Diving into the unknown
It was the 14th of August when I got onto my airplane which was to bring me from Frankfurt to Savannakhet in Laos, roughly four weeks earlier than the other volunteers of Team VII – and not quite knowing what to expect. Of course, I was provided with information about Laos and Savannakhet University (SKU) before – I attended Prof. Martin’s seminar “Global English(es)”, participated in two long meetings with former volunteers and browsed through the travel guide Laos – Kambodscha by Roland Dusik (2016). However, it is different to hear and read about something and to experience it first-hand. What I was most excited about to start with was the two-week Lao Language Intensive Course at SKU. The new cooperation between my university and SKU was to start with this course for the first German teacher-volunteer at SKU, Mr David Schrep (formerly Team III), who was now returning to Laos to work in the new pilot project for 2 x 5 months.1 During the planning stage, Prof. Martin had asked the SKU leaders whether any of the AfC volunteers could also attend, and they kindly agreed. However, I was the only one of Team VII who was able to fit this generous offer into my plans for August.
As soon as I got through customs, on my way to exit the airport, I looked into a friendly, smiling face – Ms Phetsavanh Somsivilay. She works in the office of International Relations at SKU and was David’s and my contact person from day 1. The first thing she assisted me with was to find a place to stay, and after I was shown different options, I decided to stay at Dalavanh Guesthouse, which is very close to Ms Phetsavanh’s home. And this is how it happened that in the end she was not only my helping hand, but should also become my first Lao friend!
I spent the following days exploring Savannhaket. As I lived out of town, I took a tuk-tuk to get there and since the city is not as big as I imagined a university city to be, I could then easily explore it on foot. I visited St. Teresia, a Catholic church, the temples Wat Sayamungkhun and Wat Sayaphoum, the Savannakhet Provincial Museum, and I strolled along the river Mekong.
Ms Phetsavanh kept me company whenever she could, so we often went for dinner together with her husband Mr Khonsavanh Norasane, who works at SKU in the Faculty of Food Science. At the weekend, David – who had arrived two days after me – and I were invited by the two of them to come along to their friend’s birthday party. From a German perspective, it seemed an unusual thing to do given we had only met a few days before, but we happily accepted the invitation. Against my initial worries, I never felt alone. In our preparatory sessions, Prof. Martin had always emphasized that traveling on your own in Laos would never mean being alone, but now I finally came to understand what this meant!
Letters, words, chunks
In the following week, the language course started with our two teachers Mr Kaikeo Phothichak and Ms Khantanaly Panvilaysone, and David and I were very excited about it!
This is what we learnt, with a contrastive linguistic view to the similarities and differences between Lao and the two languages we speak, i.e. German and English:
To David’s and my surprise, the first thing we learnt in our lessons was the Lao Alphabet. At my University of Education, future English teachers studying the degree for primary school are taught to begin foreign language teaching with speaking so that the young learners can move from listening to speaking and later from reading to writing. Therefore it seemed unusual for me to start with reading and writing the letters, but of course we are adult learners, not children (and therefore can read), and didactic approaches obviously differ. Naturally I engaged with it.
When I saw Lao writing for the first time, there was nothing I could recognize, but as it got more familiar to me I discovered at least these two similarities to our way of writing, amid all the differences:
- The Lao alphabet also consists of letters, consonants and vowels.
- It is written from left to right, like English or German.
Other than that, it is very different from the Latin alphabet: To begin with, the Lao alphabet is only used in one country, Laos, whereas the Latin Alphabet is used in 130 countries (according to Wikipedia), and the number is still changing. However, the Lao language is closely related to other Tai languages, so Thai and Lao speakers can understand each other. As their alphabets are not quite the same, reading and writing the other language is possible in a limited way.
Then, there are 54 letters in Lao: 27 consonants and 27 vowels. The standard Latin Alphabet, by contrast, only has 26 letters: 21 consonants and 5 vowels. In Lao spelling, the consonants are always followed by the consonant ອ [ɔ:], except for ອ [ɔ:] itself.2 For example the first three letters (see worksheet below) are called ກ [gɔ:], ຂ [kxɔ:] and ຄ [kxɔ:].
Tones are very important in the Lao language. There are six different ones, which means that for each syllable or word – each syllable is a word in Lao – there are up to six different meanings. This, at least, is how a Western person would perceive it. However, it is not a case of one syllable or word having six different meanings but there are instead six different and independent words, which only we non-tonal-language-speakers think is “kind of the same” because we cannot relate to the difference of tones.
