William and Mary Law School

Interlude: A Khmer Lesson

As many of you know, I want to learn Khmer while I’m here. Really, I don’t have a choice. The language barrier is getting more and more frustrating, and I really need to learn this language if I’m going to function for the next three months.

Luckily, Khmer is a bit easier than other Asian languages because it isn’t tonal. The most difficult part is instead the fact that it has 26 vowel sounds. There are just tiny variations on every sound. For example, in English, the “ah” sound in “August” is different from the “ah” sound in “opportunity,” (so they tell me). In Khmer,  jang (to want) uses the opportunity "ah" sound and jang (to tie) uses the August "ah" sound. So if I say I want something, I'm probably going to say I'm tying something, which makes absolutely no sense. The vowel sound can be only slightly off and you're suddenly speaking nonsensical Khmer. That’s just one example, then multiply it over all of the different vowel sounds…I have a lot of work to do.

Once I learn enough of the basics, the learning process should get a lot easier. I'm surrounded by eager teachers. Khmers are accustomed to tourists that expect them to know English, so they get very excited when they discover that I’m actually trying to learn their language. I was at a soccer game a few days ago and an old man found out about my endeavor.  For the rest of the game, he proceeded to teach me the name of nearly everything in the stadium. I handed him my Khmer-English dictionary and the lesson expanded to verbs, modifiers. I missed Cambodia’s goal when I was chatting with him about the names of colors. Yesterday, my moto driver offered to sit down with me and exchange language lessons over a plate of fried rice. Khmers laugh when I say “Joom riab suah,” in response to their “Hello, lady!” It must be strange to hear their language coming out of a foreigner’s mouth. And, I’m probably butchering those blasted vowel sounds.

I started work yesterday, which essentially involved me reading the Khmer Criminal Code and meeting my coworkers. Today, I traveled to Pursat with the Cambodian Program Director. We will have a roundtable discussion with local judges, lawyers, and police officers on obstacles they are facing in the justice system tomorrow. IBJ does a lot of roundtable discussions throughout Cambodia to facilitate communication amongst the legal community. I’ll let you know how all of that goes. I head back to Phnom Penh in a day or two and then on to Ratanikiri sometime next week! Juab kh’nia th’ngay krao-y (see you later)!

Cambodia beat Bangladesh 1-0!

Cambodia beat Bangladesh 1-0!