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Saturday, 26 September 2009

Language Training

Looking back at my previous posts, I’m worried that so far my time in Cambodia is looking a little bit too much like a holiday. Having spent the last six (almost seven) months trying to persuade the lovely Matthew that it is not a holiday, I thought I’d tell you a bit more about what I’m doing at the moment.

Now at the beginning of week three, I’m almost half way through the In Country Training (ICT) and we’re in Kompong Cham because:
a) it’s cheaper for VSO
b) it’s cheaper for the volunteers and most importantly -
c) not many people speak English and we are thus forced to practice our Khmer.

There are twelve volunteers training at the moment and we’ve been split into two language groups – we each have four hours of lessons a day. Our teacher, Dara is brilliant. He is native Khmer and learnt English after the Khmer Rouge in a Thai refugee camp. Dara has been working with VSO for almost 15 years and works very much on a ‘need to know’ basis. He is by far one of the most effective teachers I’ve ever had and is very patient with our stuttering attempts at the language.

Fortunately, the Khmer had the sense to keep the language comparatively simple. They do not speak in tones, so as volunteers we stand a fighting chance at actually being able to communicate! They also have no plurals, past tense, future tense or masculine and feminine words – a lot of what you say is very much context dependent. Or vague. The language itself is good fun, my favourite word so far being ‘snacknow’ which means ‘to stay’, although ‘loo’ (to hear) and ‘tukdohkoh’ (milk, which literally translates as ‘water from the breast of a cow’) aren’t far behind. The only really complicated aspect of the language is getting the word order right and pronouncing things correctly and these are complicated… there’s a lot of chings, chits, chongs, dungs and dongs to get confused over, but hopefully it’ll come in time. Well, it has to really – as no-one will speak English in the District Office of Education. Oh and writing. I don’t think I have much hope of ever being able to read and write Khmer script.

The other surprisingly hard part of the language is quite simply getting people to want to understand and listen. As a barang (foreigner) no-one expects you to be trying to speak Khmer and so people aren’t tuned in to our stuttering attempts. It seems at the moment it’s very much luck of the draw in the market - you can get one person who understands what you’re trying to say and mime straight away, or you get another that will look as though you’ve sprouted a third head no matter how many times you mime the word for ‘razor’. The silver liing to that particular cloud is that nothing compares to the sense of achievement you feel when you return home with all the items you intended to buy. I refuse to be beaten and bought myself some bin liners and a broom today.

So there’s the language. There’s also just living. It’s hot in Cambodia, 30 degrees plus and lord only knows what the humidity is. I’ve never had so much sweat running down my face at one time! I permanently have humidity hair and a watery mustache. Doing the most normal of things is actually quite tiring, but I have now invested in a hammock, which is great for napping, and I am becoming very adept at washing my clothes in a bucket with a hole in.

Well, I don’t know if I’ve convinced you – but try to believe that I’m not permanently sight-seeing and fried spider spotting. I’m visiting my placement town next week, getting on a moto for the first time and finding a house. In the mean time, my brother Chris keeps implying that my photos aren’t quite ‘honest’ enough. I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to photograph the pig heads in the market, but here’s one of a pile of rubbish – something you get quite used to walking by and wading through when it decides to monsoon on you.

And as a final note, thanks everyone who has left a comment by the way, they make me smile and I find I’m liking the blog more than I thought I would, it’s a nice way to be in touch with home. Keep them coming!


  1. Hi Jen! I just wondered if you have a postal address where you are now? If so send it to me on facebook and I will write you a letter (i'm so old fashioned hehe). Sounds like you're doing well over there!

    laura x

  2. hey jen, i believe you that you're actually studying too!!! as for the spiders, oh my god!! stay away from them, that is just too disgusting for words!! I did just snort when you mentioned about your watery moustache very funny!!! and what balls you had to get on the poor excuse of a boat!! very brave!
    oh well, just a little message, but take care and keep up the posts, rellay good! Christina xx

  3. haha I like the words you've learnt so far :-) If it's any consolation to the heat, it is getting colder here and it's dark by 7.30, fantastic! Looking forward to the next post and expecting some of it in Khmer! lol.

    Speak soon, lots of love,
    Jo xxx

  4. Hi Jen

    The experiences you've had so far sound amazing and it's good to hear you're well and enjoying it :)

    The picture you paint with words is so amusing i.e washing clothes in a bucket with a hole. Khmer sounds relatively straighforward, especially compared to English, with words like 'set' that has just short of 200 meanings!

    Take care Jen. Loving your journal :)



  5. Hi Jen,

    After visiting so many schools to train ICT teachers back here it must be weird having a different ICT to deal with.

    The food is all about Fish Amok. It is devine! National dish.

    When you go back to Phnom Penh visit the Foreign Correspondents Club near the river. It is up some stairs with lovely big leather armchairs and a fabulous view out over the river and surrounding area and if you go between 5-7 they have a happy hour and the beer is about £1 a pop.

    As I mentioned before the boat trip between Batambang and Siem Reap is mad too. Long but when the Tonle Sap is at its peak the views are amazing!

    Have a great time.

    Matt Scrimshire

  6. Hey Jen, So lovely to read about how you're getting on :0) Really made me smile! Except for the spiders bit that made my skin crawl lol!

    Take care sweetheart and look forward to your next post! Karenza xxx