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!

30-Day Speaking Challenge, or The Gift of Lao

Just the right thing I needed in order to drill the “ONE LANGUAGE AT A TIME” thing home: came across a link to a 30-Day Speaking Challenge in a Facebook group and decided to get in on the action before the new month of November came in.

You can read more about the challenge here: http://hugginsinternational.com/30dayspeakingchallenge/

For those of you who probably don’t want to click on the link, I’ll share the concept here: film / record yourself speaking a bit of your target language for thirty days in a row, publish the results in a group and get feedback / encouragement / what have you.

Now interestingly the language that I chose was Lao and there’s a strategic importance behind it:

  • It’s small enough for me to be passionate about it, but also is close enough to Thai to the degree that maybe a speaker of it could help me even if he or she hasn’t made much exposure to Lao. From what I know: they seem to differ in their pronoun usage as well as in some key words, not also to mention the fact that they use different (although similar) writing systems. What’s more, Lao tends to include pronouns in sentences and speech more often than Thai does (which can omit the pronoun the same way that Burmese or Japanese ordinarily would do. In layman’s terms: in Burmese I would say “have food” in order to indicate “[I] have food”, “there is food”, “we have food”, etc. That’s not passable in English [except in VERY casual speech] and in that respect Lao resembles English in which the pronouns are commonly used.
  • It’s tonal and if there is ANY language I would strongly need a community for, it would be a tonal language.
  • I correctly predicted that most people doing the challenge would be doing European Languages, wanted to get “other continents in on the action”.
  • I’ve had more exposure to my other tonal language, Burmese, as well as significant practice using it. That said, I may consider doing Burmese in a future 30-day speaking challenge.
  • I’m not an absolute beginner in Lao (A1 at the moment)

 

I just submitted my second recording to the spreadsheet and may consider publicizing the 30-day result depending on how much I like it. Hey, it seems that I’m 1/15th of the way done!

Here’s how I predict the challenge will affect me:

 

  • It will make me take my construction of the “Temple to Lao” more seriously.

 

When I was interviewed by Ari in Beijing in April, I mentioned the fact that the most important thing for learning a language is the fact that you need to build a “temple” to your target language within your time routines.

 

The only real way I’ve been doing that so far is with my YouTube channel. Sure, reading Lao dialogues out loud with some funny commentary and messing up the tones can be entertaining, but there’s so much more I could be doing.

 

I could become as immersed in Lao culture the same way I was with Greenlandic or Yiddish. I could truly feel as though understanding this poor and “forgotten” country is something I shouldn’t back away from.

 

My peers in the group have been very supportive of me thus far, and I’m thankful for that.

 

  • I Will Learn to Have More Mercy on Myself

 

I don’t speak languages from East Asia very well (although Burmese is by far my strongest out of…two…). I should expect to make mistakes and realize that I’m not getting any Lao trophies or getting to watch any Free Lao YouTube movies without any subtitles without a lot of work. And that work is going to involve discipline, learning how to make sounds I’m not used to, and, very importantly, on the importance of tones.

I hold myself to extremely high standards. A lot of people in the group are uploading recordings upwards of three minutes on the first day. Most of them are learning European Languages and are native speakers of European Languages so they have an advantage that I just don’t have. It’ll take me longer for me to make progress in Lao than it will for an English speaker to make progress with French.

And that’s okay.

And sometimes I worry that I mess up the tones entirely and completely.

And that’s okay too. For now!

 

  • I Will Be More Inclined to Explore Lao Culture and Identity as a Hobby as a Result of This Challenge. That will Enforce my Desire to Learn It More.

 

Already within these two days I’ve begun  to see it happen. I’m monumentally increasing my exposure to Lao and commitment to learning more about it, even if it involves reading books and travel blogs in English.

 

I’m beginning to see more of what the world looks like through Laotian eyes. And with each new culture I feel more human, more fulfilled and more righteous.

 

  • I Will Be More Inclined to Focus On One Task

 

I have a bunch of languages to improve, but I think that if I give the lion’s share of my focus to one task, I’ll be able to gain confidence more quickly and that will carry over to my other languages, both ones that I speak fluently and ones that I don’t speak as well.

Come to think of it, I’m feeling a lot better focusing more on improving just my Lao rather than improving Lao alongside Irish, Cornish, Welsh, and Tajik. I can maintain those on the side (or what I know of it), but I think that this focus is helping me fall in love.

And it seems that this is the beginning of something lovely!

LAO