Internship Week 7: Language Challenges and Opportunities

Move to another country. Find a one bedroom apartment on a quiet street and move into it. Live alone. Make sure your first contacts in this new place are locals. One of them has their office right above your apartment and you can use the Internet connection when you need it. The other one is a courageous educator at one of the best universities in the city. You settle in. You see them. You meet other locals. You meet lots of foreigners, like yourself, both from the country you’ve come from and the countries you have not come from.

Eat local cuisine. Learn local customs. Try to figure out the language. Take language lessons from a private tutor. Put sticky notes over all your things to improve your vocabulary. Start to learn basic phrases in the local language. Things that will help you out. The very basics. Get very confused when you try to understand grammar. Get even more confused when you spend too long thinking of the vocabulary word you need in any given situation. Look at your computer. Think about the script of the language on signs and walls of buildings, bars, restaurants, everywhere. Download the Unicode for the language and turn your keyboard into a dual-language tool that you don’t know if you’ll ever learn. Attempt to learn a little of the written/typed language each day. Take a moment to breathe. Stop and look around. Realize you are in a sea of language and culture.

Start to realize that you are proud to spend time with locals from the country you’re in. Start to realize you are happy when you hang out with them. Start to realize you are happier spending time under the paradigm of the locals than the paradigm you know best, the paradigm shared with the other foreigners. Start to realize it might have to do with language. Start to realize you may know less and less each day as the world gets larger and larger, but you are trying. You are putting in the effort you can. And you are aware of the effort.

The Internship is About Being International

When I arrived in Phnom Penh, I knew I would be in for many culture shocks. I didn’t realize that it was less difficult to transition into life here than the time I moved from Rhode Island to North Philadelphia. It’s actually been quite easy to live here. But I didn’t throw myself into the fire, so to speak. I prepared. I read books about transitioning here. I read a book of Cambodian history. I picked up as many possible resources and bits of information I could in order to gain an understanding, almost in a scientific way, of the environment I was about to become a part of.

I would not say I’m perfect at being the “international student,” I will say, with pride, that I’m probably doing a better job at it than some of the other transplants that wound up here. I love experiencing new things, and I love experiencing a way of life (or ways of life) that are conducive to worldly thought, that bend and tweak (and twerk, or shake up) any notions I have, be they about life, love, happiness, inequality, libraries, information, media, communication, and so on and so forth.

I’ve never really studied international librarianship and I have never studied international relations and I have never studied abroad before. I have “never done” many things and I will be the first to admit that I did not know what I was doing when I started applying to be out here in Southeast Asia. It was another “whim moment” (of which my life has had many), and it’s resulted in a lot of amazing surprises. Eating noodles every day, for instance, is something I now wish I had been doing all my life. Visiting markets and standing in wonder at the daily life of so many merchants. Looking past rooftops to golden and orange pagodas, and remembering the endless Christian churches in my country.

There are many differences in life, lifestyles, and activities here that are inspiring. If not inspiring for life choices, they’re inspiring for intellectual inquiry. I can’t go into them all, obviously, but I can say, generally speaking, that being an admirer of culture is conducive to my approach to librarianship. It’s one of the most important qualities of the international library professional: to be empathetic and curious about the world around you. Just as coders design apps for the user by knowing what the user needs are, the librarian’s ultimate goal is to provide resources when learning about the information needs of the community. And if the librarian doesn’t know about the culture, the librarian doesn’t know enough about local information exchange. And if that’s the case, well, there’s a problem.

Ask yourself: how important is multiculturalism to you?

The Internship is About Language

At the end of the day, the internship is about language. It’s about how people connect with one another, either through the spoken or written language, or the broader inter-cultural communications. If I’m cataloging a new document and I’m not familiar with the topical content in the document, it’s my duty to gain an understanding of that topical content by going to the expert. And if you’re living in Cambodia working on Cambodian resources, you’re going to be speaking with Cambodians.

Ask yourself: how do you communicate ideas?

Translation is important. Not merely the translation of words and phrases, but the translation of the ideas. These ideas are most commonly transported from one actor to another through spoken and written language. I’m very fortunate at ODC to be working with a team that loves language. In fact, they would all be wonderful experimental poets if I had the money to pay them to be! I enjoy working with the team because they know a lot of English but they don’t know everything. And so I am teaching them some of my language. And I know only a small bit of Khmer and they know a lot, and so I am constantly learning the language, be it spoken, written, or typed (in Unicode). And it’s hard. Though I’m doing many things in my life right now, the hardest challenge is understanding language and continuing to be inspired to learn the language despite my struggles.

Someone once told me (or maybe I read it somewhere) that when you’re an international librarian, or a librarian that is working abroad, you don’t have to be fluent in the host country’s language. This is obviously optimistic and encouraging for librarians everywhere who want to go somewhere “exotic” or “exciting” or, more reasonably, “more interesting than what they’re used to.” But I argue it’s a pretty bad approach. Librarians should have their goal to become fluent in the language. The language of the culture is the, as mentioned above, the optimal way to understand the information of that culture, and thus the closest and most intimate connections can be made through the relationship between language and knowledge: reinforce knowledge by harnessing the power of language.

