In January, 2010, I returned to Cambodia to do a book and video series on Khmer martial arts, as well as a series on the language of the Cham ethnic minority group.

When I lived in Cambodia full time, 2004 and 2005, I attended school and studied Khmer in a traditional environment with one-on-one lessons for a period of three months. After that, I was living and working with Khmers, and spoke Khmer well for every day usage. But, when I would go out to do interviews for my articles, I preferred not to conduct my field interviews in Khmer, because I wasn’t quite fluent enough. So, I almost always had a translator with me. What I did do, however, was listen closely to what my translators were saying, and I would often step in and correct them, if I felt they had mistranslated.

At that time, I felt that working with my translators was an excellent exercise in ALG (Automatic Language Growth) because I was doing so much listening. The important thing with listening based language learning is that there must be context and clues to meaning. For example, listening to the radio is not a good way for a beginner to learn a language because there is no visual context, no way at all to know what any of the words meant. Watching TV and movies is better. Watching translations of movies you are already familiar with is better still.

Out in the field, there was perfect context. I knew what I was asking, because I said it in English. Then I listened to the way my translator translated it into Khmer. Then I heard the response of the interview subject. Although I didn’t know exactly what he was going to say, there was already a context, and I was making assumptions or guesses about what possible answers he would give me. In ALG we stress the guessing activity of adult learners. You need to keep guessing at meanings of words or conversations, ruling out options, narrowing and narrowing, until you have a hypothesis about what something means. Then you have to review this hypothesis repeatedly and see if it stands up to your continued experience with the language. The hypothesis may need to be amended as new information comes in.

It may sound complicated but in actuality, this all happens in your brain at the speed of light.


Antonio: “Ask him if he wants a cup of coffee.”

Translator speaks Khmer.

Subject answers. He says something that sounds like: “At dey.”

Translator: “No, he doesn’t want coffee.”

Assumption: “At dey” means “no” in Khmer.

Obviously this is a very simple example. But the hypothesis or the guessing still applies. The subject may have said “no” or he may of have said, “heart condition.” He may be medically unable to drink coffee. Or he may have said “tea”; he prefers tea to coffee. So, we have to keep listening to see if this actually means “no”, “tea”, or “heart condition”.

Listening to my translated questions and then hearing the translated responses was an excellent way of learning nuances of the language. It was experience that I could never have obtained in a classroom. On those occasions when I didn’t have a translator, I conducted interviews by myself. Traditional language teaching theories would suggest that I would learn more from doing the interviews myself, because I was “practicing.” But I strongly disagree. Or, when you conduct your own interviews, when you do “conversation” you only say things that you already know. It never happens that words start popping out of your mouth that you have never heard before or don’t know the meanings of. So, if you are only using words you already know, there is no growth. There is no learning.

You could talk forever, in a foreign language, and never improve at all.

Which is what most foreigners do: Once they get to intermediate level, and find they can communicate with locals, they stop studying. They may have a local boyfriend or girlfriend or lesbian-life-partner and speak the language all day, but they may never improve.

When you conduct your own interviews, you also only record those answers that you understand. So a lot of meaning is lost. And you only ask follow up questions about things you already know, which steers the conversation back to the known and away from learning.

This time around, 2010, in Cambodia, obviously I have lost a lot of my fluency during my absence. Also, learning Thai, which has such close linguistic and cultural triggers, has interfered with my ability to speak Khmer. So, I always have a translator with me. For some of the video interviews I had a Khmer translator who spoke English. But for many of the martial arts videos I used two Sino-Khmer brothers, Long and Serey who translated into Madarine for me.

For years, I have been fascinated with the concept of learning a foreign language, through the medium of a second foreign language. In fact, I studied applied linguistics in Germany for four years and learned Spanish and some Italian and French through a German medium. I have had a theory, that since traditional teaching methods are so useless, you will actually learn more of the medium language, the language of instruction, rather than the target language, the language you are studying.

In 2007 I was on a one month project in Cambodia and I signed up for Korean lessons. I already had a Korean vocabulary of about 2,000 words but couldn’t speak. I didn’t expect the Khmer teacher to get me any further along the path to fluency in Korean, but, I thought that the exercise would help my Khmer language. And I was right on both counts.

Since I signed up for a beginners Korean class, the textbooks and exercises were extremely basic, and I didn’t need any one to explain or translate to me for meaning. But when we did our homework, I had to translate into and out of Khmer. When we did grammar substitution homework, the teacher would argue or explain the correct answers in Khmer.

It was an incredible experience for learning Khmer. Sadly, I was called away to another project and never got to finish the course, or do the documentation I had hoped to do on the subject.

Working with my Chinese Khmer translators was another interesting linguistic experience. At home, they spoke to their parents in heavy Chinese dialect, which they have never done formal study on and which doesn’t really have a written component. They both attended Chinese primary and high school in Phnom Penh, so they were academically fluent in Mandarin. When they spoke to each other, it was mostly in Mandarin. I would have to guess there were two reasons for this: first, their family dialect may have lacked vocabulary for situations they encountered outside of the home. Second, at school, since many of the Sino-Khmer children had different dialects at home (Hokkien, Tachiew, Cantonese, Ke Ja, Fujien…) the lingua franca between school children must have been Mandarin or sometimes Khmer.

Working with them as translators was interesting because they aren’t true native speakers of Mandarin. They speak and read better than me, but they have never lived in a Chinese speaking country.

Work went like this:

I would ask a question in simple Chinese.

They translated into appropriate Khmer.

The interview subject answered in Khmer.

They translated back into simple Chinese.

I say they translated into simple Chinese for two reasons. They probably did it partially to accommodate me, because I am not a Chinese native speaker. And once again, they aren’t native speakers, so their Khmer had to be dumbed down to fit their Chinese paradigm.

As a side note: with overall education levels in Cambodia being quite low and with the Khmer language lacking much of the vocabulary necessary to deal with the modern world, the boys probably found certain concepts easier to express in Chinese than in Khmer.

Just as with the English to Khmer translators, I was getting the benefit of hearing my questions translated into Khmer, and hearing the answers in Khmer. Using the Chinese translators, however, I was also more certain that they were accurately translating, because they are near native speakers of Chinese, whereas my Khmer-English translator was not a near-native speaker of English.

The translations tended to be a lot shorter, because the Chinese guys were much more secure in what they were saying. I was no longer the ominous authority on the language. They didn’t need to worry or to impress me. They just translated, which meant that I was listening to much more Khmer than I was with my Khmer-English translator.

During this period I was asked to translate for a delegation from a martial arts association from France. They had come to give official recognition to Grand Master San Kim Saen, the leader of Khmer Bokator martial art. They had a Khmer with them who had lived for a number of years in France and was fluent. But he didn’t speak much English. So, we stood in a line, in front of all of the spectators. My master spoke Khmer, the translator translated into French, and I translated into English.

I had about six years of French before going to translator school in Germany, but I never did a serious study of French and have never lived in France. As a result, I can generally understand a lot, but don’t speak much French. On this day, the exercise was brilliant, however, because I was hearing my master speak in Khmer, and understanding a lot, then I was hearing the French translator, and understanding a lot, what I didn’t understand, I was getting from context, because I knew everything about the martial art and could make guesses about what the questions and answers were.

This opportunity, to work with French and Khmer together only came up a few times during my trip, but I believe it would be an incredible way to learn either language or both.

Studying a foreign language through the medium of another foreign language appears to have a number of benefits, and it is concept I would like to explore more.

Funding Help: Antonio is self-funded and relies on help from viewers and donors to continue his film and writing projects. You can donate through Paypal.