In the first video, Brown explains how we become fluent in languages not through things like grammar study or practice and correction, but through lots of comprehensible input: hearing the language in ways that we can understand what’s being said and pick it up.
He tells us how he gets comprehensible input from tutors and language partners, and shows us how he uses his method to acquire Egyptian Arabic and speak it within one year.
In the second video, Brown demonstrates his language exchange method, showing how to get your partner to speak the language you want to acquire in ways you can understand using actions, pictures, and stories.
With his method, you first pick up lots of basic vocabulary by having your tutors or partners give you commands in the language to do actions that they demonstrate (called Total Physical Response, or TPR), and describe pictures and ask you simple questions about them, and
Brown suggests using magazines that have many photos. Another source of illustrations, which I introduced in a previous post, is aakanee.com, which has many illustrations about everyday life and culture in Southeast Asia.
Once you acquire enough vocabulary this way, you start having them interpret or retell stories using illustrated children’s books that have a lot of pictures.
The resources section of my post on Beyond Language Learning has links to more sources of illustrated stories online.
Brown highly recommends stories for language acquisition and spends most of the time in his sessions on stories, which he records to listen to again later.
Stories are powerful tools for language acquisition because they are interesting and understandable through having meaningful structures and sequences of events.
Our brains remember stories better than other kinds of information, and even treat them in some ways like real-life experiences.
The main thing I would recommend is not to try to repeat or speak the language you’re acquiring from the very start, as Brown does in the video.
Instead, I would recommend focusing on listening a lot first to “get an ear” for the language, learning to hear the sounds and pronunciation clearly.
This will lead to a more native-like pronunciation when you do start to speak Khmer or whatever language you want to acquire, because you’ve heard and internalized a clear “mental image” of how the language should sound.
Your speaking may not be perfect at first, but it will over time naturally converge on this mental image you’ve acquired through listening.
Achieving a very high level of pronunciation can be important for languages like Khmer, which have sound distinctions that are unfamiliar to learners who speak unrelated languages like English, and which have many speakers who are not used to hearing their language spoken by foreigners.
To avoid speaking Khmer at the start, you can simply speak and respond in your own language that your partner understands, such as English, then start to use Khmer as it comes to mind automatically without trying.
This natural speaking will start like a child learning a new language, with words and simple phrases that you’ve heard many times, and eventually grow to the ability to express yourself in longer sentences.
For things you can’t express automatically in Khmer, you can just continue to use English.
With a Khmer speaker whose English is at a similar level to your Khmer, you could both pick up each other’s language at the same time by each speaking your own language, using things like the pictures and stories to provide context and topics.
In the ALG approach this kind of communication, where each person speaks their own language and uses non-verbal tools as needed to get across meaning, is known as Crosstalk.
In another post I introduced Aakanee.com, a website full of great content for learning Khmer through listening, as well as content for the Thai and Isaan languages.
There are hours of descriptions in Khmer of illustrations of everyday activities as well as Khmer festivals.
Learners who understand some Khmer already should be able to listen to and understand the descriptions while looking at the illustrations, and pick up Khmer vocabulary this way.
Unfortunately, none of the content so far is as useful in itself for Khmer beginners and learners who don’t know any Khmer.
The descriptions are too fast and complex and without enough clues for a beginner to efficiently listen and connect what they’re hearing moment by moment with what they’re seeing.
As a beginner, what you could do with the images is show them to a Khmer tutor or other native speaker and have them describe them in simple language while pointing to what they are describing in the image.
By seeing them point to what they are talking about you can connect what you are hearing with the image and be able to pick up the language.
As an experiment I’ve tried to adapt some of the existing content so that it might be more useful to beginners and even more advanced learners.
I’ve taken a couple of frames from the Southeast Asia illustrations and created videos that annotate them in sync with the corresponding recording describing the frame.
Whenever the speaker refers to something in the frame, you see it circled or highlighted.
I’ve also added some images that appear to show things that the speaker refers to but doesn’t appear on screen.
I haven’t continued with this project as I’ve found it rather time-consuming to annotate each image, but I want to share what I created so far to see if anyone finds it useful.
I was able to use my limited understanding of spoken Khmer, as well as looking up a few things from the pages on Aakanee.com, to know how to annotate the videos in sync with the audio.
I’m wondering in particular how understandable this material might be to a beginner or lower-level Khmer learner, and if they would be able to pick up a lot of the language efficiently from this kind of annotated material.
Unfortunately with Khmer, as with most languages, there appears to be virtually no video content as of yet for adult beginners to pick up the language from efficiently with the help of visuals and non-verbal communication.
