Language Learning Later in Life

Tom Nickel
12 min readJan 19, 2018

1. Cambodian for Beginners

New things and old people don’t always work out very well. Not for me anyway. I am an older person with my ways of getting stuff done and making it through a day so why would I need anything new?

Learning a new language is especially foolish when you’re old, because fluency takes years and who knows how long the commitment can be sustained? Something new that can be mastered in a few months makes more sense.

But everything doesn’t have to make sense. Being retired but still active and full of energy changes the equation about what making sense even means. When I started learning Khmer, I didn’t have a specific reason and I didn’t need one. I expected to be in Cambodia again in a few months. I imagined trying to use whatever level of the language I’d reached during my everyday life in Phnom Penh. That was enough of a reason.

Unexpectedly, I loved the studying part. It worked its way into my morning routine easily, at first because the free online course I started with was fun. It gave me points for learning the vowels and consonants, posted my name and rank on a Leader Board, Daily and Weekly, which definitely motivated me for a few weeks. I’d do one more mini-lesson most days if it would get me past a few more people on the Leader Board.

The Textbook I’m using

After a month I felt like I was missing something working all by myself, so I found an experienced instructor with great reviews at She used a textbook and live Skype lessons. I signed up for my first batch right away.

For the next few months, I could be anywhere, while Vanna, my teacher, was in Phnom Penh, correcting my pronunciation. She’s good at teaching. It feels to me like she’s really happy when I get something right and a little disappointed when I don’t. She’s very present from six thousand miles away, which was energizing for me. I was totally wound up by the end of each session.

I made my own flash cards and tried to study vocabulary every day, but things didn’t always go smoothly week after week. I got sick. Then I had surgery, but I got back to my lessons as soon as I could. Sometimes they were the perfect thing to do while I rested some and recovered.

Print, cut in half vertically, fold and tape — Homemade Flashcards

When I left for Phnom Penh for thirty days in November, I’d been studying for almost six months. I was up to Chapter Seven (of Ten) in “Cambodian for Beginners.” I knew 200–300 words and I could put them together into phrases and sentences the way you’re supposed to. On the other hand, I couldn’t understand Cambodians talking with each other at their normal speed. I could pick out words, but I couldn’t process the spoken language fast enough to keep up.

2. In Phnom Penh as a Beginner Cambodian Speaker

I think my expectations were unrealistic.

For one thing, I imagined myself secretly understanding people around me who would never think I knew the language. That hasn’t happened so far, mostly because I don’t know the language well enough, but also because I like to speak Khmer too much.

What I actually have is a decent working vocabulary for expressing myself. That’s nice, but it’s not as significant as I thought it might be. As a practical matter, most people I interact with in Phnom Penh have a working English vocabulary that is easily as good as my Khmer. They have to. Strictly in terms of making myself understood, I don’t think my current level of Khmer made much difference. Once or twice, maybe, in specific situations, but in general, it was not a big factor.

Where it did make a difference, of course, was in how people perceived me. I figured that most people would like it, but it’s more than that. Everyone liked it, not just most people. There were zero cases when I used my Khmer and something negative happened.

Tuk-tuk drivers thought it was funny and repeated what I said. The staff at the guesthouse where I stayed tried to help me say things right. People in restaurants smiled. Cambodians I was there to work with all spoke English very well, but when I dropped in some Khmer they appreciated it and complimented me on how much I’d learned.

None of this surprised me. The bar is set very low. A few tourists memorize a list of useful phrases, but most don’t make any effort. I wasn’t a tourist and I wasn’t memorizing phrases. I was learning Khmer. It was a little confusing for some people. Why would I do this?

I’m not the only non-Cambodian learning Khmer, but all the other ones I have met expect to be living there for a while. They work for NGOs or hi-tech start-ups. They’re in business, not just passing through. I’ve met a few older people studying the language — they’re retiring as ex-pats in Cambodia.

Learning the language is a signal of intent. People need to know how much to invest in you. Plenty of visitors say they’ll be back. I think it takes at least three visits before anyone pays much attention. I’ve made two. But I’m sending a non-standard signal — learning Khmer.

