Teaching English, Learning Khmer

This has been an exciting week! Student teaching began Monday.  My students call me Chur (as in, Teachur.)  I have nine kids age 6-13 at the orphanage in the mornings, and work with the restaurant staff at my hotel at night.  Not all of the kids are actually orphans: many come from families living in the provinces that are too poor to support them.  These families send their kids to the orphanages for most of the year, where they are housed, fed and educated, and pick them up for the holidays.  The kids eat well there, too!  Rice is their primary staple, as it is in most of the country.  They own a rice field, about an hour down the road, but are often given several bags a month from local benefactors.  On site, they grow dragon fruit, mangos, coconuts, star fruit, bananas and chili plants – all of which the kids are excited to have you taste.  They have fish, ducks that provide meat and eggs, and cows that provide milk.

English teachers are given a ton of respect here, in the classroom and outside of it.  At a market in Siem Reap, I was buying a pair of sunglasses from a vendor who had initially asked for six dollars (so I tried to bargain him down to three.)  We talked for a bit, and I told him that I had moved to the country to teach English.  He then started to tell me about his life: He had lived in Siem Reap as a child, and his wealthy family was able to educate him well in English.  He was thirteen years old when the Khmer Rouge took over.  Once they rose to power, they expelled everyone from the cities in long marches that killed many, destroyed all schools and books and killed the teachers.  English and other foreign languages were viewed as an imposition of imperialist influence, and those who demonstrated they had been trained in them were killed.  This man’s older brother and father were murdered by the regime, but he survived.  He still has an interest in learning English, but no longer has the money to afford the training.  After telling me his story, he offered me an English-teacher discount: $2.  (I will write a more in depth post about the Khmer Rouge and the lingering effects of the revolution soon.)

In addition to starting teaching English, I have begun to study Khmer.  We have quickly covered a lot of the basics, such as how to introduce ourselves, how to order, how to give directions and how to bargain at the market.  The essentials!

Because Khmer is written in its own unique alphabet, there is no correct way to spell the words.  Here are a few phrases in Khmer:

Suas d’ai! Kinyom chmouy Melissa. Dtar nyeh chmuoy awaii? (My name is Melissa. What is your name?)
Dtar nyeh moak bpee prawdtey naa? Kinyom moak bpee prawdtey americk. (What country do you from? I come from America?)
Tlai bon maan? (How much?) Tlai naa! (Too expensive!)

One of the best things about learning to speak Khmer is the way people respond to my efforts.  As I am obviously a foreigner, people always speak to me in what little English they have first.  When I respond in Khmer, I get a lot of double takes, and laughs.  At first I thought people were laughing at my pronunciation… but actually, they just love to hear foreigners learning their language.  Everytime I respond to someone in their language, they laugh like I told I joke – its awesome!

I’m going to the market in Phnom Penh for the first time tomorrow, to buy a used bicycle and other fun things.  I’m really excited to test out my Khmer – and hope that my efforts will lead people to not rip me off as badly!

5 of my kids (Long, Pa, Look, PhangHom, No)                  

Niet, Ngna, No              

Hot and sweaty in the classroom, with two of my girls (Ngna and No)

Long, going in to his room

Sok, across the grounds                         

The pond                 

Niet, in her after-class clothes

Sok driving the tuk tuk

A cart selling potted crafts


11 thoughts on “Teaching English, Learning Khmer

  1. Love this post! Love seeing you with your students, Melissa. And congratulations on the new job! Will you be with these same students, or somewhere else?

    • Thank you!! No, I’ll be going to a private school. Orphanages don’t have the money or resources to hire teachers. However, my schedule will allow for some time to do volunteer work, so I can always go back to visit and teach or read to them!

  2. that photo of you and ngna and no made me smile ear to ear. absolutely loving reading your adventures melissa. i like pandas and love boyfriends too

  3. Pingback: A Glance at Online English Learning and Tutoring «

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