How to…. Become a Pro At Awkward Silences! – From Connemara to Cambodia

….Come to Cambodia!

One thing I had not taken into consideration much in my decision to come to Cambodia, was just how alien the writing and text of Khmer language is in comparison to English. While it may seem an obvious issue to many seasoned travellers, I had neglected to consider how basic some of the locals’ English skills really are – especially because we are based largely away from the main tourist-areas of the city which, when you think about it, are generally the areas regularly encountered by backpackers. It has rarely occurred before that I have met with such a complete and utter blank barrier of misunderstanding, with little or no way to break through it – I would wager that 80% of every interaction here consists of a sort of ‘yes?-no?–maybe?-’ kind of awkward silence. Worse even than the most extreme cases I’ve encountered teaching in the Gaeltacht – at least with the Irish language, the alphabet is the same!

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It’s like a plate of spaghetti

The symbols of gobbledeegook here that look pretty and oriental to a certain extent but that make no sense whatsoever to any of us leave me feeling displaced and uncomfortable – this is what it’s like trying to understand the street signs and local language (Khmer). Think Arabic, with slightly more twirly loops and a tighter formation, which we were informed only pauses for spaces between words in order for a breath to be taken as it’s being spoken.
It reminds me of learning to read English for the first time – trying to make sense of an alphabet so alien that it seems impossible it could make any kind of sense to anyone ever! It’s a feeling of frustration that I haven’t had to experience since I was 4 years old!

 The printed type on signposts and shop signs is tough enough, but spending time teaching in a local school has exposed us to handwriting of the same lettering, so complicated it makes even the most intricate of calligraphy seem dull in comparison. (I say this having no idea what the words in these pictures actually say – I could easily be posting pictures of anything from it being Monday the 26th of October to what Class E3A had for dinner last week!).

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I agree wholeheartedly.

 It’s this lack of comprehension and understanding which greets you like a slap from a still struggling wet fish at the market that makes many day-to-day interactions here so uncomfortable. It’s not only in the physical environment around us, but in every form of communication that exists. Things that we take for granted and think of as ‘normal’ or even ‘polite’ at home are things that would not even be considered by Khmer people. I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve specifically explained to a tuk-tuk driver where we wanted to go, had him nod his head in mock understanding with a toothless grin, and proceeded to be carted off into the playstation-game maze of windy, filthy, and downright dangerous streets for half an hour or more as he stops to enquire from other drivers if they know the directions to where he’s going. I understand that they need the money and probably work ridiculous, non-stop and high-risk hours, but it’s kind of in the job description of a taxi-driver to be able to find your way around!

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Crazy tuk-tuk traffic at night

 Another thing I’ve struggled to comprehend the logic of here is the structuring of some of the lessons. Because of the extremely varying English levels of students in each school, the conclusion that has been reached and put into practise across the country is to stream the classes according to ability. This by all means works at home in our systems where students attend school from an early age and cover a variety of subjects, therefore providing them with basic language skills and a certain level of education by the time they reach a particular age, making it easy to form classgroups and ensure a similar age range is maintained.

 In Cambodia, however, this is not the case. A lack of funding and general low standard of education means that the schools will teach anyone who is willing to pay the fee, regardless of demand, class size, age, or previous education, be it in English, Khmer, Chinese, or other subjects. This unfortunately necessary logic is how I found myself standing in front of a class of eighteen students yesterday, the youngest girl of five years old scribbling all over her book and wiping apple juice from sticky fingers while a deep-voiced, burly young boy of fifteen cowered next to her in embarassment as I rountinely asked each student to tell me their name and age. While their levels of understanding of the English language may have been of similar strength (very poor), it was clear from the written work I set and the exercises during class that this particular instance of streamlined classgroups had failed massively. The boy was clearly ashamed of his assumed position as ‘oldest student in the class’, and the younger kids’ natural clamour and sing-songy way of pottering through a days’ schoolwork simply was not the correct environment for him to be attempting to improve his language skills within. I’ve heard from speaking to other interns and teachers alike that they’ve come across many such examples of extremely mixed classes and unfortunately streamlined standards of learning, and it really does not add to the general difficulty here of teaching classes whose regular teachers struggle to pronounce even basic English words correctly – the downfall of an education provided by those with only mediocre levels of English themselves. This, again, is an unfortunate necessity for the schools in Cambodia, and a large reason why our presence here has generally been so well-received.

Because birds are good for heat.....?!?
Because birds are good for heat…..?!?

Along with this, I’ve found being thrown in to teach a very weak class for 4 hours straight with no prior warning or even information as to what they have previously covered to be one of the most humiliating experiences I’ve ever had. The students were so weak that they couldn’t even comprehend being asked had they covered a particular page in the workbook, and failed to recognise simple questions and vocabulary that may have enabled me to further their understanding of it. It was as if a literal language barrier existed between the top of the classroom and the bottom, and no matter how we tried it simply could not be scaled. We ended up using the wordless talents of Mr. Bean on Youtube to entertain them for the last half hour of the day, the silent images of England punctuated by laughter (something they can actually understand!) giving them at the very least a visual image of Western culture, and me an exhausted and ashamed break after a particularly painful afternoon.

Teaching is haaaard.

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