Friday, June 24, 2016


One of our favorite Phnom Penh grocery stores is right across the street from a pre-school. One day, as I was walking past the playground in front of the pre-school, one of the children spotted me. She started waving at me and saying “Hello!” As I waved back, a couple of other children came over to see what had caused this outburst from their friend. When they saw me, they decided to join in. This started a snowball effect, and before I could walk past, there were a couple dozen pre-schoolers waving and yelling “Hello!” at me. I have never caused such a scene before just for looking like I probably speak English.

Most weeks I meet with a Khmer conversation partner to help me practice using new words I’m learning. We usually meet right next to a middle school. On multiple occasions, a stray middle-schooler will see me walking by (or sometimes even interrupt my conversation with my language partner) and initiate a basic conversation with me in English (“Hello, how are you, where are you from, OK goodbye”).

Even though English is very common across Phnom Penh, you sometimes have to interpret the meaning. Here is a sign I saw posted in a bathroom. 
English is astonishingly prevalent in Phnom Penh. Most children who are able to go to school learn English from a young age, and a few of them, as the stories above illustrate, are busting at the seams to show off their skills to the first curly-headed, blue-eyed, pasty-skinned foreigner who walks by. This is a gift in many ways. I can still survive in most situations with English. Whenever I go to an official place like the post office or the bank, I ask myself, “Can I say what I need in Khmer well, or would everyone be a lot happier if I just stuck to English for this one?” If I decide on the latter, I can usually be reasonably certain that whoever helps me will speak enough English for that to work.

The prevalence of English, however, is a double-edged sword. First of all, it can make you a spectacle at unexpected times, such as in front of a pre-school on the way to the grocery store. The bigger downfall, though, is that it can lull English speakers into a false sense of complacency about language. Many missionaries and other workers assume they don’t need to speak Khmer because most people understand English. While this may be true for some workers in Cambodia, it is not true for us. But on days where language learning is tough, I want to believe that I don’t need to know Khmer after all.

I have led or participated in multiple short-term mission trips since I was in college. I have listened to many people debrief their experiences, and something that I have heard more than once is, “The thing that impressed me most about the local community was how they made an effort to speak English to me.” There were times when I would get frustrated with this answer, thinking to myself, “What do you mean? You went all the way to another country and what you got out of it was that it’s nice when somebody speaks your language?”

But then I started trying to channel that thought into a more constructive point. “If it was so meaningful for you to hear English on this trip, even though you have such a wealth of English speaking pastors, worship songs written by native English speakers, and books in your language, how important is it that we help churches around the world to hear and see the gospel in their own language?”

Lauren and I worship in a Khmer church with almost no English. We long to be able to worship in our own language, and it has been hard to go without that. Something happens when we hear about Jesus in our own language, sing to Jesus in our own language and interact with other believers about Jesus in our own language. In those moments, Jesus becomes more personal.

Proverbs 18:20 says, “Words satisfy the mind as much as fruit does the stomach; good talk is as gratifying as a good harvest” (The Message). Words are powerful, and good talk builds us up. In other words, every time we speak, it is a spiritual act.

English is spoken all over Phnom Penh, and this has been so helpful to me. Which is why I am all the more committed to learning Khmer. I want the Cambodian people to hear about Jesus and life in their own language, too.