The Lao language has several ways to indicate the tone of a letter (which indicates the tone of the syllable, which in Lao is equal to one word.) The Lao alphabet has many consonant pairs to define tone height, for example ຂ [kxɔ:] and ຄ [kxɔ:] (listen to the audio files above). This means that if a consonant sound needs to be pronounced with a deeper tone, one of the partners has to be used, but for the pronunciation with a higher tone, the grapheme of the other partner occurs. The consonants which do not have a partner consonant usually indicate a deeper tone. In some parts of Laos, like Savannakhet, to mark a higher tone for this kind of consonant, you create a diagraph,3 which means the consonant ຫ [hɔ:] is placed in front of this letter, which then indicates a higher tone.
In addition, the Lao alphabet also includes four different diacritical marks (glyphs added to letters), which indicate the tones as well, but we were told that the Lao only really use two of them. At the same time, there are no punctuation marks in or between sentences.4
When you look at the 27 Lao vowels you will realize that there are four planes of projection in writing, which means that the vowels can be placed before, behind, above, below, or around a consonant. The vowel itself determines its place, which is fixed and has to be learnt by heart. The ones that “wrap around” the consonant are actually more vowels combined to form a sound. If a word starts with a vowel, the consonant ອ [ɔ:] must precede the vowel. The languages that use the Latin alphabet, however, have only one plane of projection, which means that the following letter can only ever be placed to the right of the previous one.5
There were two more phenomena which I found confusing especially in the beginning: Firstly, in Lao there are no spaces between words. Spaces are only used to finish a sentence. Secondly, there is no standardized Latin transliteration system for Lao. Due to the fact that Laos used to be a French colony, they use a French-based system, but you can still find a big variety in spelling.
Vocabulary and sentences
After David and I had worked on the Lao alphabet with Mr Kaikeo for a few days, Ms Khantanaly decided that it was time for us to learn some basic sentences which would be useful for everyday communication, and so we started with the topics „Nea num toua ang/ How to introduce yourself“ and „Paye talad/Going to the market“. At first, we learnt how to spell our names in Lao, which for me turned out to be important enough. For most Lao people, my name “Jasmin” [German jʌs’mi:n] [BE/AE ˈʤæzmɪn] seems to be quite difficult to pronounce, but if I write it down with Lao letters: “ຢາສມີນ”, they manage to say it correctly right away. This is similar to us writing English words in IPA for our tandem-teachers instead of using English orthography right away – reading sound symbols makes the pronunciation of English (and remembering the correct pronunciation) a lot easier. English spelling adds a dimension of difficulty that can be dealt with later.
The Lao are very good at rote learning (“learning by heart”), as this is the way they are taught to learn at school. David and I are not used to this method and were therefore really happy when Ms Khantanaly came up with the idea to go to the market for the topic „Paye talad/Going to the market“. We learnt that the Lao language uses classifiers that precede most nouns, and that for example almost all Lao words for a vegetable is therefore preceded by the word “phak” [pʌk], whereas the classifier “mak” [mʌk] indicates that the following word is a fruit. That so many nouns come with a classifier is unusual for us, because English only uses a handful of classifiers for uncountable nouns (a loaf/slice of bread, a packet/can of milk, a bar of soap, or a pair of scissors/trousers/shorts).
Later on, Mr Keikeo covered the topics „Han arhan / At the restaurant“ , „Nai meuang / In the city“, „Yu sathani lod mea / At the bus station“ „Sanambin / The airport“ and „Son tha na sunh / Small talk“ with us. For each of these topics, he gave us some vocabulary, sentences, and a model conversation.
All in all, the Lao language course was a success, especially considering that it had never been offered before (and also marked the start of a new German-Lao University cooperation). It is handy to understand the Lao alphabet better – and to even be able to read a little bit, although I often still do not understand the meaning of what I am reading. More relevant for my everyday life in Laos, though, are the words and phrases I acquired for communication – what comes in most useful are the word fields “At the market” and “Numbers” because I use these words whenever I go shopping, as the ladies at the market do not understand any English.
The words also help me for my Activity Time “Reading Club”, since animals, numbers, fruits, or vegetables are common themes in picture books for children generally, and most common in the ones used for early foreign language teaching. I can understand the children most of the time when they say the word in Lao, which turned out to be more important than one would suspect, actually: This way, I discovered that on some of the flashcards they see something different than me! For example, for the picture book by Eric Carle Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? (1992), I introduced the words for the animals to the children before reading out the book so that they would be able to follow my book-reading better. When I showed them my flashcard with a sheep on it, the children called out “Bae, bae!”, which means “Goat, goat!” translated to English. (Of course, there are goats everywhere on the streets in Laos, but no sheep.) I understood that the children first needed to learn about “sheep”, so I pointed out some difference between the two animals and made sure the pupils understood before I proceded with the book.
