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

What Language Learning Can Also Teach You

Me and my Lao teacher.

I took my Lao language exam this week and finally finished up ten months of training. Yay! I’m not sure what I am more excited about: being fluent in a new language, being on the verge of living in a new country where I will use said language, being free of the daily performance pressure in class, or knowing that during this time I have also made a new life-long friend – my teacher Ajan Geo. She is one of several teachers with whom I’ve had the privilege to learn from, but she is one of the best. Most of all, she is a very very special person.

Ajan Geo was born in the countryside of Laos nearly 70-years ago and right away touched the hearts of many. Her mother died very soon after her birth and as she described it, the village “yelled out” to everyone around to see who would take in this orphaned child (Lao is a very literal descriptive language). In the end, an aunt stepped forward to raise her and immediately turned around and “yelled out” to the village seeking wet nurses to feed this child. The tale that Ajan Geo tells is that she was passed around each day to each woman in the village to suckle her. And for that reason, she has many “mothers” who gave her lots of antibodies that have contributed to her exceptionally strong health. At a ripe age, her father (uncharacteristically in the male dominated culture back then) invested in sending her to school and after graduating she went to work for the Lao state-run electric company. She worked the cashier collecting payments which at that time had to be made face to face by each client on a monthly basis. So she got to meet a lot of people in the big capital city of Vientiane, one of whom would turn out to be her husband who was working at the US Embassy at the time. At some point in this lucky man’s childhood, he was sent abroad to learn English, a skill that would later earn him a job in America in the early 1960’s as an interpreter for American officials. While he was on assignment for a year in the US, Ajan Geo, now his wife, had already born him two children and was carrying a third. She was anxious for him to return to Vientiane only to receive a summon saying that her husband would continue on in America in order to become the first Lao teacher for the State Department, which would require her to pack up her children and fly on an airplane for the first time in her life to start a new life in America.

To make a long story short, even though this story and all the years in between deserve an entire book, Ajan Geo and her husband has taught Lao for the US State Department for over 40 years! They have taught countless diplomats, military, aid and officials from other divisions of the US government. There are so so many tales of her incredible experience worth telling.

In my opinion, Ajan Geo and her husband have single-handedly enabled the Lao language ability of our entire diplomatic corps in Laos for over four decades. That is impressive stuff that I cannot help but to share with anyone willing to listen or read this blog. But aside from her measurable accomplishments, she is an amazing personality and a force unmatched by few with whom I have come across in my lifetime. I love her. I want to be her friend, even her daughter. She has taught me so much more than language. By sharing so much of herself, stories about her life, her opinions, her humor, and even her stubbornness, I have learned so much about life and about myself. And I learned all of it in Lao.

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7 comments on “What Language Learning Can Also Teach You

  1. Ana Gaby
    June 16, 2012

    Wow. What an amazing woman! Did you find learning lao easy considering your thai background? My husband used to say he could understand a bit of if with the little thai he spoke. I wish you some wonderful weeks before your departure!

    • Wanderlustress
      June 17, 2012

      Yes, I only know a little bit of Thai but it definitely helped me in terms of the tone and grammatical structure. It was as though I innately understood how something should be constructed. So somewhere in the recesses of my brain is a deeper knowledge of Thai that I hope will resurface while we’re in Laos. How does your husband know Thai?

      • Ana Gaby
        June 17, 2012

        We were posted in BKK for a couple of years. We only took the fast course at FSI and learned a bit. He learned even further at post. I just had my basics and that was enough for me as a new mom haahha

      • Wanderlustress
        June 18, 2012

        Did you learn Bahasa, too, before you went to Jakarta? I love the opportunity to learn at FSI.

      • Ana Gaby
        June 18, 2012

        We didn’t because we took a “Now” position and had to leave BKK in a rush and get to Jakarta within a few weeks. We went to an intensive immersion course soon after we got here. I still think in Thai and try to use it when I ride taxis. Still working on my bahasa…. hahah FSI is just amazing!

  2. meanwhilein3
    June 15, 2012

    Wow, what a story. It is amazing what can be accomplished, I cant wait to see what you do with your newfound language skills.

  3. travelerlynne
    June 15, 2012

    What a worthy tribute to Ajan Geo, your teacher, mentor, friend, and adopted mother. I see a book on your horizons.Congratulations on finishing your study and exams in Lao.

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