One of the benefits to having been in Cambodia for 5 years is that I have been learning Khmer for that time as well. About two years into this I decided I needed to learn the alphabet if I was going to make sense of some of the vowels and so I can also read and write (though probably at a Grade 1-2 level!)
I find my students amazed that I can do this and when I share this with them, I feel the Khmer students in particular are validated that foreigners (especially a teacher) are willing to learn their language – and they’re amused to think I might be able to overhear their conversations! Providing that acknowledgement and stating the importance to other students of the Khmer language is really beneficial for these students.
One of my favourite biology lessons with Grade 11 is when we do classification and the importance of a universal system for naming organisms. We did this today and I start off by asking the class who can write Khmer and then have the student write out the name for:
tiger – ខ្លា – sun bear – ខ្លាឃ្មំ – leopard – ខ្លារខិន – lion – តោ
We then discuss which is the “odd” one out based on the local names – the answer clearly being the “lion” because the other three contain the root word ខ្លា (Klaa). We then discuss the reasons people name animals and what local, historical or cultural significance might be attached to them.
Next to their Khmer names, we then classify the four animals using the binomial system, assigning their Genus and species names. We can see under this system, that the three big cats all share a genus (Panthera) while the bear diverges at an earlier stag (Family). Thus the binomial system is essential for international scientists as they are able to use a single language with very precise categories.
I have worked on this lesson over the last couple of years and tweaked a few things, but it remains one of the best examples from my teaching of trying to incorporate host-country language and in validating the language of our Khmer students. I know many of us take Khmer lessons in our own time and that whatever level we are at, their is an opportunity to use this in class.