Learning a language the old-fashioned way

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I am taking lessons in Khmer. Twice a week I go for my classes in a classroom that is literally in the shadow of the Toul Sleng genocide museum, also known as S-21, the school turned into a notorious prison where thousands were tortured before being executed in Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields of the Democratic Kampuchea regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

We have had to overcome a number of difficulties in order to establish a rhythm. The most difficult thing is transcribing the language. As I am only going to be staying here in Cambodia for a short while, I am not going to learn the Khmer alphabet to save time, so we transcribe the words into a mixture of the Roman alphabet and phonetic symbols. Unfortunately, there is no set system for this; my teacher, my dictionary and the 1960s textbook I bought all use different spellings, and International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols are used differently. Having worked these differences out, we are now able to proceed quite happily.

My teacher is old-fashioned and follows a pattern I can follow easily because I know it well. I find this comforting as every word is completely different from English. I know the steps and can follow her without too much difficulty. Such syllabuses are often criticised for being artificial, but I have absolutely no criticism to make. When she puts a pen on the table and asks me where it is, I do not feel that it is not real communication, but an opportunity to construct a sentence, besides which she manages to add humour and make me feel I am getting somewhere. Since the rise of the communicative method, many have criticised this style of teaching, but I am enjoying it. As I wrestle with a language that is very different from my own, I find that I am utterly distant from ideas like this:

To give an example, one of the things that all EFL teachers are made aware of in their training is the impact of their questions on the learner. If a question is not 'genuine', which is to say that the teacher knows the answer and if, worst of all, there is only one answer (and the teacher prompts the learner to give it!), then it is not 'honest behaviour' to ask the question. The student is simply being grilled in a concealed didactic way, and the teacher's interaction is neither honest nor equal. The impact of such questioning is to reinforce teacher-over-learner hierarchy, raise the fear thermostat, invite collusion in do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do behaviours, and generally lower self esteem.
Grethe Hooper Hansen: Are we ready for Holism?

I don't want my teacher to be my equal- I want her to be my superior and to guide me professionally into uncharted areas of knowledge, to take me carefully and patiently towards being able to speak, which she does extremely well. I want her to be didactic, not my friend. She has asked me virtually nothing about my life, which is fine by me; I go in and we get down to the serious business of learning a language. At first, she seemed a little surprised by my constantly asking questions and trying to build up knowledge by testing ideas. This might be because she has cornered the Japanese market here in Phnom Penh; I was introduced to her by a Japanese friend, one of her many students, and in many cases, Japanese learners look to the teacher for guidance, while I look for a sounding board. However, she quickly adjusted, within the first lesson actually, and lets me test my ideas out as I try to work out the grammatical rules.

She follows a rigidly grammatical syllabus. Again, this is often criticised in modern ESL teaching, but I am enjoying it; I can graft the lexis on later. If she can teach me how to structure past, present and future, I can add more verbs later myself, instead of spending a lot of lesson time doing dictionary work. In fact, though I take it religiously, I haven't opened my dictionary in any of the classes.

Ultimately, it depends on the quality of the teacher; I have been fortunate to find an excellent teacher, who happens to follow her tried and tested way, which has enabled hundreds of students before me to learn Khmer. In many methodologies, there is a tendency to want to throw out the old in order to bring in the new, and a desire to impose a single model. In the UK before I left, I saw a clear drive through steps like the ESOL curriculum to impose a standard method and style, which I find worrying. Teachers should be allowed the freedom to teach in the style that suits them best and then judged by results on whether they are doing a good job or not, and old methods should not be buried simply because they are old. I am learning Khmer the old-fashioned way and am finding it fun and rewarding; I am progressing and looking forward to my lessons. I have a teacher who is didactic, controlling and uses a syllabus from the 1960s, and I love it. There are few materials available for learning Khmer and I come from a different language family, so following such a path makes a lot of sense. Given the diversity of ESL learners and their backgrounds, I feel that there may well be much in the ideas of the past that can help. I have taught many students from very conservative cultures, and they expected me to be didactic to be a teacher. I think that many of the assumptions of communicative and humanistic teaching may prove to be limitations of applied universally; there is no universal panacea, and we should be open to the past as well as the present and future.

ESL is opening up into many areas where conditions mean that teaching has constraints. In resource limited settings, different rules may well apply. My teacher doesn't have ready access to a photocopier, let alone the Internet. I have come from an education system where they are talking about the difficulties of converting VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) into MLEs (Managed Learning Environments), where the virtual materials are integrated into the administrative and managerial databases. Living and learning in a resource limited setting has opened my eyes to the difficulties faced by teachers without the resources and made me aware that many of the old methods and ideas may be appropriate as they were created at a time when countries like European ones were distant, foreign lands in virtual isolation. Far from the luxury of well established and resourced markets, it may be better to look to the past for inspiration, where conditions were similar to those faced today in those settings, to look to people who faced similar challenges.

Categories: Asian Blog


We have many resources on learning Khmer at Khmercity.net, including Khmer unicode and books entirely in Khmer.

We have many resources on learning Khmer at Khmercity.net, including Khmer unicode and books entirely in Khmer.

We have many resources on learning Khmer at Khmercity.net, including Khmer unicode and books entirely in Khmer.

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