Here’s one question I am often asked by my family and friends back home and also some blog readers who email me. “Is it hard to converse with Khmers in English? Do I have to learn Khmer language when visiting or if I live there?
My answer to the first question is.. No it’s not. I actually find it easy to converse with Khmers in English. Yes, they do have an accent when they speak, but most people do anyway. Even in the Philippines, though a lot of people are considered fluent in English but the regional dialects and accents still come in. It’s the same way here. Remember, English is not their native language and also not all can speak English but those who can are generally easy enough to understand.
For a new expat or a Phnom Penh visitor, it may take a little adjustment. I must admit I had to train myself to listen well and if I really can’t understand then I just politely ask them to repeat what they said. When I first visited Cambodia in 2004 I found it a bit hard to look for people to talk to in English but now its a great thing that most youngsters can converse in English. Even some tuk-tuk and motodup drivers knows some basic English.
It also helps to be polite and understanding of other peoples English and grammar errors. I, for one is not super fluent in English, and that doesn’t give me the right to be critical of how others speak in English. Never, never laugh at someone’s speaking flaws and that applies to all settings, in any place. Here’s what I always remind myself of..Everyone makes mistakes, and you will find it more enjoyable to just let go of your inhibitions and connect with them. Do not be too rigid and place too high expectations on their English usage. Just go with the flow, so to speak.
On the second question, Do I have to learn Khmer when visiting or I live there? My answer, it depends. If you’re visiting, you can get by without learning any Khmer although knowing even just the very Basic Khmer will go a really long way. At the very least you need to know how to say hello (“jum reap sour”), thank you (“ow-kohn”).Check out my previous post for some more phrases..
If you’re living here, then I would say its essential to know more than the basics. For one, you will need to get around and if you plan to take moto-dups or tuktuks its much easier to tell them where to go if you know some Khmer. Another reason is that it give syou more haggling power during your regular market hopping jaunts so brush up on your Khmer numbers and amounts. Third, you can learn more about the Khmer culture and can have more local friends if you know Khmer. I really believe knowing some of the local language would greatly enhance one’s travel and living experiences.
And those are my reasons why I’m trying hard to be at least conversant in Khmer language. For now, I know the very basics, counting and numbers (most!) and I know a lot of kids playing terms courtesy of my daughter.