I kept up my lessons with Vanna from during the month I was there. Meeting her in person after all the hours on Skype was something I had been looking forward to for weeks. She works with all of her local students at Joma Bakery Café, about five minutes from my place.

We sat across a little table from each other and did all the same speaking and listening drills that we did over Skype, but I could see her better. I could see and hear every little motion or inflection. It was completely exhilarating to be fully there with her. The ham and cheese croissants were pretty good too.

3. Khmer Study Group

I had already been living in Phnom Penh for a few weeks when I discovered the Khmer Language Learning Group on Facebook, offering free Sunday afternoon classes very near where I was staying. I went to the next one and it was an eye-opener.

It was a very informal atmosphere, with about 20–30 people mingling at different tables in a small restaurant. A friendly young woman spotted me as a newcomer and asked me a few questions. She was impressed that I could say, “I have been studying Khmer for six months,” in Khmer. She said that put me in the advanced group. I thought she was kidding.

The second surprise was the way the tutors really talked. It was something like what I had been learning, but everything was shortened beyond obvious recognition. I knew that I was speaking a little bit formally, but I had no idea how much.

Let me be clear about one linguistic fact before I get deeper into the real-world slang — Khmer is already an incredibly stripped down language. There are no tenses and thus no conjugation of verbs. Wow. That one feature alone eliminates so much complexity. There are no masculine and feminine forms of nouns. There are no articles, like “a” and “the.” It is a language designed to get the job done as simply as possible, in which context is crucial in determining meaning.

How could you reduce anything that basic even more in speaking? You could just not even bother to say half the sounds you’re supposed to say. It’s not just a matter of running things together or saying them fast. You just drop stuff because it’s easier..

This way of talking was pointed out to me right away when I said I had studied Khmer for six months. In another linguistic simplification, Khmer only has unique numbers for 1 (muay) — 5 (bpram). Six is 5+1, bpram-muay; seven is 5+2, and so on. Except, now I find out, that’s not the way anybody says it. That tricky ‘bpra’ sound at the beginning of ‘bpram-muay’ — forget about it. You just go, ‘mmuay.’ All that’s left of ‘bpram’ is a slight hum on the way to ‘muay.’ Every number is treated this way, every word, every phrase.

For someone working hard to understand the spoken language, this new development was not great news. I had my regular lesson with Vanna a few days later. She was well aware of the kind of truncated talk that had been a revelation to me. To her, it was important for me to learn the language correctly before starting to remove big chunks of it in conversation.

The volunteer tutors at the Khmer Study Group had a humorous attitude toward the way they talked. I never felt they were laughing at me for being slightly formal — it was more like they were laughing at themselves for trying to say everything with very little effort.

I think the distinctive feature of Khmer for me, classroom and slang, is the lack of hassles. The language itself does not carry all the weight of nuance and distinction. The people do. People have to interpret whether the speaker means past, present or future. It’s not built into the verb. ‘One’ or ‘several’ is not built into nouns. Good speakers leave just the right clues. In this sense, what feels to me like extreme truncation during informal speaking is consistent with everything else I’ve learned about Khmer.

4. Language Learning as Acting

I’m not the first person to feel like expressing myself in a second language involves an element of role playing. To make things sound right, I have to let go and try to pretend I’m Cambodian. That’s the mindset that allows thoughts to come right out of me in Khmer instead of going through an English translator along the way.

Some forms of communication became auto-Khmer for me within days. Most of the streets in Phnom Penh are known by a number and I gave directions multiple times every day, plus there are many other situations in which being able to say a number helps. In a surprisingly short period of time, I said the Khmer words for prices and addresses and quantities without thinking about it. Numbers are a good thing to have down cold as far as crucial vocabulary. Fortunately Khmer numbers are unusually easy to learn.

Shortly before I left Phnom Penh and returned home, I had a dinner with Arn Chorn-Pond, who has inspired me more than anyone else to get involved in Cambodia, and his inner circle. I was feeling good being with all of them and I will admit to showing off by dropping my vocabulary words into the conversation some. Trying to say them like a Cambodian. Arn complimented my pronunciation once, which was a small thing for him but I’ll never forget it. I thought my language learning was the story, but in the nick of time, someone else’s language learning became the centerpiece.

