Back to
Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Beyond Language

I have always loved learning languages. Growing up in a bilingual household and attending international schools, I appreciate that languages can help bring distant communities together and bridge the gap between cultures. I knew that this program would provide me with the chance to learn languages that one does not typically encounter in a classroom setting and the opportunity to converse with locals and learn more about lifestyles very different from my own.

We had had frequent Khmer lessons throughout the beginning of the trip to help facilitate our interactions with our host families and to help us navigate throughout the cities. Armed with a few helpful words and phrases and not much else, we began our first homestay on the island community of Koh K’sach Tonlea. I greeted my host family, shared my name, age, and where I was from, and they returned the gesture. After our introductions, however, I lacked the vocabulary to start a proper conversation, and stood there awkwardly before my host mother gestured for me to follow her to her house.

The first few days consisted of being spoken at and not knowing what was being said to me or how to respond. While this was uncomfortable at first, my host family and I quickly developed a useful hand gesture system to illustrate different scenarios like taking a shower or doing laundry, which eased some of my confusion. In addition, my fourteen-year-old host sister, who spoke some English, would teach me a few new Khmer words everyday and when I repeated them back, my host family would clap. Slowly, our verbal communication improved, despite remaining very minimal. Though the majority of our interactions lacked words and consisted almost entirely of ridiculous hand gestures, they always included laughter as we bonded over American pop stars, card games, and drawing.

I can’t say I had a conversation – or even came close to one – with my host family during the twelve days I spent with them, but I still left feeling like a had an understanding of their daily routine and that I formed connections with my host sisters. Even without a solid grasp on the language, I still was able to take away valuable insight from my time with my host family. I am leaving this first homestay with the knowledge that my language skills will only take me so far and that I must embrace the awkward silences and inevitable laughter that will follow.