Language Learning

Our landlords, who live below us, have the most adorable grandson. He's two and a half now, and the most hilarious moments are when he talks, or tries to - sometimes even trying out English words on us. We come home and he starts yelling, Andrew! Whitney! And then spouts off a new word he learned. We laugh, his grandparents laugh, and we tell him how smart he is. And then I realize, that's exactly how our landlords reacted to us when we were learning the Khmer language {pronounced "Ka-my"; the national language of Cambodia}.

We sounded like a toddler.

We've been in Cambodia almost three years already, and language is still difficult. When we moved here, we spent a few weeks in the capital studying every day, then moved to Poipet, where there are no language schools or professional teachers. We found a tutor and studied with him on and off for the first few years, even learning the alphabet and the basics of reading and writing. One month last year, I did a "30x30 Khmer Challenge", studying Khmer 30 minutes every day for a month. But honestly, in the past year, we've plateaued and pretty much slacked off at learning anything new.

In front of our language school in Phnom Penh in March 2011

Learning a new language is really hard.

I've studied language before. In middle school, my parents bought me a computer program for learning French. I remember it connected to a microphone, and I conversed with a computer character. A meter at the bottom showed whether my accent was closer to "tourist" or "local". After nursing school, I spent nine months in North Africa on a language study visa, learning Arabic. Now that's a complicated language.

Khmer? The grammar is incredibly simple. No verb tenses. No gender-specific words. Even the word for "he" and "she" are the same word. But the pronunciation, made up of vowels that don't exist in English, is incredibly difficult.

I've met some expats who speak Khmer fluently within a few years of moving here, and others who've lived here more than a decade who still only speak a few phrases. And the difference in their cultural integration is profound. Why? Because language is a door into a culture.

Obviously, if you don't speak the local language, you have no idea what's going on when it's spoken around you. But even beyond that, language helps you understand the culture. It's not just an entry point; it's also a reflection of what's going on underneath the surface.

A snapshot of my language notebook. Which I haven't touched in months.

I have been struck countless times by the simple, explicit way the Khmer language often describes things. For example, the phrase for "mental illness" translates as "a problem with the way to the heart." I may say "mental illness" in English, but when the Khmer phrase used is translated back to me and taken apart, the words literally have that meaning. To forgive someone is to "not punish". An abortion is "to take out the baby." And body anatomy terms? I could tell you stories that would leave you howling. But I'm trying to keep it rated G here. It definitely makes it easier to remember certain phrases.

One of my greatest regrets in moving here was not studying the language full-time in our first few months. That wasn't an option for us and is just a reflection of the nature of working for a development agency. The work must be started immediately, and there are enough English-speaking national staff that you can survive on basic Khmer.

But I do feel like we've missed out on so many opportunities and relationships because of our limited language. I know I can go back to studying and keep learning new words. And granted, I can have conversations with my neighbors and talk about life. But I can't explain the Gospel in Khmer or ask someone about deep heart issues. And that makes me a bit sad.

So my encouragement? If you're working overseas, make language study a priority. Some people find it frustrating to "just" study for their first few months or years as a missionary or cross-cultural worker. But I guarantee, you will find far more open doors and deeper relationships waiting for you at the end of that time.

What do you think? Have you ever struggled to learn a new language? Any funny translation stories to share with us?

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