I sat next to Arn on one side, and Arn’s Girlfriend’s Brother’s Wife, Sreytouch, on the other. I had met Sreytouch before, but she spoke almost no English. Now, that made her the perfect person for me to speak Khmer with, which I tried, and sometimes it worked. Through the whole dinner, Deyka, her husband, was mostly quiet. I had traveled some with him on a previous visit. He knew a little English and I was paying for lessons to help him learn more. He smiled a lot but he didn’t say much.

It was getting near the end of the meal when Seyma, Arn’s girlfriend, gave Deyka an obvious prod. She had to come right out and say, ‘show Tom how much you’ve learned’ before he would do the one thing he wanted to do more than anything in the world. But once he got going, he spoke in a slow but steady cadence and said that he had been studying hard. He said that he could understand when we spoke English. He said he didn’t feel able to speak it. And yet there he was, firing off three complete sentences. Then he went on and said he was the oldest person in the class and he felt funny about that.

I was also the oldest person at almost everything I went to, which made me feel freer to try speaking like a Cambodian. For Deyka, at his age and with his life story, being older has the opposite effect. He could understand English but didn’t have the confidence to speak it. I liked speaking Khmer but I couldn’t understand it very well.

Deyka is still a young man. He has a wife and a three-year old son so his decisions have to make sense in a different way than mine do. English will help his prospects. The better he speaks it, the more it will help him.

Learning Khmer is useful in similar ways to non-Khmer speakers who have chosen to live in Cambodia. I am not in that category. Learning Khmer gets me smiles, but it also sends a confusing signal. It suggests I’m more committed than I am.

I’m not in an obvious category. I expect to be fully involved as an active participant when I’m there. My intention is to stay involved as long as I can be helpful to Cambodian Living Arts. I’d like Learning Khmer to signal that.

5. Back Home, After Cambodia

Learning doesn’t mean taking in facts to reinforce everything you already believe. It means incorporating new material, looking at things differently, rearranging ideas and reconsidering beliefs. Language learning later in life does all that because when you see how another culture communicates, it helps you see something that is usually invisible — how your own culture turns thoughts and feelings into words.

I didn’t decide to re-think my later in life language learning. It just started happening by itself when I got back to San Francisco after a month in Phnom Penh. So much of the initial impetus was wondering what would happen when I went there speaking Khmer. I did that. Now what?

Learning any language is a distinctly different mental activity than writing, or video editing, or reading articles on the Internet, or any of the other work I try to do in the morning. The kind of mental engagement it takes for me to memorize new words is unlike anything else I know. Sometimes I resist the internal shift at first, but once I’m in that gear I almost always enjoy it for a while.

Learning some Khmer didn’t matter much and I will probably never get good enough for it to make a difference. The appreciation I got for making an effort was nice, but it’s not enough to sustain the discipline and focus it takes to keep it up.

The reason I’m keeping it up is that I’m enjoying the discipline and focus. They help power me through the morning in the same way my walk-and-workout routine does. I know I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t still traveling to Cambodia, even though traveling to Cambodia has nothing to do with what I like the most about it.

It rests on a foundation of probability and uncertainties. Without the realistic prospect of speaking Khmer with Cambodians, the whole thing is a non-starter. Not-knowing what my Khmer learning might lead to was also essential at the beginning.

One luxury of old age is that you and other people indulge your whims as long as they look harmless. Deyka is learning English because he needs to. I’m learning Khmer because I chose to. Tomorrow is my first lesson back on Skype again with my teacher. I expect it will be the high point of my day.

The biggest uncertainty is how much longer my Cambodia chapter lasts. At some point I won’t be going there any more. Will I retire the flashcards and my passport together? Probably. How will I look at all that time I spent? Like I’ll look at meditation and exercise, I think, and all the regular practices I did that were healthy just to do, even if they never led to anything.



Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos