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.
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.