Lazily learning the Khmer language

Marissa Carruthers is a freelance journalist who has left behind life in the UK for the sun and smiles of Cambodia. In her weekly column, she will be sharing the ups and downs of settling into life in Phnom Penh as an expat.

I think it’s fair to say that during my first three months in Cambodia I’ve become lazy when it comes to learning the language.

A collection of Khmer language flashcards.

Learning the Khmer language: not exactly child’s play.

I’d left the UK with a vision of being able to at least hold a basic conversation in Khmer after a few months but I’m ashamed to say I can barely ask a tuk tuk driver to turn right. I remember being shocked when I first arrived at the number of expats I met who said they don’t speak Khmer – in fact, now I’m surprised when I meet one who’s fluent – but I quickly learnt that living in Phnom Penh it’s easy to slip into a world where you can get around on English alone, and that’s exactly what I did.

Straight away, I picked up most of the essentials needed to get around but that was where my learning halted. I flirted with a few more words when some of the workers in my apartment block quizzed me on the English for certain things. They’d willingly return the favour by telling me in Khmer what a chopstick or helmet or whatever other object it is they wanted to know is but I’d struggle to get my mouth around the sounds and just couldn’t keep it in my head. The next day I’d bump into them outside and they’d yell over: “Chopstick. Now you in Khmer,” only to be met by a sheepish grin because I’d forgotten the second I was told.

I tried to learn a few more phrases but battled with the pronunciation and despite being greeted with a slightly surprised form of delight from a local when I tried to say something in Khmer, my clumsiness with the words eventually led to an embarrassment to even try.

Then a couple of weeks ago, lost in an area where no-one spoke English outside of my comfort zone where I can drink in an English coffee shop, eat an English breakfast and don’t have to learn the local language, I burst the bubble I’d been living in and realised how ridiculous and rude it was of me not to be able to ask for directions in a country that I’ve been living in for three months.

As soon as I got home, I enrolled in a Khmer class round the corner from where I live and while I’ve only had one lesson so far I’ve pushed myself to get over my embarrassment to try and practice whenever I can – and guess what, so far, in true Cambodian style, everyone has been more than happy to help. It may well take me a while to become anything close to fluent but I’m definitely glad to be trying.

3 Responses to Lazily learning the Khmer language

  1. Geoff Gerster says:

    I would love to go to Cambodia one day, I find Khmer a beautiful and mysterious language, especially to my ears. Just started to try….try to learn some phrases. I really like it a lot! Khnom jol-jet wia nass!
    Charlotte…I enjoyed your story about Phsar Kandal market!! Jum reap leah.

  2. Keep at it Marissa! I’ve been in Cambodia coming on three years now and I speak Khmer fluently. I learned most of my Khmer while getting my hair done in the Phsar Kandal market. I would listen intently to the Khmer and Vietnamese women chattering. I also used a trick of answering ‘Jah’ to almost anything anybody would ask me, even if I didn’t understand. It would sometimes mean I got my nails painted some ghastly colour or I’d end up with an exaggerated side part. But I used them all as invaluable lessons, stores up what I learned and used it on my next visit. I now run a small tutoring company in Siem Reap called Speak Out Tutors, I teach all aspects on English and even Khmer conversation. Good luck with you studies, and look forward to not only being able to have great conversations with anybody but also being introduced to another world of music, comedy and way of explaining the world :)

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