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!

Why Lao is Easy

It seems that it wasn’t long ago I heard someone in my general studies class at my Jewish “middle school” pronounced “Vientiane” as “vee-ent-tee-ane” (it’s pronounced “vee-en-chan”).

Many years later, I fell in love with the Lao language after having encountered it in my Lonely Planet Southeast Asia Phrasebook (which I primarily purchased for Burmese but in 2014 [YEARS before I even deemed it a possibility that I would set foot there] there wasn’t a standalone Burmese language guide that could fit in my pocket).

November led me to great strides in Lao, and today is December 2nd, which is Laos’ National Day (an anniversary of a communist takeover, no less). Given my tradition of writing pieces on national holidays (despite the fact that I sometimes have forgotten a few), it seemed appropriate for me to just take this opportunity to write this piece.

Take a look at the intro for a German-Language Lao Book:

lao easy yaa

“Laotisch – Wort für Wort”

Translation: “Barely anyone believes it at first: Lao is easy to Learn! The new letters seem too hard, the six tones seem barely learnable and the completely different-sounding vocabulary inscrutable. After many years’ time as a resident in Laos, I would, on the contrary, offer this to those interested and wanting to learn it: Lao is, for German-speakers, really quite easily learnable! It’s worth it!”

 

My 30-Day Journey in the Lao Language aligned PERFECTLY with this understanding, despite the fact that I’m not fluent in Lao (yet) and have significant gaps in my vocabulary.

But as far as grammar is concerned, Lao is very simple.

I remember one time that I was leaning on a bar during Language Exchange NYC. A middle-aged woman had told of her troubles with Spanish verb conjugation and asked me what language I was focusing on. I told her about Lao, and she proceeded to tell me exactly “how hard” it would be to learn an Asian language.

I told her that I could literally summarize Lao verbs in ten seconds. So I said this:

 

“Verbs never change.

To indicate past tense, put “ແລວ” (lὲεw) after the verb.

To indicate future tense, but “ຊິ” (sī) or “ຈະ” (já) before the verb.

DONE”

 

No need to plaster your apartment with conjugation tables (as I’ve seen many students of languages like Spanish, French and German do during my college years).

 

Lao has no grammatical gender either, and a lot of the gendered language that Thai (its sister language) has (namely, that men and women will say hello differently) was done away with (yada yada yada, communism). While languages like Thai and Khmer have “pronoun zoos”, Lao’s pronoun system is significantly simplified, making it similar to that of English.

There ARE some honorifics left, but the royal language that still exists in Thai was made illegal by the communist regime.

Some languages like Yiddish have a wealth of possible plural forms (I mentioned Yiddish because it has the most possible, I think, of any language I know of, given that they draw from Germanic, Slavic AND Hebrew sources). Lao doesn’t change any of its nouns, instead using classifier words.

In English, you can say “two coffees” but it would be more proper to say “two cups of coffee”. The “cups” is a classifier words that you use in order to indicate things that come in small drinkable containers. It also has another meaning (classifier words are wont to have other meanings).

 

Much like languages like Spanish, there are two verbs meaning “to be” in Lao, but they are divided along different lines.

One of them is used primarily for objects “ແມ່ນ” (mε̄εn) and another is used primarily for people “ເປັນ” (bpen). Oh, and between nouns and adjectives, you can just leave out a verb altogether! (This would be like saying “it very good”.

 

There were also pieces that reminded me of other languages that I had studied. Much like Bislama, Lao uses the word “to say” in order to mark an indirect statement (like the “that” in “I know that Lao is beautiful”.) Much like languages with strong influence from holy religious languages (Yiddish, Tajik and Burmese also qualify with influence from Hebrew, Arabic and Pali respectively), Lao also has loanwords from … Pali, a holy language of Theravada Buddhism. Pali words are also used in Burmese, Thai and Khmer (despite the fact that these three are spread across THREE different language families).

Because Pali is Indo-European, that meant that I noticed some similarities and cognates to words from the Indo-European family tree (spanning from India to Iceland), not to mention more direct cognates to Burmese (via Pali) which I had previously studied (and am focusing on right now!)

 

Articles in Lao are…compeltely non-existent, as is the case with many languages throughout the world. I’ve also noticed that Lao news broadcasts are significantly spoken more slowly than those in many other Asian languages. I could more readily recognize English loan-words and place names (despite the fact that loan words from European languages are significatly rare except for place names).

 

Above all, the Lao language is fascinating and already I’m starting to use it on YouTube in order to enjoy a wealth of independent films (and I can’t wait for the day in which I’ll be using it to read literature in depth!).

Lao films tend to be interesting because I’ve seen a significant amount of them that work the Hollywood formula in reverse: everything is going fine, and then everything falls apart IN THE WORST WAY POSSIBLE (that doesn’t involve monsters or special effects). Again, I have a lot more of the Lao independent cinema to explore, so there’s that.

To many more years with you!

Lao 30 Day Wow wow wow