Language and Work

Language is confronted every day at ODC. At some meetings Khmer is the primary mode of communication, which is an obvious barrier to me as someone who doesn’t know much at all of it. I ask for translations as much as possible, and probably less now than when I first started, because I attempt to be tactful and not take up everyone’s time begging for an explanation. But sometimes the translations are necessary for me to be optimal in my position.

Other times, and arguably most times, the method of communication used when I’m around is English. The language is thus easier but not perfect. The coworkers I work with know a lot of English–impressive bodies of both words and ideas–and I teach them a little more every day, and willingly. In that way, I’m learning to be a better manager of ideas through the facilitation of communication via language. It’s an exciting “bonus” to the internship I’m sure many others in my position would find annoying, burdensome, and troubling. But I don’t. I don’t think it gets in the way of my learning at all (see above, on my note about understanding and learning the culture to be a better librarian).

On top of it all, learning how to communicate and share language with your coworkers strengthens the bonds of the the individuals and team. It establishes degrees of trust and coordination you probably wouldn’t be able to achieve otherwise. And I only realized this because of the language barriers that exist. Looking back on previous jobs I’ve had in other companies and organizations, I realize that language issues always exist, but if the primary language is the same across all speakers, you take too much for granted and poor communication can often go on unnoticed in very subtle ways, whether it’s in daily work, special events, short term tasks, or large-scale projects.


On Halloween I helped throw a fun work party during the lunch break where I hired a couple of face painters to come into the office and paint everyone’s face. This was a great example of cultural language exchange between what I know and what my coworkers did not. Say what you will about me imposing some strange foreigner activity on the Cambodians, but I think it turned out great. As you see in the picture above, the “classic” style of face painting was tweaked to the aesthetic of the Cambodian artists. The style aside, the initial idea of having the faces painted amid a sea of candy and a screening of Beetlejuice provoked a lot of hesitancy. All but one of the team members ended up getting their faces painted, however, after a bit of coaxing.

What can we learn from the Halloween party? The Halloween party was me inviting the team to have fun, in my terms. I was able to offer them through my cultural history and my cultural language activities and knowledge that they had not been exposed to previously. And thus they could learn a little bit more about America, sure, but also a little bit more about me. We are individuals trying to understand other individuals, and to do this we find ways to connect with others. The Halloween party was a great opportunity to continue to expand on the fostered friendships I’ve had with this wonderful team.

Language and Libraries

You have a catalog. You have records in the catalog. You have a display for those records. You have two languages. Right now, I’ll be honest, the “system” by which we manage the library records does not handle two languages consistently or optimally. Some records are completely in Khmer. Some are completely in English. These states of being are due to, of course, the nature of the original document. But the goal, which is aligned with the entire website, is to make the library dual language. This will be a major challenge.

I have been working closely with the editors to figure out how to best translate keywords from English to Khmer and vice versa, and apply the taxonomy (which has already been translated). I have been attempting to find the optimal way to enhance library records for both English and Khmer documents so that researchers of either language will be able to seek out the information they desire and using the language they find most appropriate. On the technical side, MARC records are slightly challenging to do this with, but it can be done (albeit a bit sloppily). The important ideas to take into consideration are those that deal with accessibility.

Having a flexible document is a document that can be malleable and moved around in such a way to allow easy and powerful description to take place. When it comes to language, the power of the description falls on the librarian and the editors the librarian is working with. Thus it comes down to additional dialogue, communication, and language exchange. As time passes and the language becomes easier and more fluid, with the relationships among the team developing, and the cultural context becoming more understood, the work on the library can blossom. And the library can become easier to explore for everyone in the community.


One thought on “Internship Week 7: Language Challenges and Opportunities

  1. I haven’t read it all yet, but what I have read looks like a fantastic adventure.

    Some of what you wrote about learning the language reminds me of what my oldest brother told me about learning Japanese during his time in Osaka, where he met his wife. He made a deal with his co-workers that they would spend time in the evenings on focused language learning–he would teach them English and they would teach him Japanese. He ended up as quite the master of the Kansai dialect of the Osaka region, and he still travels back to Japan for business and personal reasons on a regular basis; his company is trying to grow business, and his wife has family there.

    When he travels to Tokyo, he has to remember to use Kanto dialect, but the difference is like someone from the U.S. South going to New England–the dialects are mutually intelligible, mostly minor regional differences.

    Your comment about “working with a team that loves language. In fact, they would all be wonderful experimental poets” makes me hope that you have a chance to write some poetry yourself. I remember some of your work from the Blend on South Street with the Poetic Arts Performance Project.

    Good luck!


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