By Antonio Graceffo
At my Muay Thai school in Bangkok, one of the trainers told me he could speak Khmer. He was having trouble understanding me in Thai, which I speak better than Khmer, but when I switched to Khmer, he understood everything. It turned out he was not a native speaker of Khmer. He had been a Thai soldier on the Cambodia border, for a period of years and thus learned Khmer.
So, why does he understand me, a non-native speaker of Khmer better in a language where he is also a non-native speaker? The answer I came up with was, Thai is a dominant language. Thai demands that foreigners speak Thai nearly perfectly or native-speakers won’t understand you.
(Thai is a linguistic dominant language. It doesn’t mean Thai people are not nice or that they demand perfection. It means the linguistic expectancy is that other people adapt their speaking to Thai ears as opposed to Thai ears adapting to foreign pronunciation.)
Because my trainer was not a native speaker of Khmer, he was more tolerant of my mistakes and faulty pronunciation. He was also excited about having the opportunity to practice his Khmer and particularly, to speak Khmer with a farang (foreigner, barang in Khmer), which was most likely a first time experience for him. Among the staff at the gym, his status went up because he could speak a foreign language other than English and speak it extremely well. Because he wanted to save face, he forced himself to understand me, while people were watching. If we had been speaking Thai, if he didn’t understand, or chose to not understand, then it would have been my fault for having bad pronunciation. If we are speaking Khmer and he doesn’t understand, a stander-by might think the trainer didn’t speak Khmer well. So, to save face, he forced himself to understand everything.
A few years ago, when I was working in Surin city, in Khmer Surin, a Khmer speaking province of Thailand, my Khmer was better than my Thai, and yet I found it impossible to talk to people in Khmer. I would get half way through the sentence and realize that I had switched to Thai. I attributed this difficulty to linguistic triggers caused by being in Thailand and surrounded by Thai sights and smells, which activated the Thai language in my brain and made me tongue tied when I tried to speak Khmer.
A few months ago, I returned to Cambodia to work for two weeks. At this point, my Thai is much, much better than my Khmer because I have been attending school and working more in Thailand than in Cambodia. During those two weeks, I hired a translator and made no attempt to switch my brain to Khmer mode. Switching languages is actually painful and I didn’t see the point of going through a rocky and unpleasant shift, if at the end of two weeks I would be returning to Thailand anyway.
The last several months, I have been in Vietnam, studying Vietnamese languages, which, like Khmer, is a Mon-Khmer language. There are a lot of cognates between Khmer and Vietnamese and some of the language rhythms are the same. What I found very interesting was that while I was studying Vietnamese, my Khmer language was coming back to me, but it was interfering only minimally with my Vietnamese. Again, I thought about linguistic triggers. The culture, the sights and sounds of Vietnam are very different from Cambodia, so perhaps this prevented the language from coming out of my mouth when I was practicing Vietnamese. But, the linguistic similarities caused my long-dormant Khmer language to resurface in my brain.
Both David Long (of ALG, AUA Thai program) and I believe that cultural, rather than linguistic, similarities between languages are the most important determinates of what we learn, how we learn, and how easy it is to learn a new language. For example, Chinese native speakers, from Taiwan and China, find it easier to learn Thai than do westerners because of linguistic similarities. But Chinese native speakers from Singapore and Malaysia learn almost twice as fast because of similarities of culture.
My experience with remembering Khmer in Vietnam supports the theory that cultural, rather than linguistic similarities activate a language.
The exercise of learning Vietnamese re-awoke my Khmer language. Now I am speaking Khmer with one of my Thai coaches every day and finding it relatively easy to switch back to Thai. Soon I will be back in Cambodia for a linguistics project and I am hoping to find that Khmer language will come back to me much faster and less painfully than it did in the past, after long periods of living in Thailand.
So, what is my advice to you? If you have forgotten how to speak Khmer, but you already speak Thai, go learn Vietnamese.
Just one more piece of practical advice from a Brooklyn Monk in Asia.
See Antonio Graceffo’s multipart video series for free, on youtube.
ALG Vietnamese Linguistics Part 1
Also see Antonio’s video
ALG Vietnamese Picture Story Le Loi
In a recent round of interviews, networks and media sent Antonio the question via email and Antonio answered on camera. If you are interested in doing a similar interview, fire off the questions to Antonio. Antonio is looking for an opportunity to study for an MA/PHD in linguistics.
Antonio Graceffo is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” and is he host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts odyssey.”
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