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?
- 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)
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.