Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.

Learning Lao

My ragged Lao notebook.

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.

My Lao reading homework.

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?

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19 comments on “Learning Lao

  1. munchow
    April 6, 2012

    I am really impressed! But also a little bit envious, because you get to learn a new language – however difficult it is. And yes, I know, I could just do so myself, but you actually do, which is fantastic. And by the way, I really want to travel to Laos, hopefully not too long into the future. I try to learn a few words to any country I go to. But nothing that can sustain a conversation. Good luck with the exam.

    • Wanderlustress
      April 6, 2012

      It is really hard to learn a language by yourself, unless you are extremely disciplined. I’m lucky that my husband’s employer offers language training to spouses. Otherwise, I would be completely lost in a new language. I’ve often found that even just a few words go a long way in building goodwill and making people smile.

      • munchow
        April 7, 2012

        Oh absolutely. Just being able to say hello and thank you on any language helps to break the ice, so to speak. It shows you that care enough to make an effort.

  2. lidipiri
    April 5, 2012

    Oh and our trip leader said that most understand him when speaking Thai.

  3. lidipiri
    April 5, 2012

    I usually try to know by heart at least a “hello”, “thank you”, “good-bye”.
    Lao is DIFFICULT so you have my respect on trying to be fluent in it.
    The Lao people are a patient and laid back bunch though and I feel they will calmly wait until you try out all your phrases, nod politely and go about their day! 🙂

    I’m totally jealous. I loved Lao!

    • Wanderlustress
      April 5, 2012

      Yes, the two languages are very close but unfortunately I now speak more Lao than Thai, but I should be able to get by in both countries. If Laos is calling you Lidia, come on back!

  4. Nate
    April 5, 2012

    Ideally I would have loved to learn a bit of Chinese before spending 6 months a year here. But, as usually happens, I find something else to spend my time on and hit a language wall the moment I arrive. In the few months we have been here I have seemed to pick it up fairly well. Watching, listening and lots of hand motions add to my ability to communicate. I’d still like to take classes back home.


    • Wanderlustress
      April 5, 2012

      I think it’s great that you are open to learning some of the language when you’re there, and six months is a good time-frame to become immersed in the culture (that is why I enjoy your posts!). I love the pantomime scenario in foreign languages when trying to explain something, often times hilarious! Did you get the chance to read my post “Do You Mean Eggs or Diarrhea?”

      • Nate
        April 5, 2012

        Pantomime, well said. I’m always making animal noises when explaining foods and the such. Everyone gets a big kick out of that. Haven’t read it yet…


  5. travelladywithbaby
    April 4, 2012

    I think it is great that your language institute does so much in depth training. You will do well!

  6. Expat Alien
    April 4, 2012

    It is fun to learn new languages and even more fun to put them into use! Good job, keep it up!

  7. Bubble of dreams and nightmares...just life!
    April 4, 2012

    I am totally in awe for you! Tried to learn Arabic for years, impossible! Nothing you can compare to other languages, other sounds,…But it’s true that the best way to learn a language is to live in the country or even better, to have a boyfriend!!! Definitely helped me to improve my Italian, French, English,…Maybe your husband can from now on only communicate in Lao???

    • Wanderlustress
      April 5, 2012

      Haha, we tried only speaking in Lao at home but it tends to slow things down a lot!

  8. allthingsboys
    April 4, 2012

    How intimidating! Your post was great communication at how difficult it is, if that’s any consolation! 🙂 Wrong language, though… I actually had someone tell me that you really can’t achieve fluency in any language until you are submersed in it (i.e., live there). I can’t speak from experience unfortunately. The only language that comes easily to me is Italian, and I’m not sure why.

    Wishing you much luck!

    • Wanderlustress
      April 5, 2012

      Thank you so much for your encouragement! I look forward to being in Laos and use everyday language and learn more of the colloquial way of speaking.

  9. Laotian Commotion
    April 4, 2012

    How much Thai do you speak?

    A college professor once asked me how Lao is similar to Thai and I gave some bullshit answer because I honestly didn’t know. The only Thai I’ve been exposed to are the Thai mini-dramas we grew up watching and I’d pretend I could speak elegantly like them.

    Yeah be careful about the, uh, “I” Gym Hottie has had a few word vomit slips attempting to say a few words. *embarrassed*

    • Wanderlustress
      April 5, 2012

      I only speak a little bit of Thai, like a six-year old because that is when I left Thailand for the US. It has really helped me in pronouncing Lao tones but not much by way of vocabulary. I hope to learn more Thai while living and traveling in the region, although I’m told that Thai and Lao are so close that everyone understands each other.

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