Learning Khmer: Interview with a Khmer language teacher

You know you should learn Khmer, but have you done it? Khmer teacher Chhun Vanna has been instructing foreigners in the finer points of the Cambodian language for five years now. Today, she talks to us about common mistakes that Cambodia expats often make when learning Khmer, plus tips for learning the language.

Vanna Learn Khmer Now

Teacher Chhun Vanna answers your questions about learning Khmer.

What is the most difficult part of learning Khmer for Cambodia expats?

There are many difficult parts of learning Khmer for foreigners. Khmer has some sounds that English does not have. A lot of times the dt and ng sound at the the beginning of a word are hard for them to reproduce.

How long does it take for an expat to learn Khmer to a proficient level?

Every student is very different. Some come wanting lessons five days a week, plus studying a lot on their own. Or some study once a week, but they have a girlfriend or boyfriend giving them a lot of practice. But If there was a student who lived in Cambodia, I would say after six months the student could speak really well. Reading and writing is also possible in six months, but the student has to be motivated and find the best way to learn.

What are the common mistakes that expats make when trying to speak Khmer?

Foreigners make some mistakes when speaking Khmer, but for the most part, the grammar is easy compared to English. Some Khmer words are ordered different than English and the student will try to translate exactly, instead of remember the different rules of the Cambodian language.

Learning Khmer: language flash cards

Vanna says you can learn to read in six months. Yikes!

Do you have any tips for expats who are studying Khmer?

The first tip for learning Khmer is practice, practice, practice. If you live in Cambodia, go order food in Khmer. Pretend you don’t speak English and try only Khmer. Learn one new word a day. Pick one word and use it many times (out loud, and in your head). For students learning outside of Cambodia listen to YouTube lessons, and Khmer music. Maybe put notes on things you are learning. If learning about the kitchen, write the Khmer word on the refrigerator, and write the Khmer word on the trash can, etc.

What is your favorite expression in Khmer that most Cambodia expats probably don’t know, and what does it mean?

One saying i like is, “Kom kit rian Jong Tver mondrey Saorb kperm puak dei noam ouy kro. Trov rian Tver jia kak se-Kor terb mian trop dtor tov kang kroy.” In Khmer script: កុំគិតតរៀនចង់ធ្វើមន្រ្តី ស្អប់ខ្ពើមភក់ដីនាំអោយក្រ ត្រូវរៀនធ្វើជាកសិករ ទើបមានទ្រព្យតទៅខាងក្រោយ។.

It means: ‘Don’t try to become a government minister as that just leads you to do corruption. Instead be a farmer and real wealth will come to you.’

Another easier saying for foreigners which can be used many different ways is min ey te (មិនអីទេ). A lot of foreigners know it, but I rarely hear them say the word. It can mean ‘you’re welcome,’ ‘it doesn’t matter,’ and ‘I dont care.’ It is similar to the Thai word mai pen rai.

Get more tips on learning Khmer from Vanna at learnkhmernow.com, where she has videos, worksheets, and vocab lessons to help get you started. 

11 Responses to Learning Khmer: Interview with a Khmer language teacher

    Samuel Svay says:

    I was born in the US and my family is Cambodian, my Grandparent speaks the language and my mother speaks both English and Khmer. But I was spoken when I was little so I know some words but can’t speak full sentences. And just looking for place to self taught.

    Sary In says:

    Good evening (my time) or appropriate greetings to you, depending on the time of day you receive this email.

    My name is Sary (linguistics undergraduate) and I realize this is a very unusual letter and request, however if you have a few moments to spare, I would thank you greatly.

    My request is for some assistance with a specific cambodian Idiom. (apologise for the romanization in non ipa format) This is the same reason for this email as I am unable to find references or sources online using roman alphabet. (I unfortunately do not know how to read or write in Khmer)

    “Haine Soy” To my understanding it means “potentially, you could be unlucky” although I am certain this is not fully accurate. Example in a sentence “I should go to the store today to pick up the laptop, but what if haine soy they don’t have any?

    I was hoping you would be able to offer a definitive definition of the idiom or phrase and what the two separate phonemes would mean on their own if they do. I have been told that the haine loosely refers to LUCK. The biggest question I have is what the phoneme soy means or refers to?

    If you are able to help, I thank you 1000 times, if you are unable and too busy, I apologise for taking far too much of your time already.

    Sary In

    David Smith says:

    Lina Chhun Vanna is a very beautiful lady I want to go to the classes and learn Khmer but I will have problems I lost my vocal cords to cancer so talking their language will be difficult for me Talking my own language is hard enough now LOL But I think it will be fun to try to learn. I have a feeling in my heart my family to be will not want to leave Cambodia. Thank you for all your help David

    Julian says:

    Hi friends, we offer a free Khmer class every Sunday in Phnom Penh. All levels of learner are welcome. Please join us! Find out more on our facebook page: https://facebook.com/khmerstudygroup/. Cheers!

      Vincent says:

      You are correct. I have been putting off for years. Any free Siem Reap courses Mornings best?? Paid is OK too many weekly.

    Carol Baird says:

    I thought I needed to pay hundreds of Dollars to learn Kmer in a class daily for a year. What’s the cost? The catch?

    Allg says:

    Great interview with Chhun Vanna. It’s always best to learn the language of the place you are visiting so that you can mingle and bond with the locals, as well as go deeper into their culture. Nice Khmer expression, that is something worthy to learn and share when you are in Cambodia. Thanks for sharing!

    vincent says:


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