Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
You see this notebook? It looks just how I feel. It is my Lao class notebook, seven months old and nearly full. It is well worn, ragged in fact = how I’m feeling about learning Lao after seven months of daily classes. On the one hand, I look forward to my final proficiency exam coming up in three weeks so that it will all be over. On the other hand, I don’t look forward to my final proficiency exam coming up in three weeks because there are only three weeks left?! Three weeks to cram vocabulary that I ought to have reviewed starting seven months ago; three weeks to iron out the stutter of the grammar structure; three weeks to tweak the impossible pronunciations and tones. And although I want to do well, I am not under any pressure, unlike my husband who has to pass with an official score required for his job.
But an exam is an exam, and I’ve never been one to enter an exam anything short of petrified. (So why am I blogging and not studying?!*)
And there’s also the reading. Where do I begin? The Lao writing system is comprised of individual consonants that look like random squiggles to the untrained eye, and vowel marks (more squiggles) that can either be before each consonent, above, after, below, or any combination of all four. They each make that particular consonant sound different but frustratingly similar. I could never hear the difference when listening to a native speaker either and I’m convinced that in the slur of everyday speech no one can say that they hear the difference without lying. Yet, those differences matter a lot. The best example is the word for “I”.
Yes, the most important pronoun that we are bound to use a million times a day can mean a part of the male genitalia if pronounced incorrectly!
The mispronunciation of “I” is so taboo that none of our four teachers will mispronounce it for us so we can hear how it shouldn’t be pronounced. No one will say it.
Back to reading.
The written form has no punctuation, no upper or lower-case designation, nospacesinbetweendistinctwordsandyoudonotknowwhenonesentenceends
andanotherbegins. Sometimes you can’t even tell if one consonant belongs to the word before or the word after.
Here is my homework for today for you to see what it looks like. I’m not posting a longer news clipping because I just shut down at the mere sight of it.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that one of the best things you can do when you go abroad is to learn the language and learn it well given the opportunity. There is no better way to warm the hearts of the people you meet than speaking their language. I’ve learned many languages (Thai, French, Japanese, German, Russian, Uzbek and Spanish) but can only maintain fluency in English and whatever language I happen to currently be immersed in, and I truly enjoy it. But this is my longest training period yet in a foreign language and I now know that I have my limits. Five months is ideal. Within that time-frame (for most languages), I’m able to get to a level of proficiency where I feel ready to go to that country and not only survive but be able to talk about family, tell jokes and enjoy a get together over food. Our language institute tries hard to get us to the level of discussing world issues like terrorism, natural disasters, political elections, and global warming, etc. That’s all fine and good in really formal work situations and our daily conversations in class are fun, but I have a feeling that the everyday easy going and carefree Lao will prefer to talk about family, food and laugh at how we mispronounce “I”.
*I’m blogging because I enjoy it more than studying. Please don’t tell my teachers (or my husband).
Do you try to learn some of the local language before you go overseas or while you’re there?