Monday, December 10, 2018


When we first started to learn the Khmer language, we would practice the first few words we had learned with people. It was surprising how many Cambodians would say, with eyes wide, “Oh, wow! You know Khmer!” It seemed like an exaggerated response to my meager efforts, but I was glad that they seemed to appreciate it.

As the months passed, people started paying us a new compliment: “You speak clearly.” My pronunciation was improving. They could understand not just that I was pretending to speak Khmer, but that I could actually say something intelligible.

Recently, after being in Cambodia for three years, a teacher told us, “Talking with you is like talking with Khmer people.” We are still a little puzzled by that. What she clearly does not mean is that anybody would ever confuse us for a Khmer person. We think it must mean that our teacher can talk comfortably around us without “dumbing it down” much. We can speak and respond in a way that allows her to speak naturally around us.

I’ve been thinking about language milestones lately. They often take surprising forms and require a bit of interpretation. None of the milestones I mentioned in the previous paragraphs seemed true to us at the time. I would not say that “I know Khmer” just because I know a few words. I would not say “I speak clearly” when there’s still much I can’t say. Nor would I say I speak like a Khmer person...probably ever! Receiving language feedback is never straightforward and always requires a bit of interpretation and discernment.

I got to put these discernment skills to the test as I recently hit another language milestone. For a while, I was sharing monthly testimonies in the Khmer language at church as a way to help develop my public speaking skills. The first few times I shared, people were polite and moderately encouraging (Cambodians, or at least the ones I know, are almost never effusive in their praise, so “moderately encouraging” seemed significant). But after I had shared a few times, I got a different reaction. They laughed at me! After I said a particular word, a few people repeated it back laughing. Was it the wrong word, the wrong pronunciation, or just a big word they didn’t expect me to know? I’m still not sure. Later on, I stumbled over my words a little, and a couple of people hollered out corrections as I was still speaking. So much for polite and moderately encouraging! I must admit I was a little discouraged when I finished.

As much as I might prefer polite and moderately encouraging, I think this episode marked a language milestone for me. I think people felt that I was advanced enough that they could correct me and I would understand. They could give feedback on my word choice. They could talk to me more like they talk to their own family members and less like they talk to the foreigner that they don’t quite know what to make of. I am less like the new guy who is trying very hard but still sounds like a toddler, and more like the person who’s obviously going to be around a while so we might as well tell him that his grammar was off in that sentence.

It’s not the kind of language milestone I was looking for. I was really hoping my next milestone would be the one where I get non-stop praise and increasing requests to do exactly the kinds of ministries that I want to do. Instead, I get laughed at and interrupted. I can choose to be discouraged, or I can choose to notice a reaction I haven’t gotten before. Something changed. I must have hit a new milestone. I made people comfortable enough to correct me. To heckle me a bit.

Sometimes you just have to take the milestones as they come. Some milestones are more obviously encouraging, while others make me feel a little more vulnerable. But I can’t run from the milestones that makes me feel vulnerable. I have to receive them the same as I receive the praise. And I have to be willing to see through the discomfort to the hidden blessings inside. The path to progress passes through some milestones that don’t seem like milestones.

I pray that both you and I would be able to see progress as it is, not as we wish it would be. I pray that we wouldn’t seek only the progress that makes us feel good, but also the progress that makes us feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. I pray that God would bless you in the midst of milestones that don’t seem like blessings at all.

Since I got laughed at, I’ve preached two full sermons in Khmer. People were, shall we say, polite and moderately encouraging. We’ll see how they really feel after I do a few more. Then I can see what my next milestone is and how I can grow as a result.