Over the past 6 weeks I’ve begun to study some Khmer – the official language of Cambodia. Khmer is the ninth language I have studied in a classroom. The tenth, if you include English. My first was a few months of Japanese way back in grade 3, and the last time I studied a language in a classroom was my year at a Beijing university a decade ago. The Master of Divinity degree I’ll be starting in January will have me adding two new languages to my repetoire – Greek and Hebrew – so it’s been good to get back into the language-study mindset before then.
When I studied languages at university (I did six in my undergraduate degree) I always excelled in the initial stages – straight up vocabulary acquisition. I’m pretty good at memorising lists of words by rote. I always hit a bump, however, as grammar became a bigger part of things. Surprise, surprise – the same thing has happened with my Khmer studies!
The biggest speed bump has turned out to be the tug-of-war I feel between different grammar systems. Mandarin uses a grammar system that is quite different to English grammar most of the time. Khmer grammar sometimes leans toward the English way of doing things and sometimes leans toward Mandarin. These days both English and Chinese grammar feel natural to me – neither is awkward. But Khmer falls so in between that I get confused. The feeling that I’m mixing two individually comfortable but different grammars gets me all turned around! This hasn’t happened to me before, which I assume is because this is the first language I’ve studied since becoming so comfortable in Mandarin.
Okay, so here’s an example. In Mandarin, time always comes first. Whereas in English we say “I’m going home at 8pm,” the same sentence in Mandarin would go “I am 8pm going home”. It took a long time to get comfortable with this reversal but now I don’t even think about it – saying it according to the English grammar feels awkward and wrong. Khmer fits the English pattern when it comes to time, but I just keep trying to do it in the Chinese way. It simply sounds wrong to me when I do it the English way! Sigh.
Then there are ways in which Khmer is different from both – such as with specifiers (the “measure words” of Chinese). English uses some specifiers but not with everything. In English we mostly use specifiers for parts of a whole (“a slice of cake”), containers (“a bottle of milk”), and things in pairs (like pants, or shoes) – but there are a few other random ones (like “a piece of paper”). Mandarin, on the other hand, uses a specifier for pretty much every single noun – many of the specifiers highly restrictive, used for only a few nouns. Chinese doesn’t use the “of” that English does (it’s just “two tiao river” or “three ben book”) but other than that the word order is the same. Khmer, however, does it in a different direction. Instead of number+specifier+noun, it’s verb, then number, then specifier. So, I have to say that I want to buy “bananas three bunches” or that I have “little sisters two naek“.
Another thing that trips me up a little is the two negating words in Khmer (at and min). I keep using them as if they are equivalents of the two main negating words in Mandarin (bu and mei – which I’ve written about before) even though they aren’t completely the same.
I also keep mixing up the words “very” and “a lot” (nah and chran). I always kick myself because it should be easy! Just do the exact same thing as in English! But no, I keep forgetting, because in Chinese both use the word – hen. BIG sigh.
The upside of having studied lots of different languages is that I am used to thinking in different ways. The downside is I sometimes can’t keep all those different ways straight!! But I also know from the experience of all those languages that there’s a pattern to it. There more I use these sentences, these patterns, over and over (and over again) the more an unfamiliar language will become familiar, and I won’t have to think about what’s right anymore – it will begin to fall off my tongue without thought. Until then, I suspect my brain will keep wrestling between Chinese and Khmer…