Friday, March 2, 2012

Khmer? I Can (Well, I Hope, Anyway)



One of my post-deployment "And this time I mean it!" resolutions is to learn Khmer this year. It's something I've always wanted to be able to do, but the imperative now is that I have a child who is going to be growing up bilingual, and I don't want to be completely separated from that (even if speaking will be a struggle and I'll have a funny accent).

But anyway, back to the resolution...I don't mean to say I want to learn Khmer in the way that a self-conscious white guy can earn *bonus points* by throwing out a "choum reap sua" or an "aakun" at the right moment at Pai-Lin or someone's cousin's cousin's house, but instead to really learn it, as in being able to read a newspaper or listen a Voice of America (VOA) Broadcast and actually glean something about the content.

That goal, I know, is going to be a long, time-consuming slog. One thing that compounds the difficulty is that Khmer is, unlike, say, French, German, or Japanese, is a "boutique" language for which learning material -- particularly good stuff -- is really hard to find. And while no one ever really learns a language without authentic experiences (listening, reading, speaking, or writing in the language, as opposed to memorizing grammar rules and lists of vocab words), the classroom stuff is a great building block. Right now, if I tried to listen to VOA in Khmer, it'd basically be a waste, because it's 90%+ incomprehensible.

Enter new media. Thanks to YouTube, a guy in Stockton named Kimheng, armed only with a webcam, his eight year-old brother, and the truly bilingual knowledge that comes from being the son of Cambodian immigrants, and now I've got 24/7 access to "Let's Learn Khmer" completely for free.

I can endlessly loop/repeat the lessons (which I can't do with real people, who understandably get annoyed when I ask them to say everything at about 10 rpm), I can read the actual Khmer script that comes with the terms, and I can work on the building blocks I'll need for the heavy lifting ambitious stuff, like the VOA broadcasts. If I sound like a YouTube True Believer, it's because I am -- nothing like this would have existed even just a few years ago.

I got into an excellent conversation with fellow blogger Cliff Krieger the other day about education, culture, and the uphill challenges faced by urban educators. One thing I know we agreed on is that spending more money is not, in and of itself, going to fix much when negative environmental and cultural influences are too strong.

One thing we should bear in mind, though, is that the *digital natives* are growing up with social media that can be an amazing educational tool. I can see that firsthand with the way my cousins' literacy skills have shot through the roof since they started using their older siblings' Facebook accounts (that brings up entirely separate issues, but I won't go there with this entry). Forced to raise their reading, writing, and spelling skills in order to keep up, they've improved in all those areas by leaps and bounds.

All of my initial literacy, math, and vocabulary skills came about at an age when I cared far more about sports -- not just playing but following and understanding them -- than I did about school. I wonder if social media can bring out avenues through which kids can hone their 3Rs without having to go up against countervailing social pressures, or even realize they're being *tricked* into skills that will help them when it comes time for milestones like going to school, taking the MCAS, and graduating.

1 comment:

Progressive Veterans said...

Yet, another sighting of "Dragon Ball Z." :D

- Jack