Thursday, October 30, 2008

Native Tongue

Dear Mme. Dahlberg,

I do not want to you to feel wholly responsible for the fact that I am miserably monolingual. After all, it could not have been easy to be the sole high school French teacher in Lexington, Ohio, the only local expert in a language not your own, the lone Francophile amidst the fields of corn. But I do not think I am being conceited when I say that I was one of your most promising and attentive students for the four years that I sat in your classroom, nor am I being modest when I say that I came out of those four years lacking the ability to speak any French. Half of the expats in Siem Reap are French, but I would rather feign mental retardation when I meet one of them than try to strike up a conversation in my pidgin français. And if I can’t speak even a fairly common Romance language with any fluency, how will I ever be able to tackle Khmer?

Mind you, learning Khmer is hardly a prerequisite for living in Cambodia. Everyone here, from the tuk-tuk drivers to the wealthy businessmen, can speak English, and one’s fluency is usually a good indication of one’s affluence. ESL textbooks and workbooks are everywhere (though I’ve yet to find similar ones that teach Khmer). Children and young adults love to test out their English skills on us with stilted but spirited conversations. We have been told that American accents are especially respected, and when I see Obama and McCain orating from every television screen, I understand why. Unwittingly, and through pure luck and happenstance, I have been fluent in the language of influence and power for over twenty years. For a monolinguist, it is the most fortuitous possible position, and I can’t help but feel some guilt for stumbling into it.

Maybe because of this guilt, it is important to me to be able to speak at least some semblance of the local language. I refuse to look like a tourist for the next ten months, unable to pronounce even the blandest pleasantries correctly. Let the record show that I tried, in advance, to prevent this from happening, by purchasing “Talk Khmer Now!” for my computer, which features two decidedly Anglo-looking people whose lip movements do not match the words they are supposedly saying. But a single CD-ROM gave me little insight into a language so complex that it’s difficult to pronounce even the name of the language correctly (despite being spelled “Khmer,” it’s pronounced, inexplicably, more like “k’mai”), and while the software was marginally successful in teaching me a few single words, I am still incapable of stringing them into sentences (“Rice yes meat no please thanks big-big!”)

Since the intricacies of Khmer grammar seem to be something only a real teacher can convey, Jason and I went in search of one at the local monastery, Wat Bo. A monk named Savuth was convinced to take us on as students, though he usually teaches English and seemed a little nervous about the prospect of teaching Khmer. Nonetheless, he told us we could come as often as we want, and when we mentioned the subject of formal payment, he looked embarrassed and said something supremely monkish, such as, “If you will learn to speak the Khmer language, this will make me happy.” Savuth’s request seems like an exceedingly modest one, but I worry that making him happy will be a little harder than scoring an A in French IV.

Apparently, the sight of crazy white people wandering around the monastery is not an everyday occurrence, and two other monks showed up at our first lesson, counting on the potential entertainment value of the event. Savuth got right down to business, trying to teach us how to say I. This sounds simple enough, but the way you say I varies widely depending upon whether you’re talking to your grandmother or to a monk or to the King of Cambodia. A simple k’nyom will do if I’m talking to Jason, for instance, but for the king it’s knyom prea-ang meh cha, and God only knows what would happen if I had to speak to both of them at once. If I wanted to say something to Savuth, like “I think I might feel faint if I have to look at any more of the absurdly complicated Khmer alphabet,” I would have to say, “K’nyom prea-cah ro nah…” or something of the sort, just to express that initial pronoun, at which point I would have forgotten the rest of the sentence.

After an exhausting assortment of Is, we moved on to learning how to tell someone your name. “Listen,” Savuth said. “Cheameuooioereh,” or some other combination of vowels I have never heard before. “K’nyom cheameuooioereh Savuth.”

“Chamore?” I said hopefully.

“Cheameuooioereh,” Savuth said, moving his mouth in a way that I cannot hope to replicate.

“Shamoo?” I said, feeling smaller and smaller. This went back and forth for a while, until Savuth settled back to drink some Coca-cola and compose himself and I slumped dejectedly while one of the monk audience members told me, “Clever student! Clever student!” in a way that I found extremely kind but unduly optimistic.

The lesson ended with Savuth trying valiantly to teach us how to say, “See you Monday!” and then waving goodbye as we sputtered gibberish back at him.

Mme. Dahlberg, where did we go wrong? Am I really such a dullard that acquisition of a foreign language is beyond my reach? Or did all that time in the middle of an enormous and powerful country muffle all the other voices of the world? Keep fighting the good fight, Mme. Dahlberg—we need people who can talk to each other, and Savuth and the rest of the international community deserve better than a one-trick pony like me.

Best wishes,
Shannon Dunlap


Andrew and Emily said...

Don't worry, Shannon. I took multiple years of French in middle school, three years of Spanish in high school, and two years of American Sign Language in college, and my mastery of those languages still pales in comparison to my knowledge of dirty Lebanese phrases. I learned those from your worldly boyfriend, by the way.

Llalan said...

Mon Dieu! As I believe I've mentioned many times, I once asked for a fried handbag, vegetarian just keep that in mind.