Learning Khmer: Natural Khmer at LINK

Sadly, LINK closed down operations in July, 2016. This article is no longer up-to-date.

After a few months in the Kingdom, most expats relegate learning Khmer to the same category as scheduling dental checkups, something we should do but conveniently don’t ever find time for. Language Institute of Natural Khmer (LINK) in Phnom Penh offers a new method of learning Khmer through listening and has a conveniently flexible schedule. I tried a few classes to see how it worked.

Language Institute Natural Khmer

At LINK, teachers speak Khmer and act out what they are saying to help students learn the language.

Natural Khmer classes at LINK believe that the best way to learn any language is the same way that children do, through listening. Each class has two teachers, who speak Khmer throughout, using acting, props, body language, and charts to help explain what they are saying. It’s a bit like watching a game of charades, entirely in Khmer. In the beginner classes, students are asked to only speak English until Khmer comes naturally and they are at the intermediate level. It’s an unconventional method, but one that the manager, David, believes is superior to word lists and flashcards.

In Cambodia, a surprising majority of expats don’t speak Khmer, or only enough to get by. There’s a reason for this, David Jacobs, the manager of LINK, explained. “It’s not like French or Spanish where you can just go to the country and assimilate some of the language just from listening. You can watch TV or spend time listening to Khmers and it doesn’t necessarily help improve your language skills,” he told me. “That’s what’s different about the class — the teachers give context.”

Like many expats, I can speak quite a lot of Khmer, but have a hard time understanding what’s said to me. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to talk non-stop when my neighbor drops by in order to not give her the chance to ask me any questions.

This is normal, David said. “Many students come to us with this problem, they have vocabulary but no listening skills. That’s what we work to improve.”

Learning Khmer through listening, not speaking

Most expats learn to speak Khmer by learning vocabulary, but LINK suggests the focus should be on listening.

I went to two classes and it’s true that being forced to listen (and getting to listen to people who won’t switch into English or walk away the minute it becomes clear that you don’t understand) is illuminating. I appreciated that, for the most part, the teachers spoke slowly and clearly enough for me to understand, and they repeated what they said often. Some of my private tutors haven’t been willing to slow down, which can be frustrating.

However, it’s also true that I found it very difficult to make sense of the differences between certain things — think “want to” verus “want” — and would have appreciated an explanation. David said that he’s been learning Khmer entirely through the Natural Khmer technique and he seemed quite fluent for someone that has only been in the country for two years, but I would say that Natural Khmer classes would probably be better as an addition to more traditional language classes rather than a student’s entire course of study.

The classes are a good listening and speaking supplement to other studying,” one intermediate student told me. “I’m not sure that it’s the absolute best way to learn Khmer, but I find the lessons entertaining and worthwhile, and I like that I can just attend class when I want without a fixed schedule.”

The flexible schedule is perhaps the best part of the Natural Khmer program. There are six beginner classes Monday through Friday, and four on Saturdays. Students are welcome to drop in and come whenever they want. Classes are $5 each if you buy them as you go. If you buy more than 10 classes at a time, you pay $4 per class, and prices go down further if you buy larger chunks of time. The first class is free, so if you’re wondering if the “natural learning” technique will work for you, it’s worth checking it out.

Language Institute of Natural Khmer (LINK)

Sovannaphumi School 4th Floor, Street 200 (between Norodom Blvd and Street 51), Phnom Penh
T: 012 293 764

5 Responses to Learning Khmer: Natural Khmer at LINK

    Elena says:

    Hi Lina.
    It’s fascinating to learn by listening and its such a shame the school is no longer exists. Do you know by any chance is there are any other schools or teachers who are teaching in similar style? I would be really interested to try learning that way. Grateful for any information. Thanks.

    Louise says:

    Sadly LINK closed down July 2016. Lucky for me I benefited from their classes before it did. I found that through a week of intensive listening, I was a much more confident speaker. I really hope this style is revived as it is the perfect adjunct to other more formal methods.

      Lina says:

      Thanks for letting me know, Louise. I’ve updated the post. It’s a shame they didn’t survive, I thought the lessons were very useful.

    meudom liliane bergeline says:

    I am in Cambodia pnomh pen and i want to start study khmer nor what can i do. I am from cameroun in central Africa. Thx

    vincent says:

    This is exactly how to learn any new language so I applaude them. Listen repeat listen repeat……. Think of how you learned you native language….hear, repeat etc. Schools spend too much wasted time on grammar, spelling sentence structure etc. which is why many take language courses for years and can’t speak the language Your initial goal should be to speak, be understood and understand a reponse. PERIOD. Forget whether it is perfect , that will come with time.
    Too bad they are not in Siem Reap or have an on-line course. You learned to write, spell, etc. long after you said “mommy and daddy”.

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