Learning Khmer

There is a remarkable lack of teaching materials for learning Khmer.  I found almost nothing in the States, except a web-advertised course that required I use Google Checkout.

I did find the 1966 U.S. Government Foreign Service Institute course for Cambodian.  This is in the public domain and quite extensive.  Someone had scanned the whole damn thing in, and ripped the audio to mp3’s.  (Go here if you want one.  Other languages too.)

The production quality is quite low, but the instructional quality is good.  Except that they don’t believe in teaching theory.  At all.  The teaching strategy is complete immersion.  They don’t even teach vocabulary for you — you have to figure everything out from context.

Maybe in practice the teacher would clue you in to some of that good stuff.  But with only that coursebook, it just wasn’t happening.

(I still have it with me, tho — I printed it out; a big, telephone-directory-thick book, comprising the first half the course — and might come back to it once I have the basics.)

At the phantom orphanage, I asked An to teach me some Khmer.  He was game.  I wanted to learn how to say “____ is ____.”  I figured, it’s a good start; it only requires that you learn new vocabulary to use; the minimum requirement for a statement to have meaning is that you connect two concepts that aren’t naturally connected (or so I decided some years ago when mulling such matters over).

When I wrote:

 ____ is ____.

on the notebook, An looked at it like he had no idea what it was or what I wanted.  After a bit of talk, An still had no idea what I wanted, so I asked him to translate:

The book is red.

This he did quite happily, writing in the astoundingly complicated Khmer script.  Then he stalled at writing it in Roman characters, so I asked him to say it a few times, and I wrote it out.

(The first time he omitted the verb, for “red book,” which I suspect may be a legit utterance in Khmer.)

We talked out the sentence.  There is no “the” or “an” in Khmer, and nouns don’t pluralize — you just slap a number-word on, generally speaking.  It’s a little different for people, in ways I don’t yet understand.


I asked him to conjugate “is” — “gu” — for me, and, smiling, he said:  “I am — gu.  He is — gu.  They are — gu.”

Khmer verbs don’t conjugate.

An went off to do something, so I did a few lookups in my dictionary, and by the time he was back could show him what I’d produced.

He stared at it, and said, “The plate is new!  Yes, this is very good Khmer.”  And he wanted to write it in English.

Then I had a question that was too complicated to convey, so I wrote two sentences:

 New plate is broken.

Plate new is broken.  (Remember, there’s no “the” in Khmer.)


When he came back, he puzzled over the first one.  Finally, I asked him to look at the second.  He lit up.  “Ah, yes — very good!  You will learn Khmer very quickly.”

So it’s N + Adj + V + pred.  And after “is” there could follow either a noun or an adjective.

New News 

The book I bought yesterday, while getting sunburned, is a traditional tape-course language learning book.  And I didn’t get the tapes, because I have no tape player.  (Actually I think the book may be a pirate edition — I had to cut some of the pages apart, and the binding uses a single stitch.  Doesn’t look like Routledge’s work.)

But, for all its dependence on memorizing patterns of phrases I don’t want to know anyway, this book is nevertheless a gold-mine.  For three reasons:

1 – It actually has lessons.  It’s not just a thesaurus of sound-bites, or a dictionary.

2 – It explains the Khmer script, with brush-strokes.  (I don’t know the equivalent phrase for a ballpoint.)

3 – It has a grammer section!  — briefly, in an appendix, but the basics of sentence formation are all there:  questions; verb tenses; relative clauses.

From what I’m seeing, I’ll be speaking broken Khmer in just a few days!


And on that note, I’ll draw your attention to Happy Pizza’s primary competition.  From what Tom tells me, hash is legal in Siem Reap.


Published in: on August 24, 2009 at 3:31 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] is like the Cambodian FSI course in format.  Unfortunately, I’m not finding the mp3s anywhere online.  The author has a web […]

  2. Thanks for the info. I am in Khmer country for I don’t know how long but It could be many months. I find it very difficult to learn anything about the language to help me. I lived in China for years and they had romanization, pinyin, making it much easier to learn to speak. I would rather learn to speak so i can communicate than read or write, that seems so difficult, life is so short. If you get or hear of any lists that make it easier to learn to speak I’m interested. Is there no English transliteration for the Khmer script? jonnytropics@yahoo.com

  3. So – what WAS the book you bought and has it helped you learn Khmer? I am working with the FSI course.

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