Investigating the language

Khmer people have great difficulty with the sounds ‘th’, ‘sh’ and ‘w’ in English.  And they don’t pronounce the end of words in Khmer either, so when speaking English they fall into two groups – those who don’t pronounce the ends of English words, and those who end practically every English word with an ‘s’, leading to sentences like ‘cans you sees the suns in this pictures?’

I’ve been working very hard with my class on pronunciation, sounding my ‘th’ so vehemently that I spit all over the kids in the front row, but it’s quite difficult to get them to pronounce it correctly when the teacher doesn’t.  However, I do think that the better ones are improving, which is gratifying.  And in any case it makes a change from rolling exaggerated ‘r’s in a French classroom, sounding like an advert for a new antiseptic gargle.

I heard one of the children ask the Khmer teacher a question which quite clearly ended with the word ‘anglais’.  I asked him what it meant, and he explained that it is the Khmer word for ‘English’.  As Cambodia was a French colony for 90 years, it’s not surprising that they have adopted some French words, athough some of them have been subjected to what is known as ‘khmerisation’ and the pronunciation has altered slightly.

Other words I’ve heard at school are:

  • aleurmang – German
  • pawm – apple
  • kilo – kilometer
  • kado – gift
  • cartable – school bag
  • num pang – bread
  • kaafee – coffee
  • menouy – menu
  • kat – card
  • bich – biro

The word for a French person is ‘barang’, pronounced to rhyme with ‘meringue’.  As that’s nothing like francais, I assume it has come from some more perjorative Khmer word, but it has come to be very widely adopted.  Nowadays it is used to refer to all Westerners, and the expats even use the word to refer to themselves.

The written language is very difficult – there are 23 vowels and 33 consonants – apparently it’s the longest alphabet in the world.  The reception class chant them several times a day while the teacher points to each letter, but they all sound and look so similar that I haven’t begun to work out how to write the simplest thing.
This means I am a teacher:

and this is the phonetic spelling:
khnhom chea krou bangrien

And this is a very important sentence:
អ្នកគឺជា ក្មេងប្រុស ល្អ
anak kuchea kmengobrosa  l
It means 'you are a silly boy'.

Luckily I don't have to use it very often because my class have learnt two phrases perfectly - 'silly boy' and 'lazy boy'.  These are then extended to 'no, teacher, no lazy boy - he lazy boy' etc.

If I've done anything during my time teaching here, it's to develop a group of very smug girls who are extremely conscious of their superiority over their male classmates.