sounds of Khmer phonetics.
It took a lot for me to put myself in this situation – I rarely engage in group learning, so fearful am I of being found out to be less than perfect, or even worse a total fraud of a human being.
But it seemed like an opportunity too good to miss. The classes were cheap, time wasn’t an issue and the teacher, an American, sold the lessons based on a focus on getting the message across as opposed to getting it perfectly correct. A huge tick on my learning a language checklist.
Whilst others stared blankly, I sat smug thanks to the few lessons I joined at VSO when I first arrived in Cambodia. However, just as the teacher asked me if I wanted to say the sound he was introducing out loud, Norman piped up to tell me that I was “saying it wrong” and before I could stop myself, I had blurted out an emphatic no! I immediately gave myself a metaphorical kick, told Norman to do one and vowed that next time I was asked I’d pull up my big girl pants and try. After all, the only way I was ever going to master this damn language was by putting myself out there and trying to speak it and I was not going to let an effing chimp, no matter how vocal he may be, stop me.
With the advantage of that little bit of the language already under my belt I quickly relaxed as we bumbled our way through asking and answering questions pertaining to introducing ourselves, our nationality and our linguistic capabilities before moving on to my specialist subject – numbers. I’m not sure why but, whatever the language, I find numbers really easy to learn. Maybe it’s the fact that you can recite them sequentially (I was a huge fan of times table recitation as a kid and to be honest still am – #geek), they form a pattern that makes sense or some other reason I can’t think of, the fact is I’m pretty damn good at learning them.
I confidently answered when asked my age and then proceed to become teacher’s pet by translating back to English my fellow students’ numerical responses to the same question.
As I glanced around the class I couldn’t help but have a little giggle to myself. I was in an odd, advantageous position here. Not only did I know some of the language already but I also got what the teacher was trying to do as he was using tried and tested EFL teaching methods to help us to learn – at times the frustration on his and the other students faces was plain to see and painful to watch. I quietly observed as my classmates played out language student stereotypes by studiously looking down at their book to avoid the teacher catching their eye and asking them a question; presenting the ‘rabbit in the headlight’ stare when they were unfortunate enough to be asked a question; repeating the question out loud in a bid to avoid having to think of the answer; flipping word order to mirror that of their native tongue; and grinning like a Cheshire cat when the teacher told them they’d done well (once he’d translated his Khmer response of very good into English for them that is).
And before I knew it, class was over. I headed home, cycling along feeling chuffed to bits that I put myself out there and carefully reciting my newly learned phrases ready to practice on the guest house cleaner in the morning.