Like the other stories, the short story is told and then retold with the circling technique, asking a lot of questions about each sentence, right after each sentence.
Note that the English and Khmer translation do not always match word for word. You can use the English as a guide for the general meaning of each sentence, but it’s best to let the meaning of words become clear by hearing them again and again in various contexts.
It was a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon.
Bob and Alice were taking a walk outdoors.
Because the weather was so nice, they decided to have a picnic.
They sat down at a table inside to finish their meal.
They were soaking wet from the rain.
The food was also wet, but it was still delicious.
អាហារក៏ទទឺកសើមដែរ ប៉ុន្តែ វានៅតែឆ្ងាញ់។
English recordings of the story for English learners
The following videos have English recordings of the story that learners of English can use to practice listening as well as speaking and thinking in English through answering the questions. Khmer learners of English can use the Khmer translation to understand the story better.
As usual, any comments, corrections, and suggestions are welcome.
I want to talk more about one very powerful technique that you can have your tutor use when reading these stories or talking about other things in Khmer to help you understand, acquire, and remember Khmer words and Khmer grammatical structures.
Known as circling, this technique was popularized and developed in TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling), a method of teaching languages through comprehensible input by telling stories.
Circling basically means the teacher or tutor asks various questions about a statement that they’ve just made.
The statements and the questions that they ask about them are all in the language they’re teaching—in our case, Khmer.
The story starts with the picture to the right and this sentence:
ដំដំមាននំធំ១ ។ (Domdom has one big cake.)
With circling, your tutor would say this sentence and then ask you questions about it.
The simplest questions are yes/no questions, for example:
តើដំដំមាននំធំមួយទេ? (Does Domdom have one big cake?)
To this you can answer “បាទ/ចាស” (male/female “yes” in Khmer), say “yes” in English, or just nod, and the tutor can confirm, saying “បាទ/ចាស ដំដំមាននំធំ១ ។ “(Yes, Domdom has one big cake.)
They could also ask many questions for which the answer is no, for example:
តើដំដំមាននំតូចមួយទេ? (Does Domdom have one small cake?)
តើដំដំមាននំធំពីរទេ? (Does Domdom have two big cakes?)
តើ ដូណាល់ ត្រាំ មាននំធំមួយទេ? (Does Donald Trump have one big cake?)
To all of these you could answer “ទេ” (no in Khmer), say no in English, or just shake your head.
Then the tutor can confirm, saying, for example, “ទេ ដំដំមិនមែនមាននំតូចមួយ” (No, Domdom does not have one small cake), and ask another question or restate the correct sentence.
They can also ask either/or questions, for example:
តើដំដំមាននំធំមួយឬនំធំពីរ? (Does Domdom have one big cake or two big cakes?)
They can turn the sentence into “wh” questions that it has the answers to:
តើនរណាមាននំធំមួយ? (Who has one big cake?) Answer: ដំដំ (Domdom)
តើដំដំមានអ្វី? (What does Domdom have?) Answer: នំធំមួយ (One big cake)
តើដំដំមាននំប៉ុន្មាន? (How many cakes does Domdom have?) Answer: មួយ (One)
If you don’t know the answer, they can just give the correct answer.
The questions also help the tutor know how well you understand what they are saying in Khmer, so they can adjust and make sure that you can understand better.
Have fun communicating
As you can see a lot of questions can be generated even from one very simple statement.
This doesn’t mean that your tutor needs to every conceivable question.
Circling questions can become boring if they’re overdone and it becomes like a drill.
It should be fun and interesting and the focus should be on communication—the tutor is telling the story and helping you understand it, and checking that you do understand it.
As your tutor asks these questions, they should be using other tools to help communicate what they are saying, since they will both be making the statements and asking the questions about them all in Khmer.
They can use intonation to emphasize parts of the sentences they are asking the questions about, and even telegraph through this what answer they expect.
They should also use pointing and gestures to show what they’re talking and asking about.
For example, with a question like “តើដំដំមាននំធំមួយឬនំធំពីរ?” (Does Domdom have one big cake or two big cakes?), they can point to Domdom the elephant when they say ដំដំ (Domdom), show one and two with their fingers when saying the numbers, and point to the cake when they say (នំធំ) “big cake”.
Use the pictures
If you are a beginner especially, your tutor should be talking a lot about the pictures, pointing to and describing them in detail so that you can pick up words.
The tutor can also use circling to ask questions about the things they say about the picture.
