Friday, February 20, 2009

Knyom Jay Neeyay Peesa Khmer! (I can speak Khmer)

For some people, it’s purses. For others, it’s stamps, coins, rocks, or even beanie babies. I, however, collect languages. It’s true. I’m addicted to learning new languages, and try my best to acquire at least one phrase in the native language of every place I go or every person I meet. Some have come more easily than others. (I think the tribal language of my Ghanaian friend in France twisted my tongue more than any others I’ve tried to pronounce!) Khmer is fairly high on the list of difficult-to-pronounce languages, though. There are over 27 vowels in the Khmer alphabet, making the seemingly subtle difference between words like “om puhl” (tamarind) and “om powl” (sugar cane) significant to a native-speaker’s ears.

Knowing I would be in Cambodia for several months, I decided early on to take advantage of this opportunity and try to learn Khmer. One of the church members is a skilled Khmer teacher and offered to teach me on the weekends. While learning a language is always a slow process, I’ve been encouraged by how quickly I’ve been able to communicate in Khmer. Because so few Westerners ever bother to learn the native language of Cambodia, most of the people here are ecstatic to hear you say even a simple and badly-pronounced phrase to them. The shop owners, merchants in the market and moto-drivers all listen attentively when I explain what I am looking for or where I am trying to go. So far, I’ve successfully navigated my moto-driver to church on Sunday morning, chosen and designed my own skirt for a tailor, and explained to the housekeeper about a needed change in her schedule. While I’m sure those successes were due in large part to the patience of the Cambodian listener, I am proud of myself for being able to function as an independent person in Cambodia.

Of course, any progress in the language that I have made is because of how WONDERFUL my teacher, Bora, has been. Today was my very last class with her. It makes me sad to see that weekly interaction come to an end. Not only have I loved learning Khmer, but I’ve loved getting to know Bora. She’s an incredible Christian woman with a lot of dedication. Bora has been working with PIP’s nutrition program that goes out to various villages and supplies them with nutritional supplements as well as information about basic healthy eating. Then at night, she has been studying to become a nurse. Because she must start her hospital rotations soon, Bora will probably have to quit working for PIP in the near future. That’s going to be hard on her financially, which is why she’s been looking for new Khmer language students. So far, I’ve gotten a few others to take her on as a teacher, and everyone that uses her is really pleased with her style.

Bora’s a great joker and loves to laugh. She teaches me lots of fun proverbs in Khmer. Today’s was: “Well spiced soup and a successful husband are both thanks to a good woman.” She’s always encouraging me to keep up with my Khmer once I come back to the states and to work really hard at returning to Cambodia again someday long-term.

I’m going to miss a LOT of people in Cambodia when I leave. But Bora is one of the ones that I will miss most!


Jeanette said...

well at least the different between tamarind and sugar cane doesn't leave you red in the face after a mispronunciation ;)
When are you coming back to the states?

Mike and Lucy said...

Hey, you look really good in this photo! Just wanted to say a quick Hi. I hope things are going well. I think it is cool you were able to take language there and that you really liked Cambodia!