How to Start Learning Lao: Resources and Things to Know

The final day of Pi Mai Lao (ປີໃຫມ່ລາວ or Lao New Year) is also upon us! It is also referred to as “Songkran”, which is essentially the same as the Thai New Year (which also uses the latter term). Thingyan (the Burmese New Year) and Songkran actually have a shared root from Sanskrit (saṁkrānti, which the is a word indicating the transit of the sun from Pisces to Aries).  Oh, and the Cambodians have the same thing too: Choul Chnam Thmey (Enter New Year).

It’s as good as an opportunity as any for you to begin your Lao Journey so let’s get you started!

First off, you should realize that Lao and Thai are siblings. But given that Thailand had the luxury of being the only country in the neighborhood that wasn’t colonized (something which it probably owes for its standing in the world today as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world), you could imagine that it has some differences to Laos. Laos was not only colonized by the French but also has the distinction of being human history’s most bombed country (thanks to Henry Kissinger). Then the Communists took over, changed the flag, many aspects of local culture and, of course, the language.

For those of you who read my article on Yiddish a while back, I mentioned Soviet Yiddish, which changed the orthography of the Yiddish language in a significant manner. Yiddish has words of Hebrew and Aramaic origin but unlike words of European origin in Yiddish they are NOT spelled phonetically, instead being spelled the way they are in Hebrew or Aramaic (which has the vowels as unwritten marks UNDER the words rather than doing what Yiddish does – incorporating various letters as vowel sounds as stand-ins for English letters like a, e, i, o and u). The Soviet changed that system—in which even names for JEWISH HOLIDAYS were spelled phonetically.

There are some theories as to why this choice was made, and the two prominent ones are (1) to detach religious significance from Yiddish and (2) to make it more accessible to learners (and let me tell you, the “having to memorize the pronunciation of each Hebrew-origin word In Yiddish” DOES trip up a LOT of my students).

Now Thai and Lao both have loan words from other languages, most notably Pali (which is an Indo-European Language in which the holy scriptures of Theravada Buddhism are written). But in Lao the same thing happened as with Soviet Yiddish. In Thai, the Pali loan words’ pronunciations don’t always match their written form. The Lao Communist authorities changed that, so that Lao is a “what you see is what you read” variety of language.

To give you an example of a Pali loan word in Lao, the Pathet Lao (the communist faction that took over after the 1975 civil war) is related to the word “Pradesh” which is present in…the names of several states of India! (You see? Pathet? Pradesh?) Now you have an idea!

Laos probably has the reputation along with Myanmar of being the “least touristy” of the Southeast Asian countries, and that’s precisely why it has its appeal.

Laotian expatriate / immigrant communities exist in many areas of the world, especially on the West Coast of the United States (I’ve heard that California does have a need for Lao interpreters).

Also keep in mind that Laotian -> citizen of Laos, as opposed to Lao -> refers to an ethnicity.

Some resources I’ve used to learn Lao (even though I’m not fluent yet), would include some of the following:

The Lonely Planet Book is very good, if it does have a flaw it may be the fact that it is meant for quick usage rather than being too suitable towards in-depth learners. That said, the glossary is EXTREMELY helpful, the tones and the concept of consonant tiers is explained, not also to mention many aspects of local cultures and, very importantly, when Western cultures can clash with Lao ones and how to be aware of and prepare for that.

Very suitable towards getting people to talk as QUICKLY as possible, the various books of the Live Lingua Project are also useful as well. Some people may consider the fact that the Lao alphabet is seldom used in these books as a bit of a flaw (by contrast, the Lonely Planet book and the Seasite NIU Website use the characters with transliteration as often as possible, except with the literature portions).

The books are DEEP and are supposed to get people who work for the Foreign Service or the Peace Corps to get using the language AS QUICKLY AS THEY CAN. So if that’s you, even if you don’t work with these organizations, those books are for you.

Seasite NIU (http://www.seasite.niu.edu/lao/) is also very helpful complete with dialogues and tone resources and other fun things that you can engage with. Did I mention that everything comes with FULL AUDIO?

I also used that website in my own Lao Learning Series, which you can see here:

 

Also if you’re a Lao native speaker, feel free to provide feedback to my 30 Days of Lao Challenge from this past November (for non-Lao speakers or understanders, turn on CC):

Have YOU learn Lao? How about both Lao and Thai? How close are they in your opinion? How have your experiences learning or using Lao in Laos or elsewhere in the world been? Let us know in the comments!