For example, with the picture above they can point and say “ដំដំជាដំរី” (Domdom is an elephant) and then ask “តើដំដំជាដំរីឬសត្វកវែង?” “Is Domdom an elephant or a giraffe?”
Another way the tutor can use questions with the pictures is to do things like asking where something is, for example, “Where is the red hat?”
A more advanced learner could say where it is, but a beginning learner could just point to it.
The tutor can confirm, saying something like “Yes, the hat is on Domdom’s head.” or “Yes, Domdom is wearing the hat”, providing even more language.
It’s clear even with this simple picture and one sentence an enormous number of questions can be generated that use many common Khmer words and Khmer grammar.
Advantages of circling
Circling has a lot of advantages:
It provides massive meaningful repetition of language
By understanding better and getting a lot of repetition you can pick up words and structures more easily
By answering the questions you are focused on meaning, which helps you learn to think in the language
You hear many grammatical structures again and again
By hearing a lot of questions you pick up how different questions are formed in the language
Focus on listening and understanding first, not speaking
As a student, I would recommend you focus on listening and understanding Khmer at the beginning and not trying to speak much.
We become fluent not through speaking, but hearing and understanding a lot of messages in a language—what is known as comprehensible input.
Listening a lot first allows you to internalize how Khmer is pronounced and used, giving you a foundation so that as you speak more and more you will automatically begin to speak Khmer clearly and accurately.
With the circling questions, you can respond to them in whatever way works at your level.
You can use your first language, you can use gestures or pointing, and you can use the Khmer that comes to mind for you without effort.
At first this Khmer speaking will be simple things like yes/no answers.
Eventually you will start to be able to give one- or two-word answers, and then with much listening you will start to speak in partial and complete sentences.
Hearing and answering a lot of circling questions with things that you can understand like interesting stories and pictures can help you get to this level more efficiently.
Khmer audio recordings with circling questions
The Khmer mini-stories and other stories I have shared on this site all have a lot of circling questions that follow the stories:
Some have been written in Khmer, and others have been translated from other languages into Khmer.
In my previous post I suggested ways that you can use storybooks like these with a tutor so that you can get comprehensible input in Khmer—hearing the language in ways that you can understand and pick up words.
Besides just reading the story to you, you can have the tutor retell it in Khmer in their own words, read it again and ask you questions about each sentence, describe the pictures in detail and ask questions about them, and talk about the pictures and stories in relation to their own life and experiences.
With their permission, you can also record their reading and descriptions to listen to later and review while following along with the storybooks to get more Khmer listening practice.
Focus on listening and understanding before reading
Especially if you are a beginner with Khmer, I would recommend not focusing on the written language but first getting a grasp of the spoken language though a lot of listening before spending much time at all on the Khmer alphabet and reading.
With these stories the written part should be mainly a guide for your tutor to read and elaborate on so that you can gain understanding of spoken Khmer and pick up words.
Reading Khmer becomes far easier when you recognize most of the words you read through having heard and understood them many times in a variety of contexts and have a clear idea in mind of how they are pronounced through listening.
Using the stories as a beginner in Khmer
There are a lot of stories in Khmer in the Let’s Read! collection that have clear pictures and very simple texts that use a lot of repetition of words.
You can find many of them by choosing Level 1 in the reading level menu.
You may find these simple stories particularly helpful if you are a beginner in Khmer.
Again, your tutor shouldn’t merely read the stories to you, but do things to make the Khmer understandable to you as a beginner in the language and give you a lot of meaningful repetition so that you can pick up the words.
For example, they should point to the pictures a lot to make it clear what they’re talking about, and also describe what’s in the pictures in their own words.
They can also make their own drawings and use gestures and actions while using the words to indicate the meanings of words.
There are some other techniques that they can use as well, which I’ll describe in more detail in another post.
However you approach it with your tutor, remember to have fun!
Entitled “Smartphone Addiction”, this one is a somewhat silly story about an obsession with mobile games taking its toll on a relationship.
I had written it without a particular country or culture in mind, but I’m told that it’s relatable from a modern Khmer perspective, as smartphone use has become so widespread and popular in Cambodia as with many other countries, with even many older people becoming highly attached to their devices.
Like the other stories, the short story is told and then retold with a lot of questions about each sentence, right after each sentence.
This technique makes the story easier to understand because there is a lot of repetition of language, and gives you practice in listening to Khmer as well as thinking in Khmer by listening to and answering the questions.
Tom was addicted to his smartphone.
Every day, he would spend 16 hours playing games on it.
English recordings of the story for English learners
The following videos have English recordings of the story that learners of English can use to practice listening as well as speaking and thinking in English through answering the questions. Khmer learners of English can read the Khmer translation to understand the story better.
