Communication in Laos

Whenever I go out in Laos, I talk to anyone who is willing to talk back (and some who aren’t, it’s true).  The bigger the population of falangs (white people), particularly those just passing through, the less people there are that seem willing to chat.

As an English teacher, students often ask how they can improve their spoken English – without a doubt, having the confidence to talk with a falang is a great start, and a great opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills.  But it takes a willing falang, an ultra confident Lao, and often a certain ability to get past the inevitable misunderstandings that occur.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, but that of course involves too much shame, or too much effort for many people to even try.

Trying to get past misunderstandings is also the responsibility of both parties; it takes an effort, practice, and some interpersonal/cultural skills.  These are ones that come to my mind, as both a current English teacher and a Lao learner – but also keeping in mind that some contexts will change the dynamics, that hierarchies (age/status), respect and culture also play a part, and the purpose for the conversation is another potential form of misunderstanding – I just wanted to practice my (limited) English/Lao and here you are asking me questions???

  • Slow down!  Speak clearly!  Enunciate every word!  (Whether English OR Lao).
  • Use Gestures!  Sign language, point to objects, count on your fingers.
  • Be patient.  Be kind.  Smile a lot!
  • Ensure time to formulate answers.  Try counting slowly to five after asking a question – feels like a long time but often what is needed.
  • Remember that often Lao students only hear English from their Lao speaking teachers, including any mispronunciations.  As much as possible, speak English with a Lao accent!  Listen to the way they say the words themselves – that is what they will be more likely to understand.
  • Falangs also have accents!  Be conscious of your own accent!
  • Lao speakers often leave off the end of the words when speaking their own language as it is not always required for understanding.   However in English the ends of words are necessary for communication (plurals, tense, meaning).
  • Tone is another key area of difference – Lao is tonal, and the tones will change the meaning (quite dramatically) of the words spoken.  Whereas in English, our use of tones is more likely to change the meaning of the phrase or sentence – eg. whether we are asking a question, making a statement, being sarcastic or making a joke, etc.  And don’t think that the Lao speakers don’t also have their fun with tones and misunderstandings – just that often it is only one side of the conversation that ‘gets’ the joke.  My strategy is hey, just laugh along!
  • Many Lao learners of English will basically learn the same structured conversations that depend on both speakers giving the standard answer or asking the question in the same order and structure it was taught!
    • Greetings and Introductions  (Hello!  How are you?  I am fine thanks.  And you?)
    • Where are you from?
    • Occupations/workplaces
    • Family
    • Food/drinks/colours – like/don’t like …
    • Less experienced (ie most) students will know little else beyond these basics.
  • A Lao conversation is more likely to be along the lines of Sabaidee, are you good?  Where are you going?  Have you eaten? (in my limited understanding! – and I often get it wrong, or can’t understand anything after the 1st question…)

Most Useful words/phrases to learn in Lao:

Hello  –  Sabaidee

Thank you  –  Kawp jai

No worries!  –   Baw pen nyang

Remember too that there is no agreed upon phonetic spelling for English pronunciation for Lao words.  Primary complications are the tones that change the meaning of words, and sounds that have no exact English equivalent.  Phonetic spelling of sounds may well be pronounced differently depending on your first language/accent..

Most importantly, have a go!  Lao people are, on the whole, very very friendly and appreciate a ‘good heart’ that shows in your actions

(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Declaration of human rights in Lao

Sample text

Manut thuk khôn kœ̄t māmīkẏat sâk sī, sitthi, sēlī phôp læ khwôm smœ̄ phôp thàw thẏam kân. Thuk thuk khôn mīhēt phôn læ khwômkhit khwôm hian swàn tôw khɔ̄̄ṅ phai khɔ̄ṅ mân, tǣ̀vồ manut thuk thuk khôn khwan paphʉt tàṁ kân khʉ̄ kân kâp pianốy nɔ̄́ṅ kân.


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Language & Culture: Laos (& workplace communication)

Language & Culture: Laos  Background notes for teachers in the Adult Migrant Education Program by Jean Brick (1984)  

Book produced by the NSW Adult Migrant Education Service (borrowed from Deakin University Library)

Interesting reading!  Clearly some changes may have happened in the 30+ intervening years but I imagine that knowing the older or more traditional forms of address and a bit of history remains useful.

Some items of particular interest to me in regards to cultural expectations and relationships – I am somewhat nervous about establishing relationships with my work colleagues as I have a fundamentally (privileged) Western ideal and expectation that hierarchies and level of respect ought to depend on actions rather than given titles, which can of course take some time.

An interesting aspect relates to obligation and use of please/thank you, that helps to make sense of why my automated sense of ‘manners’ – ie everyone deserves to be thanked or spoken to politely – is not directly translatable in other cultural/ethnic contexts.

