A Change of Guard

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Saturday, 18 June 2016

Helping barangs know their sh*t, linguistically speaking


Thida Men moonlights as a Khmer language teacher instructing foreigners to, among other things, swear.
Thida Men moonlights as a Khmer language teacher instructing foreigners to, among other things, swear. Athena Zelandonii


Helping barangs know their sh*t, linguistically speaking
Fri, 17 June 2016 ppp
Audrey Wilson


Thida Men has the gentle voice of a patient teacher and a sly smile. She also likes to teach foreigners to cuss.

Thida puts the focus on “street language”, lending her students – mostly expatriates – lessons they aren’t likely to get from a more traditional kru. She is unique in her pedagogy: putting everyday slang, simple pronunciation and even dirty words first.

“What I teach is different. I encourage the students to ask me things that they don’t know – even if they are strange – and especially about pronunciation,” she said this week. “There are words that expats always mispronounce.”

In class, Thida clears up these common mistakes. She promises her students won’t get strange looks from co-workers again when they say “Cheers!” over an after-work beer.

She also fields questions of some consequence: from women who want to tell off the tuk-tuk driver on their block, or people who think they’re being ripped off at the market because of their rudimentary Khmer.


Thida works a day job at a travel agency and is a business partner at arts space Cloud, where she has held her classes twice a month since January. But her passion is languages: she studied English and French at the Institute of Foreign Languages in Phnom Penh, and she began teaching in her spare time a couple years ago.

She realised there was something missing: a space where all questions were welcome.

For now, Thida thinks she’s settled on an effective method. After all, it worked for her. “The thing that made me want to study French – which was hard – was that I learned some bad words,” she explained with a grin. “And then it was fun.”

Thida Men teaches Khmer street language on alternate Wednesdays at 7:30pm at Cloud, #32 Street 9. Her next class is June 29.

Talking dirty in Khmer 101

The perils of pronunciation

We have a few words that are so similar, like airtch [long vowel] means ‘can’, and artch [short vowel] means ‘sh*t’. My students always want to pronounce ‘cheers’ well. They are not sure if it’s chuol muay, or choy muay. Chuol muay means ‘cheers!’ and choy muay means ‘one f*ck’. So I teach them to pronounce better.

Avoiding sounding like a newbie

Most expats have problems with high prices at the market, and from tuk-tuk drivers. It’s the term of address. They know only bong. They call everyone bong. But the lady at the market, you should call her ming [aunt]. She’ll think that you know Khmer well, and she will give you a discount or at least sell something to you at the correct price. With tuk-tuks, you can call the driver pou [uncle]. He’ll think, ‘Oh this guy has lived for a long time in Cambodia. He knows the price so I can’t mark it up.’ And my students say that it works.

Giving as good as you get

My female students ask me what to say when the tuk-tuk drivers call them srey saat [beautiful girl] and they don’t want to take the tuk-tuk, and they don’t understand what [the drivers] are saying. In that case, she can say kou artch and it means, ‘I don’t believe you, I am not a beautiful girl’. Well, actually kou means ‘cow’ and artch means ‘sh*t’.

Getting hip to the lingo

I also teach them expressions that young people use now [to refer to each other], like bek sloy. It has different meanings, but it’s like . . . you get lost. When your friend has drunk a lot, you can laugh at them and it is bek sloy. It’s like he becomes a little bit lost, out of his head. The people my age use it a lot – it comes from Facebook, from the troll [pages]. It’s a phrase that came independently to Khmer.

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