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Learn How To Speak and Write Cambodian: An Introduction To The Khmer Language: Numbers and Letters

Cambodian Khmer People

Book ka Make (Father in Law) and Mai ka Make (Mother in Law) staying cool in the heat! It's always Hot in Cambodia!

Book ka Make (Father in Law) and Mai ka Make (Mother in Law) staying cool in the heat! It's always Hot in Cambodia!

Learn Another Language!

Origins and History of the Khmer Language

The Cambodian language, officially called the language of Khmer (pronounced as one word like "Come Here", without the H; "ComeEar", or "ComeEye", depending on region), is a very old language.

It has it's roots from the Brahman or Brahmi system of writing, a character-based language dating back to India in Ancient Times. Proof of this is in the writings within the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.

This article is designed as an introductory tool in understanding the Khmer Alphabet and Sentence Structure while writing and practicing the language. Emphasis will also be placed on Pronunciation, which is very difficult, as many of the Khmer sounds are not native to Latin-Language speaking people (French, English, Spanish, etc.).

Cambodian Khmer Sub-Consonants: Learn To Draw Write Khmer Characters

Cambodian Khmer Sub-Consonants

Cambodian Khmer Sub-Consonants

Speaking Khmer is not as hard as it looks, but I have to admit that, reading and writing it is not as easy. One of the major confusing elements of looking at Cambodian characters is that there are no spaces between the words. Although this appears to be overwhelming, it's not as bad as you think. See, when you're able to decipher the sounds for each Khmer letter then you will naturally recognize where sentences begin and end.

One important thing to point out is that the Khmer alphabet does not translate the same as Latin languages do to each other; there is no equivalent for each letter in Khmer to the English alphabet. Instead, the Khmer alphabet is a phonetic alphabet, that is, a group of sounds that have meaning and change depending on implied accents and word structure. As is the case in learning any new language, immersion and practice with native speakers is probably the best way to become competent in speaking, writing, and reading Khmer.

Before we dive into the alphabet, I'd like to mention a few interesting facts and notable points of interest about the Cambodian/Khmer alphabet and language. The first point that I would like to make is that the written language is almost entirely phonetic. That's good for us who are trying to learn it because that means that there's little change in the sounds once we learn the basic alphabet. That concept offers a level of consistency.

There are some major differences between Khmer and English. In Khmer adjectives follow the noun. In English we would say "pretty girl". In Cambodian it is just the opposite: "girl pretty". Another big distinction which makes Cambodian easier to read, write, and speak, is the fact that there are no verb conjugations. Once you become advanced you'll realize that there ways to classify tenses but to be honest, it is only used when writing formally and rarely used when spoken colloquially.

Here’s another rule that will help you in simplifying how to learn to speak, read and write Cambodian: there are no articles such as "a", "and", and "the", etc. Another interesting element within the Cambodian language is that there is no specific verb "to be" as there is in most of the Latin languages. Cambodians simply say, “She Pretty” instead of “She Is Pretty”. Hopefully knowing some of these facts about the Cambodian language will make you more eager to learn it and make it easier during the process.

Google Maps: Cambodia

Cambodian Khmer Vowels

Since there are no charts like this available on the web, I drew the vowels myself!

Since there are no charts like this available on the web, I drew the vowels myself!

Learn About A Traditional Khmer Wedding with Photos!

  • Traditional Cambodian (Khmer) Wedding Ceremonies
    This is the story of my traditional Khmer (Cambodian) wedding that took place in the spring of 2008. We combined Khmer traditions with American traditions (and even some Korean ones) and had a wonderful wedding!

Types of Vowels

Perhaps the hardest part about learning how to speak Cambodian is pronunciation. There are many sounds that we Westerners have never been exposed to both in listening as well as speaking. It will take practice and most likely you will always have a slight accent compared to a native speaker. When you can speak Cambodian fluently, however, you'll notice that native speakers will appreciate you trying and will overlook your accent. Many will try to help you improve on your pronunciation. You will feel very proud knowing that you are appreciated by people who speak a language from the other side of the world!

