Thursday, January 31, 2008

Week 1 Language Fun

Being a USA-native English speaker is both a blessing and a curse. Take the following (oft-repeated) joke as an illustration of this point:

“What do you call a person who speaks 3 languages?”
“And a person who speaks 2 languages?”
“And a person who only speaks 1 language?”
“I don’t know, Mono-Lingual?”
“Nope. You call them American

I tell this joke far too often, but that’s because to me this is my most lamented lacking skill. Sure, I took 4 years of German in high school (unfortunately EVERY German I’ve ever met speaks English twice as well as I speak German – not true for the French I meet by the way), sure I can get by in Mexico with my minimal Spanish and in China with my minimal Mandarin… but when it comes to anything beyond “how much does this cost” or “where’s the toilet”, It’s going to have to be my good old mother tongue.

Now compare this to your average Kenyan (let’s call him Mr. Matatu). Considering that Mr. Matatu is your average Kenyan, he speaks at least 3 if not 4 or 5 languages – his mother tongue (1) will typically be his tribal language, then the national language Swahili (2), then English (3), and more than likely he can get by in the languages of the tribes near his (4 & 5). Not only can he speak these, he can more than likely read in all of these languages.

I just don’t understand the American system of language teaching. Why do we wait until HIGH SCHOOL to start teaching another language??! This is craziness to me! It is widely known that children not only are able to rapidly learn languages, but that it by all accounts helps them in their other areas of study, and sadly, the brain begins to lose this magic ability to absorb new languages by the time children are 12 or 13. What the hell, America?!

OK, that off my back, let’s talk about Cambodia. Cambodian people and language are called “Khmer”, which when said by a Cambodian person sounds like “Kuh-my” (2 very quick syllables). People say that Khmer is a difficult language, but so far we are having a great time learning the basics. So far we’ve learned how to excuse ourselves, count to 10, ask for the bill, say hello, and to say that something is beautiful (sa-at). One of the funny things about Khmer is that unlike Chinese (and just about every other language I’ve studied) there’s no set system for writing out pronunciations of Khmer words with roman (i.e. English) letters.

For example, one dictionary will spell “thank you” as “Ak-kuhn” and another will have it “Og-goon”. This is because there are many consonant and vowel sounds in Khmer that are not in English. Of course this isn’t unusual for English-foreign language dictionaries, but in the Khmer case, the linguistic geniuses seem to still be duking it out. Oxford or Merriam Webster need to step in and put together a definitive system, and then Lonely Planet can get their English-Khmer phrasebook put together (I lived by my Mandarin-English Lonely Planet phrasebook during my year in China).

So why does it matter? Well, I stepped into a small cafĂ© with Naomi on Monday and the waitress didn’t speak a word of English. We have had 2 or 3 cases like this before, but the person spoke French or Chinese and we had somewhere to start. In this case, we were stuck pointing at the menu (which thankfully was in English) and gesturing for what we wanted. In the midst of this we pulled out our pocket dictionary and started looking up how to say “Chicken” and “tea” and suddenly I had remembered my first Khmer word. There is something just so great about being stuck, learning a word, and getting unstuck.

When you think about it, language is an amazing thing – I would even argue that it is the most significant thing that makes us human. The ability to reason and the ability to create mean very little when our thoughts and creations cannot be expressed to another. And it was the fundamental element of language – the word “Word” – that the Bible uses to describe Jesus in John 1. God’s greatest act of love and compassion were summed up by John in the word “Word”. God’s communication to us.

In getting ready to leave, I’ve had several conversations where I’ve told people that selling all our stuff and moving to another country is for me a way to discover my humanity – that is, what it is at my core that makes me a person. So often I feel like I define myself by my occupation, my possessions, or my location. Here, these are still true, but as we’ve left most behind, we’re left with “just us”. To me, being whittled down to the real “me” – by God, myself, and others – is one of the most exciting parts of this upcoming year.

Josh Svensson
January 31, 2008
Phnom Penh


T.J. said...

jeem leup sueh

ssuk suh bye.


prea yesu ssulang neuk

i hope i spelled those ok

caljoy said...

this is a great way to catch up on your adventures & learn how to pray for you.
I still can't believe you are in a place that was such a huge part of my life way back in the late '60's and early '70's. If you told me that I would know people going to Cambodia and Vietnam to live and serve, I just would not have believed it.
I think we all need to be stripped of our possessions and the things that keep us "earth bound"
You are in our prayers

Eric Bryant said...

Lifting you guys up!