Again, any comments, corrections, and suggestions are welcome.
A language learner who I shared this site’s “mini-stories” collection with suggested another great resource which you can use for learning Khmer with a tutor: a collection of free illustrated children’s stories in Khmer, available for download from the site Let’s Read! Khmer E-books.
These e-books were created by Cambodians who worked in teams in intensive one-day events as part of Let’s Read!, an initiative of The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program to provide free reading materials for children in Cambodia and other countries in their languages.
While many children’s stories aren’t always suitable material for language learners, for example, using too much poetic language and overly fantastic or nonsensical elements, the stories in this collection appear more suitable.
The writing and dialogue in the stories reflect how people speak Khmer, using simple, natural language.
Many also feature realistic aspects of everyday life in Cambodia, such as details of the kinds of villages where many people live, combined with an element of fantasy.
For example, The Floating Garden (សួនបណ្តែតទឹក) tells the story of a girl who lives on a floating village and takes care of a garden that one day mysteriously floats away, pulled by a big fish.
In this video you can see the illustrations and listen to audio of the text:
How you can use these storybooks with a Khmer tutor
I don’t recommend as a beginner or even intermediate learner just trying to read and study children’s stories like these ones by yourself, even with an audio of the text.
The “magic” happens when you have a speaker of the language make them more understandable to you by describing the pictures, talking about the story, and elaborating on it in their own words
Here are some ways that you can do this with a tutor:
Have the tutor read the story out loud
Have the tutor tell and retell the story in their own words
Have the tutor read the story and ask you questions based on each sentence, supplying the answers if you don’t know
Have the tutor point and describe the pictures in detail—what things are, what people are doing, what is happening
Have the tutor ask you many questions about the pictures—for example, how many people or animals are there
With your tutor’s permission, you can record them so that you can listen to them reading, retelling, and talking about the stories again later, helping you to pick up more of the language.
While you might not understand much of the story when it’s first read to you, you will find that after hearing it told and described again in many ways, when you listen to it again you may understand it far better.
If you and your tutor enjoy a story enough, you can come back to it again and again, with your tutor retelling it and talking about it in different ways.
This provides you with a kind of narrow listening, where you are listening to a lot of material about a topic that you understand and hearing the same vocabulary and themes again and again.
This kind of listening is great for providing a lot of comprehensible input because it is familiar and understandable, and interesting for you personally.
You may also find that such stories help you and your tutor to communicate in Khmer about other topics, because since both of you will become familiar with them, your tutor can refer back to them when talking about other things to provide examples and explanations.
If you use these stories with a Khmer tutor, please share in the comments how it goes for you.
Contact me if you have any corrections, suggestions on formatting, or would like to contribute, for example by providing further recordings for this material, or are interested in creating and sharing similar material.
It would be helpful to hear these stories recorded with a variety of voices and speaking styles, and the more materials there are like this, the better.
How the Mini-Stories work
The stories provide a source of listening input that uses language in a highly repetitive yet meaningful way that’s different from ordinary language learning materials.
This repetition, achieved through retelling the stories using different perspectives and many questions, makes them easier to understand and makes it easier to remember and pick up the new words and structures that you hear.
Understanding the stories from different perspectives and answering the questions also helps train you to think in Khmer.
To better understand how they work, let’s look at the first Mini-Story in the series, called “Mike Is A Cook”.
The story is first told in the third person, telling us about Mike:
Mike gets up at 6:00am every morning.
He makes breakfast and drinks a coffee.
He drives to work in his car.
His work starts at 7:30am.
Mike is a cook at a restaurant.
He makes food for hungry customers.
The customers are from many countries.
They speak many different languages.
Mike can meet many friendly people.
Mike is happy when he talks to the customers.
Next, we get to hear the same story told again, but this time in the first-person perspective, with Mike himself telling the story:
All of the Mini-Stories follow this basic structure of the story told twice from different perspectives followed by a series of questions, but the higher levels add more variations.
For example, instead of just first-person then third-person, the first two stories might be told with a different pair of perspectives, such as third person singular, then third person plural, where another character is included.
Questions go from simple yes/no questions in the first level to questions asking who, what, when, where, and why.
In later stories they also can shift perspective, for example by putting the story in the past or in the future.
To pick up words and structures in a language and use them naturally, you need to hear them many times and often in different contexts.
The different perspectives and many questions provide a lot of repetition to help you achieve this, and they train you to think in Khmer.
