Friday, February 17, 2017


Today was the official end of our full-time Khmer language study program. This is both momentous and anti-climactic at the same time.

Why is it momentous? Because I have been in class for three hours per day most weekdays for over a year now, and that doesn’t include reviewing and doing homework in the afternoons (and sometimes late at night—old college habits die hard). A lot of hard work has gone into this accomplishment, and I am proud of it.

We have a working vocabulary on a relatively wide range of subjects. We have a decent understanding of basic grammar. We can have basic conversation with most people and intermediate-level conversation with a few people who speak more clearly. We have done class projects that involved interviewing strangers, typing in Khmer, and speaking in front of the class and facilitating a question and answer session. People regularly tell us that our pronunciation is clearer than the pronunciation of many foreigners who learn Khmer (pronunciation is a particular emphasis of our school).

Today our school had a luncheon for all of us “graduating seniors.” It was a fun celebration. There was even a part of the lunch program that we weren’t expecting in which teachers could ask us questions about our learning experience over the last year. Even unrehearsed we were able to offer cogent answers and even make multiple jokes that our teachers laughed at. Do you have any idea how long it has been since I have felt like I was funny, not counting the people who laughed at me because of my language mistakes?

So why was the end of the program anti-climactic? Because, let’s be real, at no other point in my life have I considered it an accomplishment to answer a couple of questions and make a joke. My standards have been lowered significantly over the last year or so as to what I consider a success. When I think of how high functioning I was in my previous life, it feels silly to think about what accomplishments I get excited about now.

Our school states that by the end of the program, you should be able to speak Khmer at or around the Advanced Low level according to the American Council of Teaching of Foreign Languages. When I first heard this, I thought, “Advanced Low! Great! That’s probably a step or two below college professor or Nobel laureate.”

Turns out that the ACTFL uses some slightly misleading terminology for their rankings. The Advanced level is the third of five levels, and is lower than both Superior and Distinguished. So, while I have in fact reached a level of Advanced Low, or something close to it, I’ve still got a ways to go before I apply for tenure at the local university or even become a fluent and functioning member of society.

An apt illustration of this came after the graduation luncheon at school today. One of the teachers asked me to do a video interview to use on the website for our school. As I was talking about my experience, I kept hearing myself making errors. I would try to correct them and then make even less sense, until I was rambling so far off topic that I’m sure the video is the least useful marketing video ever made. I suspect the teacher shooting the video was wondering, “Who signed off on letting this guy pass?”

So today’s graduation was momentous because of how far I’ve come, and anti-climactic because of how far I have to go. But for today, I will celebrate and take a deep breath before heading back into the language-learning fray. Perhaps this time next year I will be writing my Nobel Prize acceptance speech entirely in Khmer. At the very least, I hope to have made a few more Khmer people laugh at my witty and grammatically-correct jokes.