Learning Khmer can be a frustrating experience that leaves foreigners stuck for words, but one method actually forbids students from speaking the language.
“We offer a method based on listening first, rather than speaking straight away,” said David Jacobs, who co-founded the Language Institute of Natural Khmer (LINK) along with Sonia Cautin.
“It’s based on the way a child first learns his mother tongue.”
At LINK’s lessons, two boisterous instructors stand at the front of the class of about eight to 10 students and engage in friendly Khmer banter.
Through props and body gestures, they demonstrate the words they use.
“Little by little, words come into our brains naturally,” said Jacobs.
However, students are asked not to speak Khmer in class until they have reached the intermediate level.
“The main reason is to not disrupt the other students by using bad pronunciation,” said Jacobs.
Furthermore, Jacobs said that good pronunciation comes more naturally when attempts to speak Khmer are delayed.
“The longer you push speaking back, the better the pronunciation,” said Jacobs.
LINK’s method, known as Automatic Language Growth (ALG), was developed in the 1980s at the American University Alumni (AUA) Language Center in Bangkok.
The AUA Language Center uses ALG to teach Thai, Japanese and English.
Cautin, who spent four years in Bangkok before moving to Phnom Penh, said that learning Thai seemed like a hopeless cause when she first arrived in Southeast Asia.
“Everyone told me that Thai was one of the most difficult languages to learn and that I’d never master it,” said Cautin. “But I took lessons at AUA, and now I speak Thai quite fluently.”
When Cautin moved to Cambodia, she vowed to learn Khmer.
“I decided I wasn’t going to live in Cambodia without learning to speak Khmer, so I contacted David who was at AUA before, and we decided to do it together,” said Cautin.
With the help of the director of the AUA Language Center in Bangkok, Cautin and Jacobs spent two months training 10 instructors before opening LINK in July 2012 at the Sovannaphumi School on Street 200.
“We found people who would fit the profile, who had outgoing personalities and wouldn’t mind talking about their daily lives and who weren’t afraid of talking to foreigners,” said Jacobs.
“Some of the candidates had previous teaching experience, but we found that they had a hard time forgetting traditional methods of language instruction.”
Jacobs and Cautin both said that learning local languages has immensely improved their time in Southeast Asia
“We have found so many expatriates who have lived in Cambodia for so long who don’t speak the language, and we think they should give it a try,” said Cautin. “Along with language comes decryption.”
Jacobs said that learning the local language has improved his cultural understanding of Cambodia.
“When people are talking, I know what’s going on even if I can’t understand everything,” said Jacobs.
“I don’t feel like an outsider so much, and I think I would if I was just another expat who spoke a few words of Khmer.”
LINK offers beginning classes from 7am until 12pm and 3pm until 6pm weekdays, and 9am until 1pm Saturdays. Intermediate classes take place 10am until 1pm Monday through Saturday, while advanced classes are taught at 4pm untill 7pm weekdays and 10am untill 1pm Saturdays. All classes cost $4 per hour.
Call +855 12 293 764 for more information.
To contact the reporter on this story: Bennett Murray at [email protected]