Using the Mini-Stories to learn Khmer
The LingQ Approach
The LingQ website and app are built around listening to materials in the language you’re learning with transcripts that you can study by highlighting and saving words to learn what they mean and review them.
The approach advocates spending a lot of time listening repeatedly to interesting content in the language you’re learning on your smartphone or MP3 player, and spending some time on the site reviewing the transcripts and learning new words to gain better understanding of what you’re listening to.
The idea is by becoming familiar with the language, its patterns, and how words are used through listening a lot first, you will gradually be able to speak more and more without a lot of effort.
The freemium site covers and includes content for many languages, but like most Southeast Asian languages, Khmer is not among them yet.
For example by using Chrome’s Google Translate plugin, you can highlight an word or phrase you don’t know in Khmer and get an English translation.
By repeatedly listening to the recordings while looking up unknown words in between, the meaning of what one is listening to should become clearer and clearer over time.
It’s probably possible to start as a complete beginner with this approach and these kinds of recordings and gain a good comprehension of them, however, many total newbies to Khmer who don’t know a related language may find this daunting, especially having to deal with the Khmer script.
For these beginning learners, it may be advisable to start with simpler listening materials and other exposure to become more familiar with the language first.
Compatibility with the ALG approach
While using the Mini-Stories as part of learning Khmer can be compatible with the Automatic Language Growth approach that was used by LINK (Language Institute of Natural Khmer—unrelated to LingQ although the acronym is pronounced the same way), there are some aspects of the ALG approach that should be noted.
Both the ALG approach and LingQ’s approach put great emphasis on learning through comprehensible input by listening to the language one is learning in a way that’s both highly interesting and understandable.
While the LingQ approach encourages using translation to learn new words, ALG advocates picking up words through context, especially real-life experience and meaningful happenings, for picking up words, and wants learners to avoid entirely the use of translation in their language acquisition.
The goal of ALG is to have learners of any age, starting from scratch, come as close as possible to native-like abilities in their second language, being able to use it practically as well as if it were their first language.
ALG argues that using abilities gained with maturity to study and think about language interfere with this, and explains why adult language learners tend to do worse than children.
In this view, using translation to understand and learn a language would produce a different and less native-like representation of language than learning through context.
It should be said that LingQ’s use of translation is about understanding the overall meaning of interesting texts, rather than focusing on memorizing individual words.
It thus has common ground with the ALG approach in the idea that words should be learned through hearing and understanding the word in context many times.
The difficulty in applying the ALG approach of learning a language from the start without looking up or translating words is that, as with most languages, very little material or teaching exists in Khmer that is interesting for adult learners while providing enough context to pick up the language.
LINK provided teaching like this, however, it closed in 2016.
One compromise in learning using the Mini-Stories could be to become familiar with the stories by reading them first in English (or the various translations if they exist in one’s native language), and then later listening to them in Khmer.
This would boost one’s comprehension of the stories while avoiding the use of direct translation.
Research finds that we generally remember the meaning of what we read and hear, while most details like the exact wording are discarded from memory.
That suggests such an approach of more indirect use of translation might largely avoid the problems that ALG seeks to avoid of prematurely making connections with words in one’s native language.
Using the Mini-Stories to teach English in Cambodia
If you are teaching English in Cambodia, your students may find the English versions of the Mini-Stories useful.
You can find them on LingQ.com and download them (registration required):
As with learners in many countries, many Cambodian students may have studied English academically and therefore know a lot of vocabulary and grammar but struggle to naturally understand and speak the language.
Listening to materials like the Mini-Stories, with their use of variation and repetition, and especially their use of questions and answers, can be helpful in training these learners to think in English.
This set of Mini-Stories, while not being tied to any specific country’s culture, contain a lot of content that’s based in experiences in Western or developed countries, and as such it’s not really reflective of everyday life for most Cambodians.
This may actually be beneficial for many foreign learners who may find the content more familiar than content originating in Cambodia, and thus comprehend more, but it would be good to have further content like this that also reflects everyday life and situations in Cambodia
Although not in the format as the Mini-Stories, a lot of listening content discussing life in Cambodia this is available from Aakanee.com, which I introduced in a previous post.
It would be helpful to have more recordings for these stories so that learners can hear different speakers of Khmer and different styles of speaking—for example, male and female, young and old, fast and slow, soft and cute or loud and exaggerated, and so on.
Hearing a language spoken by multiple speakers is very helpful for acquiring the language, especially when the sounds of the language are very different from one’s own, as is the case with Khmer for speakers of Western languages.
If you are interested in contributing or sharing recordings or other material like this, please get in touch.