I’ve been studying Khmer – the ninth language I’ve studied in a classroom. 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!
To learn language well means going beyond translating English thoughts into Chinese, instead expressing myself in wholly Chinese thoughts – to see the world through that lens. To not be chained to “front” as “future” and “behind” as “past”.
Two of the first characters Chinese children are taught to write in school are 上 and 下. Both words are used all day, every day, in many different ways. 上 is on, over, above, up; 下 is under, below, down. But wait, there’s more!
In English we use “please” a lot. Use it and you’re polite. Don’t and you’re rude. So an English speaker learns the word 请 [qǐng], often translated “please”, and starts throwing it around in Chinese. Problem is, that’s not how Chinese use 请.
Many of the simple words one relies upon in one’s native language don’t exist in other languages – not in the form one is accustomed to. For example, in China it’s uncommon to say 谢谢 when the person is doing something they are paid for.
Changes in my accent and vocabulary have been a big part of my expat experience. There is an emotional toll that comes with having an accent that doesn’t match your passport. But it is a choice, and what I gain is worth the cost.
August is rainy season in Cambodia. There was rain most days, some thunderstorms and flooding. I love it here. It is, the perfect blend of familiar and foreign. I speak survival Khmer – enough to get around, not enough to converse.