The vowels within the Cambodian alphabet can be short or long and have more than one sound depending on how it is used. The long vowels tend to be dragged out while short vowels are quickly cut off as they are spoken. Unfortunately for us, many of these sounds are not represented in any of the sounds of the English language. There are simple vowels and complex vowels, as well as consonant combination vowels. If you check the chart below you will see simple vowels (a single character) and complex vowels (combination of 2 or more characters). Consonant Combination Vowels are just that; a combination of a consonant and vowel.

I spent a little bit of money on Amazon looking for the best book related to this topic. I have to tell you that there are few books out there, and even fewer that are useful resources on learning how to speak Khmer. What I can say, is after reviewing many books and workbooks, the best I have found so far is actually written by a Non-Cambodian American, Richard K. Gilbert. His book, Cambodian For Beginners is relatively easy to use if you put the time and effort into learning the language. You should definitely get the companion CD's so that you can hear a native speaker pronounce the sounds of the language. His suggestions through transliteration of Khmer pronunciations is untouchable! I highly suggest that you purchase this book if you are serious about learning Khmer, step by step in an organized fashion.

Independent Cambodian Khmer Vowels

Independent Vowels

There are an additional 11 more vowel symbols within the Khmer alphabet. Independent vowels are different then regular vowels in that they stand alone and do not need consonant accompaniment. Below is a chart which I drew to show you these 11 independent vowels:

Khmer Cambodian Punctuation

Books On Cambodia

Khmer Numbers 1-10

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Want To Learn More About Cambodia?

Learn Khmer Cambodian Now! Start Here!

© 2011 JS Matthew


Андрей Третьяков on May 15, 2016:

Hi! I need help with the Khmer script of the 19-th century. If anyone could help, please get in touch with me via the e-mail

Thanks a lot in advance!

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on April 28, 2014:

Hello anna and thanks for clarifying that information. I deleted your first comment so no worries about the spelling errors. I appreciate your comment!


anna on April 27, 2014:

Apologies for the typos in previous comment. I meant to type there is indeed a verb TO BE. It is KU JEA. Also there are 2 words for AND. They are HAOY or NUNG. Great article.

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on March 08, 2014:

Thank you Liz. I will contact you regarding your offer.


Liz on February 19, 2014:

Hi J.S.

We are currently seeking an expatriate Khmer interpreter at the International Committee of the Red Cross. If you are interested, you can contact me at and I can explain further...

Adriana on January 30, 2014:

Buna treaba Learn How To Speak and Write Cambodian: An Introduction To The Khmer Language: Numbers and Letters! Super site: ora exacta.

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on January 20, 2013:

Hello kayla. I hope this can help you learn Khmer Cambodian! Thanks for stopping by!


kayla on December 08, 2012:

I have always wanted to speak cambodian.

Sonia on October 30, 2012:

Dear JS, thank you ++++ for your support. So far we are doing well with committed students with different profiles coming to us, from complete beginners to more advanced students who want to speed up their understanding of Khmer and listening skills. Along with the Khmer language, comes the culture, as our teachers tells stories related to the daily life in Cambodia (Beginner level) to more complex topics (at noon and 6pm every day, in both Intermediate and Advanced levels, the teachers would comment the headlines in one of the daily Khmer newspapers - very interesting).

We look forward to showing you what we do when you next come to PP. All friends of the Khmer language and of Cambodia are most welcome!

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on October 28, 2012:

Hello Sonia! I checked out your site and I have added a link to your YouTube video as well as your site. You are doing a wonderful thing there and I am happy to share it in this Hub! Thanks.


