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“From Laos with love”: Language twists and how not to lose your pet – by guest author Beate Pinisch

A post on facebook by a Lao friend got me thinking. It started with finding two words funny and ended with my theorizing about linguistic quirks of the Lao and German language.

My Lao friend had sent an article and added we should “lie” and “sae” (transcribed from original Lao spelling).

Why would they write (and speak) “lie” instead of “lie-K”? After all, there is a “k” (actually more than one) in the Lao alphabet. Are the Lao not able to pronounce a “K” sound at the end of a word? But they are! Take muak (hat), nok (bird), viak (work), or luk (child). Why not like? Well, while there are lots of Lao words with a “K”-sound at the end, none of them have an [aι] sound prior to it.

Chugging along my train of thought I also found the same after an [au] sound, as in [hau/s].

I think I found a similarity to the German language. Are you a cinema buff? Do you know how foreign movie makers characterize a German? Right, by letting them pronounce the [ð] like a [z]. “Look over zere, zey are already in ze building”, etc. Are we Germans not able to pronounce a correct [ð]? But we are! However, I remember thinking, when I was in ze school, and ze teacher introduced ze “th”, how awful zat sounded. Actually more like a lisp. And I did not want to sound funny or like having a speech impediment. No way. So of course I started out, like so many of my friends, pronouncing the [ð] as a [z]. That sounded so much better! Maybe it is the same feeling preventing our Lao colleagues to speak a [k] at the end of a word following an [aι] sound?

Different for the “sae” (share). There just is no sound such as [ʃ] in the Lao language. People quite successfully substitute that by speaking an [s]. So the transcription [sae] for “share” was quite logical. As far as I remember the Lao were quite able to pronounce such sounds that do actually not exist in their own language. When my children were small and we were quite poor I used to moonlight as an English teacher (giving private lessons for students who really really wanted to pass their exams). After a few tries all of them mastered sounds that had no equivalent in the Lao language. I also remember my first Russian lessons from my own childhood – very impressed at how they roll their “rrrrrs” I tried it, too. I could not do it. So in the course of the next few days and weeks I tried and tried and tried until I was proudly able to roll the [r].

What are your experiences in your work as teachers? Is it easier for you to teach sounds that are completely new? Or is it easier to train sounds that are already used, but in different combinations? How do you manage to teach complex sounds? What if there is more than one “strange” sound in one word?

Coming back to my very short experience as an English teacher, I confess I was quite unsuccessful in teaching when it came to more complex “sound-scapes”. Actually, having lost a dog to thieves I then decided to name our pets so their names were impossible to pronounce. I still have to see the thief who is able to call a cat that is named “Urlaub” ( [ˈuːɐ̯laʊ̯p], German for “vacation”). I was even meaner: I used “Strolchi” [strolçi] and “Maxl” [maksl]. Thus I was able to make up for my lack of teaching success and change a frustrating situation into an extremely pleasing one.

Text by B. Pinisch

Photo/still from video by V. Golla

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