“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.”
― Frantz Fanon 1
Learning the Lao language does not only help me to communicate with people in Savannakhet who do not speak English at all, but it also helps me a lot to understand the local culture and practices. Language and culture cannot be separated. “On the one hand, language is used to express people’s cultural thoughts, beliefs and to communicate; on the other hand, culture is embedded in the language” (Hsin 2008, 2). Studying Lao made it easier for me to understand how to interact appropriately with people here in Laos.
The first times I came to Laos and taught at Ban Phang Heng Secondary School as part of Team IV and V, I did not have a lot of time to study the Lao language. I just picked up some words and phrases, like numbers and food items. This was very useful for buying food at the local market. However, it did not nearly suffice to apprehend the cultural concepts that come with a language. To learn the foreign language helps to understand the culture, and vice versa: Learning about the foreign culture helps to use the language successfully in the local context. Even linguistically correct sentences can still cause misunderstandings if they are used in the wrong context, situation, or way, or if the listener understands something other than you by the words you use. Language and culture are two sides of the same coin. They are inevitably connected to one another
The Lao ways of asking “How are you?”
When I first started to communicate with people living in Laos, I noticed that when we met they would always ask the same question first: “Have you had breakfast/ lunch/ dinner yet?” Also when Lao people text me, after greeting, they ask this question. I wondered if all the people were worried that I do not get enough food to eat in Laos. When I meet somebody, I usually ask “How are you?” first. Now that I can speak a little Lao, I noticed that people ask the same question in Lao first: ກິນເຂົ້າແລ້ວບໍ? (Kin khao leau bor?).
Learning more about the language and the culture helped me to understand that sharing food and eating together is very important to Lao people and a sign of their great hospitality. If somebody walks past you and you are eating, you invite the people to eat with you, no matter if you know them or not. That is why Lao people usually ask you “Have you eaten yet?” before you talk about anything else.
Lao – a distant language for a German learner
The Lao language could not be an any more distant than any of the languages I have learned before. Linguistic distance is the extent to which languages differ from one another. My native language is German, I studied English, Latin, and Spanish at school. However, nothing compares to learning the Lao language. Except for some English loan words pronounced in a Lao way, like chocolate, I could not guess any meaning. Lao and the other languages I learned before only have very little in common. It helped, though, that I studied other languages before. I already acquired some techniques that I know work for me when I learn new vocabulary.
Jasmin Unterweger, who was a part of Team VII, wrote a beautiful post about her Lao intensive course at SKU in 2018. It contains a lot of information and detailed explanations about the Lao language. The post is definitely worth a read before you continue reading this article. It will give you a lot of background knowledge about the structure of the Lao language.
In my first month here in Laos, Savannakhet University (SKU) offered an intensive Lao language course especially for me. I am at SKU on the first doctoral mobility in the Erasmus + project between SKU and the University of Education in Karlsruhe doing research for my thesis on “Intercultural barriers to language learning in ‘International course books’ in Laos“. On the Erasmus + mobility, also students and staff from SKU in Laos can come to Germany to study, teach or be trained there.
For one month I studied the Lao language for four hours per day, two hours in the morning and two more hours in the afternoon. I love learning new things, especially languages, so I was excited and eager to learn more. The Lao students coming to Germany also receive an intensive German course for the first months and further German lessons during the semester – and our two new Lao students for 2020 actually just started their German class.
Ms Khanthanaly Panvilaysone and Mr Chanthalakone Souydalay, two English staff members at the Faculty of Linguistics at SKU, took turns in teaching me in the first month. I soaked up between 20 and 30 new words and chunks every day. Through a lot of repetition, mnemonics, and mental constructs I could remember most of the words. (Example: The official word for April in Lao is “duean mesa”. “Mesa” in Spanish means table. A table has four legs. April is the forth months of the year.)
At first, we just practiced listening and speaking and I wrote down the Lao words I learned in some transcribed form, so that I could remember. I am a very visual learner. Taking notes and writing down words, to be able to see them, is very important for me to learn. When I just hear and speak, it is much more difficult for me to remember.
Little grammar – many classifiers
Compared to the other languages I have learned before, the Lao language hardly has any grammatical rules and the sentence structure is simple. There are no inflections, derivations, conjugations, or declension 2 in the Lao language. Even for the plural of a word, the word itself is not changed. If you want to make sure that your conversation partner understands you refer to more than one item, you just add “two of it” in the end. This is where it got difficult for me: To count items, different classifiers are used, depending on the item and its characteristics. For example, animals and things with legs are are counted with the classifier ໂຕ (to) whereas people are counted using the word. There are many more classifiers and it was very hard for me to understand the difference and learn them all. Until now I still cannot use all the classifiers correctly. There are too many different classifiers. Alone for counting things, there are more than 60 different numeral classifiers used in Vientiane dialect.
To indicate the tense, verbs are not conjugated, but time reference words like “yesterday”, “already”, “tomorrow”, or “now” are added to the sentence. For instance, the sentence ” I eat fish” in the past tense in Lao would be “I eat fish yesterday” and in the future tense “I eat fish tomorrow”. Another way to indicate time is to add certain particles to the sentence. Reversely, I now understand much better how hard it must be for Lao learners to form the correct English tenses (16 in total), especially to change the verb forms and not just to add another word to the sentence. If the context makes it clear already, the tense is sometimes even not indicated in the sentence at all.
