Teachers are language learners too!

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.

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7 thoughts on “Teachers are language learners too!

  1. I really appreciate this, and I do agree that we should probably all try to incorporate the host country more, this is an excellent way of doing it! A bit of topic but, I have in the past tried to pair people up with someone from their own country and encourage them to do small exercises or skits in their own language. One example of this is when we did tongue twisters, we learned a Cambodian one, one from Kazhakstan and one from Norway. A brilliant way to get everyone out of their comfort zone when it comes to sounds and strange noises. I find that by doing and showing that everyone has a language they don’t know is something that make the EAL or non native english speakers feel good about themselves.

  2. Hi Simon,
    I can totally relate to the experience of learning to read and write in the target language. I had the same experience with Khmer 15years ago and also made it to a grade 2 reading level. Using that knowledge in my EAL lessons at the time, with my students was very valuable particularly while scaffolding their understanding of particular pronunciation, e.g., the fine differences between two words like ‘fan’ and ‘fun’.

    Unfortunately, today that knowledge I once had is dormant 🙂 But your post has triggered the motivation to check back into reviving it.
    Thanks!

    1. Thanks Elaine. I think Khmer is the most I have applied myself to another language before and I have found the experience revelatory in terms of understanding how students are coping with language skills. I think growing up monolingual in a system/society that at the time did not value multilingualism gave me a limited understanding of these issues. Good luck with revisiting Khmer – I am happy to recommend a tutor if you need to find one.

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