When speaking to shopkeepers or market sellers it was usual to say ‘Get X’, omitting pronouns and using command forms.  Respect was not necessary as payment was involved (p28)

The concept of obligation plays an important part in determining the level of politeness used in speaking.  Children are bound to their parents, students to their teachers and employees to their employers by a network of reciprocal obligations which are continuously renewed and reinforced.  Words such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are seldom used in such relationships as services rendered or accepted are part of the network of obligation.  This obligation must be discharged by service or payment of respect and support.  Thanking in this context would appear insincere.  Nor is thanking appropriate in situations where service is part of a job, for example, in a shop.

Lao students may find the Australian system of politeness which is largely determined by the degree of difficulty or disruption involved, difficult to master.  They may unwittingly give offence by omitting polite forms or ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when speaking to younger people, subordinates, Australian friends or people whose job it is to serve because in Laos such forms would sound insincere.  

Conversely, when speaking to older people or people of higher status, (eg teachers, employers, managers, etc) they may sound obsequious or over-polite because they attempt to translate Lao respect into English politeness.  (p40)

I found this section particularly interesting because I’d just read an interesting article Cultural orientation to Australian workplaces by Dr Lynda Achren (fine print vol 36#2 2013) in which she discusses the ‘hidden hierarchy‘ in Australia’s apparent egalitarian workplaces, and how CALD learners [culturally and linguistically diverse] find this aspect of Australian culture very difficult to understand unless taught/explained quite explicitly.

The problems for CALD learners in Australia seem very relevant to the problems I envisage in working within a more overtly hierarchical society where lines of command are far more clearly delineated and performed.  “where superiors are treated with deference and addressed verbally in terms that demonstrate respect and mark their place in the hierarchy” (p13) which does not sound like my ‘natural’ way of doing things(!)  Problematic issues may result in discomfort, cultural confusion, loss of face, misunderstandings, unclear roles and responsibilities, knowing how to ask questions or give instructions, appropriate levels of in/directness…

Gaining greater awareness of our own culture and how our language reflects our culture, helps us to recognise that there are other, equally valid cultural perspectives, equally valid ways of thinking and doing.   Being equipped with tools for noticing cultural difference, for being aware that ‘something cultural is going on’ helps provide all language learners and trainees with the intercultural communication skills required for a multicultural society and its multicultural workplaces. (Achren,2013, p16)

The section of the Language and Culture book on Laos entitled Politeness, respect and obligations is of course of particular interest to me.  Not that I’m reading it to learn the ‘rules’ of this society (the book is, after all, 30 years old) but in effect, the author Jean Brick articulates more general ‘cultural’ differences I’ve always been aware of through teaching and intercultural communications, but never quite been able to articulate, and all too often, to understand the whys behind the differences.

As this book was published in the 1980s, it is interesting to recognise that a lot of my TESOL training around this time, and after, has taken a different turn, towards non-essentialising discourses, avoiding cultural generalisations and stereotypes, and the integration of differences within and across, rather than just ‘between’.  One of the consequences of this (I think) was that everything became that little more vague, and less specific.  Many of my students have struggled with what they call my ‘refusal to answer questions directly’ or too much ‘abstract thinking’/unclear instructions (oh how I love student evaluations).  So when Achren (above) mentions ‘explicit instruction’, and this book lists quite explicit functional expressions, I am a little hesitant (but surely all Lao don’t do it this way?  And surely I don’t have to do it that way because someone 30 years ago wrote it in a training manual?) but at the same time, who wouldn’t want some insight into how the following functions may be performed in different and/or more appropriate ways in different contexts?


The following sub-titles here include:

  • Harmony,
  • Loss of Face,
  • Feelings …


  • Confirming
  • Predicting
  • Correcting
  • Describing


  • Advising,
  • Complaining,
  • Requesting,
  • Giving instructions,
  • Ordering,
  • Promising,
  • Seeking Permission,
  • Suggesting,
  • Warning,
  • Refusing

AFFECTIVE (Expressing)

  • ambition
  • surprise
  • anxiety
  • pleasure
  • anger
  • wants, wishes and needs
  • likes and dislikes
  • preferences
  • satisfaction and dissatisfaction
  • sympathy
  • good wishes


  • ability/inability
  • opinions, agreement and disagreement


  • introducing
  • asking for repetition and clarification
  • attracting attention and interrupting
  • greetings, leave-taking
  • apologising
  • complimenting
  • congratulating
  • inviting
  • offering, accepting and refusing
  • thanking
  • exchanging small talk

Some interesting excerpts (to me! – my highlights):

the establishment and maintenance of social harmony is very highly valued … and all things that potentially threaten such harmony are discouraged.  In their dealing with each other people are expected to be respectful, considerate and cheerful.  the overt display of emotions, especially anger or irritation is frowned on.  Given direct opinions or openly disagreeing are also discouraged as they can lead to disharmony (pg41)

The concept of ‘dignity‘ or ‘face‘ is extremely important … avoided by conducting arguments or disagreements at length by giving reasons and by avoiding direct statements of opinion … stress is put on appearing cheerful at all times, regardless of mental state.  Smiling is, therefore, an appropriate reaction covering a wide range of emotions from happiness to anger, embarrassment and sadness … strong displays of emotion, especially negative emotions such as anger or irritation are taken as lack of discipline and can cause loss of face … (pp.41-2)

