• DL Khmer 2019 / Frank Smith

  • DL Khmer 2010 / Frank Smith

  • DL Khmer 2009

Frank Smith, the Khmer language instructor for UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC Irvine, shares about his introduction to the Khmer American community and how he sustains that relationship through his students.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)


Learning Khmer

"I didn’t choose Khmer; Khmer chose me." Frank Smith first learned the language as part of his research for his undergraduate honors thesis. He was writing about Cambodian refugee acculturation to the United States during the 1980s.

Smith lived in an area where many refugees from Southeast Asia had recently resettled, but at the time, he didn’t know which country the families were from. Every day, he rode the bus to his university, while his neighbors took the same bus to their high school. When he eventually asked one of them about their ethnic background, he learned that they were from Cambodia. "Originally I didn’t plan to learn the language," he said, "but my entry into the community was learning the language."

His relationship with the neighbors completely changed as he understood more Khmer. New waves of migration from Cambodia were just arriving after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, so many refugees spoke little English. "It was possible to totally immerse myself in the language by being around them." Smith would ask about everything, from the plants in the garden to the parts of a car. He created word lists for himself, studied textbooks, and also helped several of the men get their driver’s licenses.

"In the books, I would find the grammatical explanation," he describes. "From the people, I would get how you say it…and then it [Khmer] kind of just took over my life from there."

Teaching from Afar

In 2008, Smith began teaching Khmer at UC Berkeley, which was soon offered as a distance learning course for UCLA and UCI students as well. He taught in the classroom at Berkeley, while students from the other campuses participated via Skype and now, Zoom. "It’s far from perfect. It’s so much better to interact with someone in a room," he admits. However, he is able to share the language with more students than he would have had he only taught in the physical classroom.

Distance learning Khmer was developed as a joint project funded by UC Berkeley Center for Southeast Asia Studies and UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies through their consortium Title VI grant with the US Department of Education. The goal of the project was to increase access to Southeast Asian languages for students in the state universities.

In the beginning, it was difficult to implement group work, but Smith worked around that using various communication platforms and technologies like Zoom have made it easier with built-in breakout rooms.

To a certain extent, the distance learning format has prepared Smith and his students well for remote learning during the global pandemic. "Nobody is ever late for class. People are rarely absent. Students seem very engaged…so that’s one positive thing."

Before travel concerns related to COVID-19, Smith would fly down to visit his students at UCI and UCLA twice a year and allow them to see what it's like to have the instructor in the room. This gives students at all three campuses the full experience of a distance learning course.

Connecting with Heritage Students

Smith observes that the demand for Khmer language classes was higher during the 1980s and 1990s due to interest in Cambodian politics. Now, most of his students come from Khmer American families, although many have little to no language experience. "Twenty or thirty years ago, almost any student I would get already spoke Khmer really well," he reflects. "As the years go on, the number of students who get to the university age without speaking any Khmer grows. It’s just part of the immigrant experience."

When asked about memorable moments from his years of teaching, Smith grows visibly emotional. In 2002 when he was teaching in Wisconsin, he read a letter from one of his students that was addressed to her father in Khmer. "She was saying, 'I can read and write now. Have I paid back the debt that I owe you?'"

Other students have spoken about finally being able to communicate with their grandparents in their native language and how much that strengthens the relationship.

"It totally makes it all worthwhile," Smith smiles. "The class is a lot of fun."



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Published: Wednesday, May 6, 2020