How You Can Pick Up Khmer with Tutors or Language Exchange Partners

If you want to learn Khmer but think it’s too difficult or aren’t sure how to go about it, I recommend watching two great videos that inspired me to continue with the language by acquiring it with a tutor: “How to Acquire any language NOT learn it!” and “How to Language Exchange!

I’ve written a post based on the videos on my blog Beyond Language Learning called How to Acquire a Language with Tutors and Exchanges, and Speak It Like a Native Speaker.

It details the method that language instructor and polyglot Jeff Brown sets out, and my suggestions about how to use it based on the ALG approach that’s used in the AUA Thai Program and former Language Institute of Natural Khmer (LINK):

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.

In previous posts I’ve recommended sources of free children’s stories you can find online: Let’s Read! Khmer E-books and the Let’s Read site.

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.

Recommendations

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.

Using the Circling Technique to Help You Pick Up Khmer

In recent posts I’ve been sharing a lot of free Khmer stories that you can use with a Khmer tutor to help you pick up the language through listening.

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.

Some examples of circling questions

Let’s look at some examples of circling using one of the Let’s Read! stories in Khmer from the collection I introduced in a previous post: នំធំ១ (One Big Cake).

One Big Cake Elephant
នំធំ១ (One Big Cake) published by The Asia Foundation (CC BY 4.0)

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
  • This repetition helps you better understand what is being said
  • 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:

Introducing Free “Mini-Stories” with Audio for Learning Khmer Through Listening

Story for Learning Khmer with Audio and Transcript: Buying Coffee

Another Free Khmer Language Story for Learners with Audio and Transcript: Smartphone Addiction

If you already have some understanding of Khmer can use these on your own to practice listening.

The Automatic Language Growth Approach to Learning Languages

This new video tells the story of ALG, or Automatic Language Growth, the language learning approach used at LINK (Language Institute of Natural Khmer) in Phnom Penh which originated with the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok, Thailand.

You can learn more about the video in the post on Beyond Language Learning, and find a script of the video with further details on the site’s page about Automatic Language Growth.

You can learn more about LINK and how it used the ALG method to help students effortlessly pick up the Khmer language on this site’s page about the Language Institute of Natural Khmer.