Learning the Lao script
Learning to read the Lao consonants and vowels helped me a lot to understand the right pronunciation and write down the words correctly. The Lao alphabet consists of 27 consonant letters and 6 additional compound consonants representing 21 sounds. There is a variety of vowel letters as well, which represent 27 sounds.
Many sounds are produced differently than German or English sounds, and therefore they were very hard for me to pronounce correctly. In some cases, the tongue needs to be in different positions, and in others the sounds are produced using different speech organs, i.e. the throat rather than the mouth. Especially words which have a different meaning but only sound a little different are now easier for me to distinguish and write down. First, I felt like a first-grader again: Writing the symbols very slowly, following the sentences with my finger while analysing every single letter and then synthesising the sounds to words again.
After the month with the intensive language course, Mr Chanthalakone continued to teach me two hours per week. Now, through studying Lao, I gained a deeper understanding of the difficulties which Lao learners have when they study English. English for them is a language as distant as Lao is for me. I can also understand their shyness to speak English at first. I know that my Lao is far from perfect and I make many mistakes and pronounce words incorrectly. This often makes me feel uncomfortable and shy to speak in Lao. However, I have experienced that I can improve my Lao language skills a lot if I dare to speak in Lao, learn from the mistakes I make, and do it better next time.
Using the wrong tone
In pronunciation, especially the tones are still very hard for me to recognise and to produce. Since I have not been able to differentiate and pronounce all the tones correctly yet, it leads to misunderstandings from time to time. One time, I wanted to ask a girl I know who just came back from the market what she bought. So in Lao I said: “Jao seu nyang?” The word “seu” can have different meanings depending on the tone. If you use a low falling intonation (ຊື້), it means “to buy something”. If you pronounce it using mid tone (ຊື່), it means “name”. So instead of asking: “What did you buy? (ເຈົ້າຊື້ຫຍັງ?) I asked: “What is your name?” (ເຈົ້າຊື່ຫຍັງ?). The girl was very irritated at first because I already knew her name and then hesitantly she answered and told me her name again. I instantly knew I used the wrong tone and corrected my mistake.
In German and in English we use intonation on the sentence level, for example to mark statements or questions. When we form a question or we are not sure about our statement, we raise our voice on the last stressed syllable of the last word. In my Lao lessons, we often revise vocabulary or sentences and I have to speak them out loud. When I am not sure about the word or its pronunciation I automatically raise my voice in the end. This made me mispronounce so many words, because in Lao it then seems like the last syllable has a rising tone, which it did not have most of the times. My habit of raising my voice when I am not sure made it hard for me to pronounce words correctly. On the other hand, I think of a question or uncertainness when I have to pronounce a syllable with a rising tone and it helps me to pronounce this tone correctly.
Learning through all senses
Sometimes my homework for the Lao course included tasks like speaking with people and asking questions that I had learnt before. In the intensive course we did not only study in the classroom, but also went to the market to use the language. Another time I went with Teacher Khanthanaly to her relatives’ house to make Khao Tom (ເຂົ້າຕົ້ມ), which means “boiled rice”. I could have learnt about this word in the classroom. However, I would have never understood what is related to this word: The hard work of wrapping sticky rice and banana in banana leaves, tying it together tightly, boiling it in water covered with banana peel and more banana leaves, and the sweet taste finally when you can finally unwrap and eat the finished Khao Tom.
This showed me again that there is much more to learning a language than just learning vocabulary by heart. As Frantz Fanon stated: “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” Language and culture are so closely interwoven that they can never be separated. When you learn a language, you should also try to immerse in the cultural context related to the language as much as possible to really understand not only the words but also the concepts behind it.
I experienced that people here in Savannakhet appreciate it a lot that I learn their language and engage with an open mind, ready to learn more about their culture as well. Through the language course and being included in so many activities here, I can more and more understand the language and the local customs. After 5 months in Savannakhet and learning a little bit more every day, I am able to understand a lot of spoken Lao, to chat informally in Lao, to understand how to address people according to their rank and age, to read and write short and easy sentences, and how to handle most of the daily encounters in the Lao language with people who do not speak English.
Therefore, I want to give special thanks to my two teachers, who taught me inside the classroom and outside, as well as to the many people who have encouraged me to speak Lao with them, who have overlooked my mistakes and tried hard to understand me, and who have spoken extra slowly so that I can understand them.
Text by R. Dengler
Photos by P. Visayxongkham, K. Panvilaysone & R. Dengler
Videos by I. Martin, M. Inthichak & K. Panvilaysone
Audio files spoken by P. Somsivilay
Hsin, C.-L. (2008). “Language and Culture in Foreign Language Teaching.” Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association New Researchers/Student Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.
“Frantz Fanon” by Tracey Nicholls, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, https://www.iep.utm.edu/ (last accessed on 18 February 2020).
Frantz Fanon (1925—1961) was a psychiatrist and political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique. He “was one of a few extraordinary thinkers supporting the decolonization struggles occurring after World War II, and he remains among the most widely read and influential of these voices“.) ↩
- Declension is the variation of the form of a noun, pronoun, or adjective so that its grammatical case, number, and gender can be identified. ↩