Sonia on October 27, 2012:

Thank you for your great article. Very interesting. We actually started a new school to teach Khmer to Foreigners a couple of months ago. It is called LINK, Language Institute of Natural Khmer, and we use a method based on listening and understanding. It helps a lot in hearing well the sounds, and then speaking Khmer correctly. We have now three levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced. All newcomers get a free our trial class, to see if they like the method. To all interested, please do come to visit us (Sovannaphumi School, Street 200 in PP) so we can talk about all aspects of learning Khmer and compare our experiences, or go to our website

Looking forward to hearing from you, and, again, well done for your great article!

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on September 18, 2012:

I have to agree with you nurul that speaking is easier than reading and writing. I don't have much trouble drawing the characters but being able to memorize them, what they mean and how they sound is difficult! It's a work in progress. I'll check out your food blog and feel free to check out my Cambodian Khmer Recipes:

I appreciate your comment and glad you found this useful. Thanks!


nurul on September 17, 2012:

Very useful page. Thank you!! I find learning to read and write much harder than speaking. My spoken Khmer is still less than basic after 4 months here. And my reading and writing is worse. But I love the language as well as the people here and it is well worth the effort to learn!

I have a food blog:

Stop by if you're interested!

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on February 21, 2012:

Hello again Dahlia Flower! I appreciate all your comments! I always wanted to study linguistics and become a professional interpreter. Maybe it's not to late! Thank you for reading and leaving insightful comments on my Hubs! I really appreciate it!


Dahlia Flower from Canada on February 21, 2012:

This is such an interesting hub. I took a couple courses in linguistics way back. It really interests me and I wish I'd started at a younger age.

You have a lovely wife there.

Now I must read find out what you were doing in Cambodia. I saw a title which might be the one to read.

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on February 12, 2012:

Thank you sunbun143! I worked hard to put this together so I really appreciate your comment! I speak (with a bad accent) enough to get by but I understand more than I can say. I always love going to my wife's friend's parties and they talk about me not knowing that I understand! It is funny when I respond back with something witty!

I am lucky because I am close to my in-laws and they speak Khmer exclusively, although they do understand English. They are "old school". For the record, I can draw the characters but the only word I can write from memory is "khnom" (me, I, myself). You're welcome for the encouragement and I look forward to sharing more in the future.

I am in the process of putting all my recipes into one article and I linked your Sour Soup recipe to it. I am not sure when I will publish but I will let you know! Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate all your comments!


sunbun143 from Los Angeles, CA on February 12, 2012:

Wow this is a comprehensive and well-researched article. I have a feeling you speak the language better than I do since my knowledge and pronuciation is very basic and I do not know how to read or write it. I can communicate with my family in Khmer but that's it. Bravo to you for learning your wife's language! And thank you for encouraging me and linking to my hubs!

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on January 17, 2012:

Thanks alocsin! You are right that it is not a tonal language. It does change from region to region, but being there is only one dialect and Cambodia a very small place, most speakers have no problem with understanding each other. The funny thing is that in Khmer, they often use the "rolling R" similar to Spanish as in "Carro" I have been told that "whites" (like myself!) and Chinese minorities have the worst accents! It is very different from most Asian languages as a whole, yet very similar to Thai. I guess it is complicated! Thanks for commenting and voting up. I appreciate it. I am looking forward looking into the program you mentioned in your Hub: Thanks for stopping by!


Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on January 17, 2012:

I've read that most of the language is not tonal, unlike many of the languages of Southest Asia. Although the Phnom Penh language has developed a minor tone to make up for the gliding r. Voting this Up and Interesting.

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on December 01, 2011:

Hello Mark!