Lessons I Learned from the 30-Day Speaking Challenge in Lao in November 2017

Shortly after having returned from Iceland after the Polyglot Conference last month, I discovered the fine art of 30-Day Challenge Groups thanks to friends / Facebook Polyglot groups / general curiosity.

During November 2017 I gave one of them a spin for the first time and I chose Lao. I recorded myself speaking Lao for thirty days straight (31 October – 29 November) and I compiled all of the results here with English subtitles (Turn on Closed Captions!):

Did I accomplish fluency in Lao? Not yet. Have I gotten closer? Most certainly. Will I become fluent in Lao more easily if I did this several times? I don’t know, but I would venture most probably.

Some reflections from the journey:

 

  • A Big Portion of the Language Learning Journey is Patching Up Mistakes

 

Lao has some sounds that I didn’t manage as well in the beginning, most notably the sounds represented as “ə” or “y” in transliteration. This was in addition to me being quite careless with my tones after the first week or so (we’ll see how much “damage” that does when Lao speakers actually encounter this video for the first time, I’m imagining that I could be understandable but a bit off-putting in a sense).

But I’ve noticed that with each new recording, in addition to the Anki- and Memrise-training that I not only did in transit but also mentioned OUTRIGHT in the challenges, I had a lot of my weaknesses slip away bit by bit.

Looking back on my journeys with languages like Swedish, Hebrew and Finnish, there was a similar pattern: sometimes I would say things that wouldn’t entirely make sense, and then I would discover them and I would avoid saying certain awkward phrases or incorrect verb forms in the future.

When you rehearse a language through speaking imperfectly, that’s really what’s expected (and as much as it pains me to think about my past mistakes, I’m grateful that I continue to do something like Benny Lewis’ “Speak from Day One” method rather than this academic notion of “don’t speak unless you can do it perfectly” [which, in my understanding, would just entrench a “fear of flying” in a sense]).

 

  • No One Program Will Fix Everything

 

This is important. I signed up thinking that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that I could put Lao on my list of fluent languages by the time 2018 rolled around.

NOPE!

(Although maybe I could have if I put a LOT more effort into it, but having to maintain more than a dozen languages is moderately painful at times. Also, 2017 isn’t over yet…)

By the end of the challenge, it had occurred to me that while my grammar and idiomatic knowledge were usually on point, my knowledge of numbers, months and the days of the week were severely lacking.

That, and I still can’t read Lao as fluidly as I could, let’s say, Yiddish.

There continue to be gaps, but this program more than anything really helped me assemble my framework understanding of how Lao works and I will continue to grow on that framework in the future.

The 30-Day Challenge was noticeably helpful for the following in particular:

 

  • Sentence structure
  • Accent
  • Knowledge of the most commonly used words in conversation
  • Verb usage
  • Conjunctions

 LAO

And being able to wear a sticker with the likeness of this flag.

 

  • The Reward of a Good Deed is Another Good Deed

 

This is a quote from the Jewish text of “Pirkei Avot” (Ethics of the Fathers). The idea is this: one good deed leads to a chain of good deeds, and one bad deed likewise can lead to a chain of bad deeds as well.

The same came happen for habits.

During the middle of the challenge there were tasks involved that required watching or reading media in your target language. (Full disclosure: just in case, I had to pick a Lao film with English subtitles, which was okay by me)

Because of that, I was also inspired to glimpse Lao culture in more depth, which in turn brought me to the library to read about Laos in travel literature when I had the chance.

Also after having enthusiastically plunged into the first week, I was similarly driven to complete the rest of the challenge without missing a day (well…technically…I missed the last day, but I began a day early and did the first prompt twice as a result, but Day 30 was just “pick a topic from the first week and do it over again to see how you’ve improved” and it was a choice between that and my compilation video and I chose the latter).

Quite a lot of people gave up later on or even in the middle (as commitment challenges go this is actually a common occurrence).

Knowing that I might be tempted to give up, I hooked myself in the first week, knowing that I would go the whole way if I made it a true habit.

And it seems that it will continue to be a habit because in December 2017 I’ll be doing the 30-Day Greenlandic Speaking Challenge!

This. Will. Be. FUN!!!!

kalaallit nunaat

A Step-by-Step Guide to Learning the Language YOU WANT to a Level You Can be Proud of!

(Yesterday marks the half-a-year birthday of this blog)

DSC00069

  1. A desire to learn a language cannot be forced. It must land on you, and it can land on you for all sorts of reasons, ranging from the professionally pragmatic to just plain silly.