Laotians tend to avoid correcting others in all but extreme cases …when correction is necessary it will be given in a softened form, roughly translated as ‘I think this is better’.  Alternatively, it can be appropriate to offer to do something for a superior rather than point out his mistake (p 44)

Making complaints is rare… The high status of teachers means that complaints about schooling are avoided.  In Australia, students are likely to drop out of class rather than complain … In general, complaints are avoided because they create disharmony and because it is usually felt that nothing can be done to alter the state of affairs and complaining is a waste of time (pp47-8)

It is rare to make a direct request … A request from an older person or a superior sounds very brusque if translated into English.  Requests from subordinates or younger people are frequently implicit rather than explicit …If the request is made explicit, the reasons for making the request are always given first… (pp48-9)

Commitments to do something are often not seen as binding and time limits are very seldom put on expressions of willingness to do something.  If a person says that he will do something is usually means that if he can, he will and if he cannot, he will not.  If a person, having said that he will do something, subsequently fails to do it, then he might say:  ‘I’m sorry, I forgot’ and this would be accepted as an adequate reason for failure to do the promised action.”  (pp50-1)

While it is possible to refuse a request, the way that this is done varies according to the strength of the ties of friendship or obligation that exist between the two people…  might suggest a later date on which the person making the request could talk to him [which is] understood as a refusal.  … For small things, such as being asked to a party, it is usual to refuse by citing a prior engagement.  (pp53-4)

Expressing anxiety … There is no distinction between fear and nervousness.  Expressions of pleasure are muted and are primarily conveyed through intonation … it is not usual to open gifts in front of the give or to express pleasure … A gift produces an obligation which will be repaid at a future date … Pleasure [in relation to food] is shown by eating the food … (p.55-6)

Rather than stating boldly that something is liked or disliked, it is usual to approach the subject indirectly.  The reason for linking or disliking something is stated rather than the fact of like or dislike … others will remain silent rather than disagree … People seldom talk about their personal likes and dislikes because it is felt that such things are of no interest to others (p.57)

People usually tend to downgrade their abilities and achievements as to do otherwise would be interpreted as boasting or immodest behaviour and as such would be severely criticised … It is rare to state opinions or to agree or disagree directly.  Instead, reasons are given for or against a particular opinion and the listener is left to draw his own conclusions … On all occasions, being forced to admit fault involves loss of face.  People avoid putting themselves or others in a situation that involves admitting being wrong … The appropriate response to the query ‘do you understand?’ is to smile and say nothing. (pp59-63)

In general, Laos do not apologise as much as Australians, especially for minor offences.  For major offences, restitution is expected… Relative age and status is more important in determining the depth of the apology than the degree of the offence… It is very rare to pay anyone a compliment [or to congratulate] … People never comment on how beautiful a baby is.  Instead it is usual to say that the baby is ugly as this discourages the spirits from taking the baby[!]  (p.66-8)

It is not normal to offer either food or drink to a visitor; rather it is assumed that a visitor will drink and it is automatically provided.  The guest would be asked, ‘have you eaten?’  It is usual to give a negative answer, and it is expected that the guest would then either join the family in eating or if the family had already eaten, to eat by himself…   (p.69)

And finally …

Exchanging small-talk

In general, people tend not to talk about themselves, their own activities or problems.  It is also unusual to ask people about their interests or to talk about personal interests as the assumption tends to be that personal interests are of no interest to others.  People do, however, talk about other people’s activities, often in a critical way.  This acts as an important regulator of social activity as people are often reluctant to do things that might result in others criticising them.  …  questions on age, marital status … number of children and whether or not contraception is used[!] …

People also talk about jobs but mainly in relation to wages and promotion prospects … common to ask about the cost of an item … An account of the cost of various things bought for children can function as a way to showing degree of affection for the children 

Educated men might talk about politics but few women would do so.  Sport is a popular topic among men but not women who tend to talk about traditional women’s concerns – fashion, cooking, handicrafts and the family.  … It is not polite to express lack of interest in a topic of conversation nor to attempt to change the subject.  Both can be accomplished by falling silent and not commenting on what the speaker is saying.  (pp71-2)

Wow, it will be really interesting to reflect back on this further down the track.  I suppose I’ve highlighted (without commenting ‘directly’ as such – see, I’m learning) particular points that I envisage having some personal difficulties with.  As I stated above, my own fundamentally (privileged) Western ideals and expectations, combined with a feminist and (I hope) socially just perspective, may well have to take on some new forms of agency and performance over the ensuing 12 months!


Language & Culture: Laos  Background notes for teachers in the Adult Migrant Education Program by Jean Brick (1984)  Book produced by the NSW Adult Migrant Education Service (borrowed from Deakin University Library)

Cultural orientation to Australian workplaces by Dr Lynda Achren (Fine Print vol 36#2 2013)