As it was a trial-run and the first time that this course was offered to the new German partners, some things should now be developed, to make it even better next time. Due to the fact that our mother tongue, German, is not even remotely related to Lao as it is, for example, to English or Dutch, there are many linguistic hurdles to overcome. What I found most difficult was to use Lao tones, which was an absolutely new concept for me.
Editor’s note: German or English have no tones. Germanic languages use word stress and sentence stress and intonation, which do not operate on syllable level. Unsurprisingly, word stress and sentence stress in English are just as difficult for Lao learners as tones are for us. Asian speakers of English do not share the same “language-music”, and it is usually intonation and stress, not pronunciation, that makes it hard for us sometimes to understand Asians speaking English.
All things considered, the course was much too short.6 The topic of tone alone could have filled the two weeks. In addition, there are different dialects in different areas, which means that even if I had gotten it right in Savannakhet, there would be quite a big chance that a different tone would be used in the Vientiane area, where I am going to live over the next few months. Luckily, a few weeks later I found out that the tones are not the most important aspect to master for foreigners who attempt to speak Lao, as most people will understand me even if I do not get the tone right. In fact, they expect foreigners not to do it right.
The fact that there were four languages present throughout the course caused another challenge: English as a second language for all of us, German as David’s and my first language, Lao – the language we wanted to learn and the teachers’ first language, and also French, as the basis of the Lao transliteration system. However, even though this inevitably led to minor misunderstandings or confusion at times, it did not hinder us from learning!
Luckily, David had brought his book Kauderwelsch – Laotisch Wort für Wort (2012) (engl.: „Gibberish – Lao word by word“)7 by Klaus Werner with him, which helped us a lot when the language barrier was too big to overcome without help.
With hindsight, I can say that the language course was definitely an experience I would not have wanted to have missed. On the one hand, it is really nice and rewarding to be able to speak and understand some Lao words and phrases now, as my new Lao friends here love it when I say a Lao word now and again. Also, at Ban Phang Heng Secondary school, I work with the science teachers, whose lessons are obviously held in Lao. Thanks to the course I can understand some words and have a better idea of what the lesson is about! Last, but not least, learning the Lao alphabet also makes writing postcards to my friends and family at home more fun, as I can transliterate their names into Lao, which adds a fancy foreign touch to them.
On the other hand, I experienced Lao culture and hospitality through my time in Savannakhet as well: Living just a few houses away from Ms Phetsavanh meant spending plenty of time together. I could come to her house whenever I wanted, and this openness and hospitality offered me many glimpses into the Lao way of life. I could help her and her sisters with the cooking, for instance, or work with her on preparing dried bananas and banana chips, which her family sells at the market. She and her husband often took me out to dinner or to see their friends and family as well, and David and I even went fishing with them one weekend on the beautiful Buengva lake.
Text by J. Unterweger, with editor’s notes by I. Martin
Photos by J. Unterweger, K. Panvilaysone & K. Norasane
Audio-files by S. Singhalath
1 Editor’s note: This new Lao-German cooperation will be introduced in the next few blog posts.
2 In German and English the sound [ɔ:] is a vowel. In Lao it is classified as a consonant (Werner 2012, 18).
3 A diagraph is a grapheme that consists of two letters but is pronounced as one sound. An English example would be <sh> which is pronounced as [ʃ], e.g. in the word “should”.
4 Editor’s note: This explains why the Lao under-use punctuation marks when writing English, as readers may have gathered from previous contributions written by our Lao tandem-partners.
5 Editor’s note: Some readers may remember this phenomenon from English contributions by our Lao partners on this blog. Sometimes, seemingly arbitrarily, the order of two letters (consonant and vowel) would be reversed in one word. This is another interference mistake: Some vowels in Lao that are to be pronounced after a consonant need to be written before it.
6 Editor’s note: The officially agreed length of time for this course was 4 weeks. Beginners need about a month of intensive study to get into a new language.
7 Klaus Werner (b. 1956) used to work as diplomat and interpreter for Lao/German in Laos. The third edition of his book Kauderwelsch – Laotisch Wort für Wort was published in 2012. What is special about this book is that not only the “regular” translation of phrases and sentences is given, but their meaning is further made clear by a word-by-word translation (e.g. “fire pot” means “battery”). This does not only give learners an insight into Lao morphology and semantics, but it speeds up the learning process. (Editor’s note: This is also what the title “Kauderwelsch” refers to, “Gibberish” in English. The translation is a descriptor for nonsensical speech, the German original refers to an unintillegible mix of languages.)
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