 

Don’t force this desire to learn something and, when you get this desire or find yourself wishing that you knew Language X, proceed to the next step without hesitation!

 

  1. If it is a language whose sounds are familiar to you, proceed to Step 3.

 

If not, go online, find media, and familiarize yourself with the sounds of the language.

 

Entertain the thought that, one day in the future, you will be able to speak and understand this language to the degree that you can understand some or all of what is being said to you.

 

Throughout the entire learning process, get some music in your target language and play it regularly.

 

You won’t understand almost any of it at the beginning, but you will ease into it and your desire to learn the lyrics to your new favorite song in the target language will be a powerful motivator.

 

  1. Find out if the pronunciation of the language is fairly regular and intuitive (Finno-Ugric Languages and Esperanto are the easiest, some like Spanish and Dutch may be a tad harder) or has more “historical” pronunciation (English is the biggest offender, but any language with short/long vowels [Russian, Latvian, Cornish] or complicated but vaguely regular pronunciation rules [Danish, Irish, Faroese] may qualify).

 

If it is in the former category, find a pronunciation guide (online) and familiarize yourself with the sounds. Then, find an online phrasebook for free (Omniglot, Wikitravel, and their ilk) and practice saying these things out loud.

 

If it is in the latter category, find an audio phrase book or one with phonetic pronunciation. Recite things out loud and get used to some of the patterns. Remember, if your language is in this category, the pronunciation will grow on you as a result of the immersion which you will encounter later.

 

YouTube tutorials are also tremendously helpful at this stage, if they exist for your language.

 

For languages that have new characters, or have a set of characters that is impressively large (Chinese Character, Japanese Kanji…), use the same principles to ease into the new system, one letter or character at a time.

 

  1. Now what you want to do is build basic vocabulary. Flashcards can do, Anki, Memrise and DuoLingo are good candidates. I would suggest using a combination of these methods.

 

Your primary goal is to ensure that you can engage with material for native speakers as soon as possible.

 

Throughout this step, regularly check on native-language material (preferably for younger age groups) and see how you engage with it. Keep on building your vocabulary to a degree that you can understand some of it.

 

In the event that there is a certain film or show that you know so well that you practically know all of the lines by heart, even better. Use this to augment your vocabulary.

 

Don’t expect to understand everything.

 

  1. Once you have some passive understanding of the language, your goal is twofold:

 

5a. Gain an active rather than just a passive understanding of the language (by means of writing and speaking). Say things out loud to yourself, find a friend and write messages to him/her in your target language, set up a meet with said friend if possible.

 

Don’t be ashamed to use translation services—these are “training wheels” of sorts (and even when you speak a language fluently enough so that you can teach college-level classes in it, expect to use a dictionary / online translation sometimes!).

 

5b. The grammar…familiarize yourself with the verb forms via the programs listed in Step 4. Adjectives, verbs, declensions…know them to a degree to which you feel comfortable with, but don’t obsess.

 

My Finnish textbook has 34 different paradigms for nouns in declining. Greenlandic has 10. Don’t let it scare you, just note basic patterns and then, when you feel more comfortable with your abilities, return to the tables and the like and polish them.

 

  1. Now that you have both some active and passive understanding of the language, your goal is to perfect grammar even more sharply and to keep on using the language.

 

Keep on collecting words, keep on collecting idioms, keep on collecting songs, make the language a part of your life. Sideline a bit of your Native-Language entertainment / free time with that of your target language…

 

Keep on using your language to build friendships and maintain connections.

 

At this stage, expect embarrassment, mistakes, and sometimes even explicit discouragement (although hopefully you will encounter this one rarely).

 

You will note that others will respect you and your efforts and some may even show more than a hint of jealousy, but let no emotions dissuade you from doing anything further.

 

This is the step that actually never ends, and there is only one alternative: to forget the language by means of disuse.

 

But even if you do, the passive knowledge remains within you somewhere, waiting for you to come back to it. The verb forms are still there, you still have an anecdote or a song or a cool fact here and there…but, remember, the entirety of this project depends on Step 1: having that desire. If you don’t have it anymore, that’s okay. Don’t force it. Follow your heart and let it lead you somewhere else.

 

Whenever you think to yourself “it would be cool if I could learn language X”, think of this list, and return to it. Think of what acting on that thought could do, and think of what you will gain.

 

I haven’t regretting studying any language at all during my entire life. Chances are that you won’t either.

 

Good luck!