You are very lucky to be in Srok Khmer! I agree that it is very hard to learn. I guess exposure and practice are the only ways to become proficient. I am not yet able to carry on full conversation but I usually know what is being talked about. The Huffman book is the first I bought. It was used and expensive, not to mention quite large! I found it a bit difficult but I do use it as a reference. You have accomplished quite a bit! It is awesome that you are so gifted in language. Language is a foundation for peace. I appreciate your comment and will check out your Hubs! Thanks for stopping by!


markhigham from Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 28, 2011:

Hello. This Mark Higham, and you are following me. As you know, I live in Phnom Penh. Wife is Khmer too. Of course, I speak Khmer. And the vowels are extremely difficult. But as long as the Khmers use the word "chaba" then they are saying that you are speaking clearly and they can understand you. I can hold conversations in Khmer but I'm not fluent yet. I became fluent in Korean after only a year, but I hope to reach fluency in Khmer in maybe about another year. But I am going to get a Ph.D. in English Literature at National University of Singapore in 2012. I found a really good book to learn Khmer with called Cambodian System of Writing and Beginning Reader by Franklin E. Huffman. Sometimes it gets a little technical like he wants you to understand absolutely everything about the language, but you can ignore this and the book then teaches you well and the readings are great because you get to improve vocabulary and being able to read and write in a language will help not to try to translate in your head which is always always the worst way to begin learning a language. Next I plan to learn Chinese as I took a semester of it in college and I already know about 600 characters and I really love learning languages. Nice to meet you and hope you will enjoy my stuff even as enjoy yours. Cheers!

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on November 12, 2011:

writingfrosh it is similar. So is Thai, because they all come from ancient Sanskrit which has its roots in India. Glad you could relate! Thanks for the comment!


writingfrosh from Philippines on November 12, 2011:

Interesting hub! Reminds me of the preHispanic alphabet of the Philippines - the Alibata.

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on November 01, 2011:

It's all goooooodddd Bharat! It's all Good.


Bharat Thapa from NEW DELHI on November 01, 2011:

@JS thankkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkssss (it may look weird when a grown man does this but it's okay. =) )

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on November 01, 2011:

Bharat I appreciate all your comments and have enjoyed talking with you! I wish you all the luck and success in your Language adventures!


Bharat Thapa from NEW DELHI on October 30, 2011:



Same with me, i am also trying to learn spanish by myself and i am finding it little hard right now because of it's complex grammer (Only present tense grammer is easy) It's such a beautiful language that i wouldn't mind giving it my next 10years, if i have to give.

Mastering a language has always been my target and always looked towards the positive side.

I know native fluency is almost impossible but i hope my dedication to it(this is the hardest part) will bring me close enough to the native fluency or make me proficient enough to understand it and speak it at least.

Even if i get close to the kind of english i speak, i'll be more than happy.

By the way thanks for being nice and you have a wonderful night.

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on October 30, 2011:

@Bharatthapa: I would love to master Khmer but I don't have a proper teacher at the moment. I want to learn when I go to Cambodia. I can speak pretty fluently but my writing needs a lot of work. I think that over time I will continue to develop my writing and reading skills, I am just not in an environment that encourages it right now because no one around me writes in Khmer that often, although they all speak it most of the time. Thanks for stopping by!


Bharat Thapa from NEW DELHI on October 30, 2011:

Beautiful but just one question when you guys start learning these languages do you even think of mastering it?

Or just learn it to have very basic conversation?

plinka from Budapest, Hungary on October 29, 2011:

Hi Chanroth, thanks for the useful info. Next week I'm starting a Chinese course, so Khmer language should wait a little.:-)

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on October 29, 2011:

Thanks Kimoy Srey Chan! I appreciate the links and clarification. As always, thanks for your comment!

Pu JSMatthew~

chanroth from California, USA on October 29, 2011:

@ plinka, you don't need to go to Cambodia to practice the language. If you know someone that is Cambodian they can teach you some few words or you can go search it online. Here is a website that can help you and uncle matt.

Note that Khmer language influence by a Sanskrit and Pali which is an Indoy-Aryan Language...

