Khmer language for Spanish people

  • An Introduction to the Khmer Language for Spanish people, a work of 15 years living in Cambodia.
  • Any income from the book will be used to sponsor children and youth studies in Cambodia.
  • You can find the book at the Bubok online bookstore.

I just published my book “Introduction to Khmer language for Spanish people.” It is a long story starting in 1999 when I arrived to Phnom Penh without speaking even English. Looking Khmer lessons for Spanish speaking people like me proved to be a difficult task. There was nothing. Cambodia and its Khmer culture was so unknown to the Spanish world as Spanish was a rare thing for most Cambodians at the time. I remember that I began to know some Cambodian professionals in Phnom Penh, who have studied in Cuba and could speak Spanish. Many of them were doctors, since many Cambodians went to study medicine in La Habana under the Vietnamese occupation. Back in Cambodia, they got good jobs in the capital with their Cuban wives and speaking a beautiful Caribbean Spanish. Meeting a Colombian was a wonder for them and one thought me Khmer for some time.

I don’t mention his name, but I remember his Khmer lessons: a permanent nostalgic remembrance of La Habana life under Castro, something he preferred to the gloomy like of Cambodia that was under heavy construction in 1999. He gave me the first glances to the Khmer soul, the dreams and ideals of his people. I stopped him after he charged me a very high fee for the lessons, more expensive than an Evangelical Khmer School in town. He felt pity to let me go, because he actually enjoyed to “practice his Spanish with me” while getting paid to teach two or three Khmer phrases.

With my next Khmer teachers I went around Phnom Penh in a time without proper roads, thousands of motorbikes, no tuk-tuks, no too many cars – I remember some old Russian and Korean trucks around – and thousands of beggars on the dirty smelling streets. The best part was always the Phnom Penh´s outskirts, going through villages along the Basac on the motorbike of my teacher, a young man who preferred to bring me through the real life pages of his country than staying in a classroom.

But my best Khmer teachers were the students of Don Bosco Phnom Penh. Every day, on the basketball field, on the work, on the dinner, building little by little the Khmer language I needed to say something, but especially to listen the heart of the millennial Cambodian people. Every time I could I wrote a sentence. I followed the advice of a veteran in the country who told me that if I really would like to speak Khmer, I had to learn how to write and read. Once, years before, I learned the Russian, Arab, Hebrew and Greek alphabets as a kind of mental sport. Looking to the Khmer alphabet, the longest of the world, was just a great challenge for me. I dedicated 4 weeks to learn only the alphabet and its complicated 72 phonemes. The most difficult one for me was NG (). My teacher spent hours and hours to make me repeat such strain to-the-Western-heard sound. I became crazy with that sound on the summer of 2000. Whatever I tried to do, I never got to say ង and it created a big difficulty because several words use such phoneme such as day (ធ្ងៃ).

It was the book of Franklin E. Huffman (1969) who came to my rescue when I read carefully the following sentence:

For students who have difficulty with this sound it is something helpful to pronounce the world singing, repeating the second syllable until he can isolate the syllable – nging, e.g.: singingingginging… nging

It was a night in what was an outskirts of Phnom Penh, the today Phnom Penh Thmey Commune and I started to repeat the singingingginging mantra, following the advice of professor Huffman. The day after I tested my ង and it was there, encrusted in my throat like a diamond, making me able to say several words and being understood. Since then on I took the book of professor Huffman as my Khmer language Bible and I wrote to him once, getting a miraculous reply from him.

My notebook as a student of Khmer became also the first draft of the book. During a first period I was committed to translate into Khmer many principles of the Spanish mentality. During the second stage I realized that I have to understand the Cambodian mentality. In this active learning of Khmer language, as a Western and as a Spanish speaking person, I can share the following experiences with those thriving now with the language:

  • Learning how to read and to write is essential. It reduces the time of learning and your pronunciation is much exact.
  • If you share more with Cambodians than expatriates, your Khmer develops faster and you even get to distinguish accents and slang.
  • Avoid Cambodians who want to “practice” their English with you: they will learn a lot English, but you will decrease your Khmer.
  • Visiting rural Cambodia gets a lot benefits: for one part you know the intimacy of the Cambodian mentality and for another part you will be obliged to express in Khmer.
  • Learn to distinguish the different Khmer dialects.

After 15 years speaking Khmer, you find that some Cambodians find difficult to understand you. According to my own observations, it has its own explanation:

  • Your accent can confuse some persons.
  • Cambodians who are not used to listen foreigners talking Khmer, stop in disbelief when they listen to one. For many, a foreigner talking in Khmer is like a talking rabbit. I remember an old woman who told me “I don’t understand you”, before I could say any word. Specially for rural people, the idea is that “foreigners cannot speak Khmer” and it is an old traditional idea from the Angkor times.
  • There is another group of Cambodians who don’t want to listen foreigners taking in Khmer: it is normally made by some University students or the staff in some tourist agencies, hotels and restaurants, who are very proud to master the English language. From this kind of people you will listen a very hideous expression: “Sorry, I cannot understand your Khmer.” By saying it, they think they won the English league! Reply to them this sentence:  សូមទោសខ្ញុំមិនអាចយល់ពីភាសាអង់គ្លេសរបស់អ្នក (Sorry, I cannot understand your English).

At the end, those who will help you with your Khmer language, will be those near to you or those who are simple and happy to hear a foreigner speaking their language. In that moment, you will be a part of them.

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About Albeiro Rodas

Albeiro Rodas (in Cambodia Sky Ly Samnang), is a MA in Digital Communication, independent journalist and a Salesian of Don Bosco from Amalfi, Colombia, based in Cambodia since 1999. He is the creator of the Don Bosco schools of journalism in Sihanoukville and Kep with young people from poor communities and the founder of the Don Bosco Kep Children Fund. Medal for Social Commitment UPB (2010); among the 100 more upstanding Colombians abroad (Marca Colombia, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X39xwdGtVXI) and among the 12 Colombians that are making this a better world 2013 (http://www.colombia.co/en/culture/colombians-that-are-making-this-a-better-world.html).

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