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.
If you’re learning Khmer and looking for resources to help you pick up the Cambodian language, you must check out the site aakanee.com.
This site contains a large and growing collection of resources for picking up Khmer and other languages, namely Thai and Isaan, through listening to and understanding content in the language.
For Khmer learners, the site features a collection of nearly 30 hours of audio by two Khmer speakers giving detailed descriptions of illustrations about everyday life in Southeast Asia (the site’s name, Aakanee, means “southeastern” in Khmer, as in អាស៊ីអាគ្នេយ៏, the term for Southeast Asia).
If you’re at an intermediate level or even are a beginner who knows some vocabulary, you should be able to follow the recordings while looking at the corresponding pictures and pick up language from them.
The speakers talk about the pictures in great detail and also give additional commentary on life and customs in Cambodia relating to the illustrations.
Even more advanced learners will probably be able to pick up a lot of new vocabulary from the recordings on this site.
There are also transcripts of many of the recordings, and even a growing dictionary and corpus.
For complete beginners who want to pick up Khmer through comprehensible input without other study, the audio materials are likely to be too advanced to pick up language from efficiently at their level.
They might instead have a tutor describe pictures they like with simpler language and record these descriptions. They can have their Khmer tutor point to what they are talking about in the picture so they know what they are talking about.
Besides the illustrations, there are collections of images of everyday vocabulary and communication situations in Khmer. So far these don’t have accompanying recordings, but they could also be used with a tutor or any Khmer speaker who can provide descriptions.
What makes these different from almost all other language teaching videos is that they’re designed for everyone, regardless of first language, to pick up the language from without translation.
The Khmer teachers do this by using a lot of non-verbal communication like pictures, drawings, props, and gestures to make the meaning of what they are saying understandable.
With this kind of understandable experience with language, known as comprehensible input, we can learn languages without conscious study.
This is the basis of the Automatic Language Growth approach used by LINK, which suggests adults can learn languages as well and as easily as children routinely do with the right experience and approach.
If you’re unfamiliar with this approach, the best way to understand it better is to just watch some of the videos, starting with their sample beginner classes, or their set of 60 lessons:
These lessons cover many topics from Khmer family words to Khmer numbers to cultural differences like Cambodian and Western breakfasts.
Some of the videos have conversations where a Cambodian person speaks Khmer and a foreigner speaks English or French:
In the ALG approach used by LINK, conversations like this where each person speaks their own language are known as Crosstalk.
With Crosstalk, each speaker uses non-verbal communication as needed to make themselves understood, and as participants understand more and more of each other’s language the need for non-verbal communication decreases.
(This playlist has just the videos with Crosstalk, while this one has the other videos that use Khmer only:)
In all these video lessons total around two to three hours. While this isn’t enough content to learn a great deal of Khmer from, this content is still a way for beginners and even more advanced learners to pick up vocabulary and hear how it is used in context.
In the near future, we may see much more highly understandable content like this, perhaps even enough that one can learn a lot of the language just by watching it without any other study and practice.
The videos contain a lot of basic vocabulary, phrases, and concepts from everyday life in Cambodia, and are worth watching repeatedly.
Here is the first one:
Even if you are a total beginner in Khmer, you will find that with repeated viewing, the meanings of more and more words start to become clear.
You might find that you even understand some words on the first viewing, but if you feel like you don’t understand anything, don’t be discouraged.
Focus on what’s happening and what the teachers are communicating with their pictures, just making guesses rather than focusing on trying to work out the language.
After watching a few times this way and perhaps coming back to it after a day or two, you may be surprised to find that many things suddenly make more sense.
Here’s another video with a similar beginner class demonstration:
If you watch this video after viewing the first one a number of times, you may find that some words “click” for you when you hear them again in a slightly different context.
You may be wondering: why not just give translations of the words to teach them?
One main reason for this is the approach used by schools like LINK, called Automatic Language Growth, which is intended to provide the foundation from which you can develop a very high level of fluency.
Really knowing a word and being able to use it fluently like a native speaker means among other things, being able to pronounce it clearly, understand its correct usage, and having it come to mind without having to translate.
These things come not from simply knowing a translation for the word, but from having many understandable experiences with that word that come from hearing it in a variety of contexts.
The focus of the teaching at schools like LINK is to provide these kind of experiences in abundance.
With this in mind, the approach also recommends a “silent period” listening to a new language with understanding for many hours, without trying to produce it or analyze it by doing things like comparing it to one’s first language.
By allowing speaking to emerge naturally and gradually without forcing it, you can avoid the problems many adult learners have in second languages such as unclear pronunciation and “broken” grammar.
As words become clearer over time through understandable experience, you will eventually start to be able to produce the language correctly and with good pronunciation without conscious effort.
This blog will look at methods and resources to get these understandable experiences in Khmer.
While the school has since closed, LINK’s YouTube channel remains and beyond their sample beginner classes is a lot more content, which we’ll take a look at it in another post.