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on September 28, 2011:

Hello plinka! I have yet to got to Cambodia but I plan on travelling there in a couple years. It is about $1500.00 USD just for the plane ticket and I have a family of 5! I would consider myself an intermediate-beginner. My wife speaks Khmer and I learn a lot from her, her friends and family. I can hold a conversation but I understand more than I can speak. I am told that I have a horrible accent lol! Thanks for asking. I appreciate your comment!


plinka from Budapest, Hungary on September 28, 2011:

Do you regularly go to Cambodia to practice the language? At what level do you speak it? I mean can you talk to locals for example when you go there or even speak about more difficult subjects?

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on September 02, 2011:

Thanks for the comment Impostora! I appreciate it!


Dust from Anaheim, Ca on September 02, 2011:

Excellent hub J.S.M. Thanks for sharing it with us.

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on August 30, 2011:

@sortapundit: Pronunciation is very difficult for me too! It's a lot of strange sounds we are not used to. I appreciate your comment!


JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on August 30, 2011:

@Chan: That's exactly what I was saying! I have to be very careful! My in-laws get a kick out of it all but they are very supportive. Their English is very limited as well as my Khmer, but they speak to me mostly in Khmer. You guys would have a riot listening to me try to speak! My accent is so bad!

Pu JSMatthew~

sortapundit from Copenhagen on August 30, 2011:

An excellent hub, J.S. Pronunciation has been the biggest stumbling block for me in trying to learn Thai and Mongolian, and it's always useful to devote a little time to talking about getting your head around the sounds. Keep up the fine work :)

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on August 24, 2011:

Thanks for the correction Chan. Before you commented back I showed my wife and she said the same thing! I am embarrassed lol. Muk khnom gaw-home (my face is red!) I am still learning! I appreciate your help. I think she does switch words sometimes because it doesn't always make sense what she says! There are many words that sound the same especially "help" and "sex" Chu-ey and Choy. I had a lot of trouble with that! One time I asked my Ming if I could help her and she gave me a weird look. My wife corrected me and I felt stupid. lol

Awkon Kmouy srey!

Pu Matt! haha

chanroth from California, USA on August 24, 2011:

Hi Uncle Matt, you say wrong...not loak sok sabay G-tay? I am a girl and young, I can be the age of your niece, you should say, kmouy sok sabai theat te? lol...loak (louk) should be used for men only about your age. Your wife is very funny, have she ever switch khmer term so you don't understand it? Cambodian have many words but mean the same. would be very funny if she did that to trick your mind and think the word mean something else when it mean the same thing. lol...I hope your getting better with your study in Khmer. Sok sabai pu Matt! :)

Kmouy srey,


JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on August 24, 2011:

Hi Chan! Loak Sok Sabay G-tay? I think it's funny too. There's not much she can say anymore without me having an idea about what she is talking about-especially because I learned the slang before the formal! I have heard from many that English is hard for Khmer to learn because of the tenses and plurals, of which there are none in Khmer. I found Spanish to be relatively easy because it is spoken exactly how it is spelled, but then again, I have the advantage because I already speak English as a native and the sounds are similar. I can't imagine trying to learn Latin languages after growing up speaking Khmer. You should be very proud of the progress you have made! I am not familiar with Pepe Aguilar. I'll have to check him out.

Phu JSMatthew~

chanroth from California, USA on August 24, 2011:

@uncle Matt. LOL....I just have to laugh at that comment you made about your wife. This might have been the opposite to what she say to push you to keep studying because a lot give up. Cambodian is a very hard language to learn believe it or not but for us Cambodian who speak khmer as their native (first) language find English much HARDER! I give that thumbs up to your wife! I'm learning Spanish and I think its getting a bit harder....than English...we find other language difficult because we never knew or study their language. ^_^ My favorite Spanish singer now is pepe aguilar and have no idea what he's talking about. LOL...

JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on August 24, 2011:

@breete01: I totally agree! Thanks for the comment.


JS Matthew (author) from Massachusetts, USA on August 24, 2011:

@homesteadbound: It's not easy but I bet there are harder languages to learn. At first my wife didn't want me to learn because she didn't want me to always know everything she was saying! That just made me work harder! Thanks for the comment!