Tag Archives: lao language

To learn or not to learn?

I have one more installment of the When Helping is Hard series to write, but it ain’t gonna happen today. Because today I am sick, and feel utterly pathetic, and in no mood to try to write a well-crafted post highlighting how absurdly difficult it can be to spend money to help others in ways that “do no harm.”

So I have sent Mike off to the office for a full day of meetings and said a little prayer that he doesn’t get whatever it is that I’ve been battling for the last couple of days. I’ve googled  “dengue fever”. I have determined that I probably just have a plan old cold, albeit one that comes with a nasty headache, and that I am most likely in no mortal danger. And I have cancelled my Lao language lesson for the day – which gave me a brief burst of that feeling I used to get as a kid when I woke up and found that school had been canceled because of snow or military lockdown (depending on which country we lived in at the time).

After three months here, my Lao remains decidedly crap. Mike had a significant head start on me and he has been making some good progress. I love listening to him trying to make himself understood and he looks downright sexy when he’s trying to ask people what type of laundry detergent is the best one to buy. He is fearless – he just puts himself out there with his big smile and animated hands and even when people don’t have a clue what he is saying they love him for trying.

It’s taken me a couple of months to decide that I even want to try.

I feel a bit defensive and embarrassed about this, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t like learning new languages.

We moved around a lot while I was growing up and I spent too much time learning bits and pieces of languages – Bengali, Spanish, Shona – that I never gained any sort of proficiency in. After five years of high school study, with a brief revival during my time at Notre Dame, I am somewhat functional in French, but it’s never really done much for me. Certainly not enough, in my mind, to justify the many hours of study I invested to get to that point.

I know that really throwing myself into learning Lao could unlock a wealth of experiences here that I will never have otherwise, and part of me really wants to be that person who’s genuinely excited by the novel puzzle presented by a brand new language – one with six tones and an abugida script. But another part of me shrugs my shoulders and says, “Lao will be virtually useless outside this country and you are better off taking that time and energy and investing it elsewhere – reading, writing, and perhaps even setting your mind to learning the English grammar that somehow also got missed in childhood during all that country hopping.”

So for the time being I’m taking the middle road and having lessons twice a week. Perhaps this is the worst of both worlds – enough study to feel like hard work, but not enough to get me very far. My aims are modest though. I’m just hoping that it will help me learn how to say more than “good morning” and “you did a great job today” to our maebaan, Un, and perhaps make some basic conversation during long lunches and official dinners.

If this past weekend is anything to go by it won’t take too much to make some small progress on that front. On Saturday, Mike and I spent several hours out at his deputy’s farm. A couple of months ago one of Kampono’s buffalos was stolen and during a similar long lunch around that time we all drank many toasts to the productivity of the remaining herd. So I was delighted to see some baby buffalos in amongst the bigger ones that came wandering out of the trees to check out the music and the smoky scent of meat grilling over an open fire.

“Kwai noy,” (“buffalo small”) I said, pointing and smiling.

There was a sweet-looking older man to my left. He spoke not a word of English but he had been watching out for me all day, refilling my juice and putting food on my plate every time I turned my attention elsewhere. When I said this you might have been forgiven for thinking that I was his favorite child who’d just said her first words.

Kwai noy! Kwai noy!” He said, nodding vigorously and correcting my pronunciation. Then he turned to everyone at the table and told them my Lao was “keng heng” (very strong).

Then he reached over, picked up a long skewer of grilled pineapple, chilies, and beef liver, and placed it on my plate.

[PS, I’m curious. What do the rest of you – particularly those that move often – do about language? Do you try to learn? Why or why not? Have you ever put time into learning a language and then felt that it wasn’t worth it?]


Sabaidee – The Banquet

By any standard, learning the Lao language is no piece of cake. The Lao script is based on an old Thai script. There are no spaces between written words in Lao. As the Lonely Planet Lao phrasebook bluntly informed me, “The rendering of Laos words into Roman script is a major problem as many Lao sounds, especially certain vowels, do not occur in English. There is no official system of transliterating Lao, and [even the] Lao government is incredibly inconsistent in this respect.”

Lao is also tonal. But not just two or three tones – there are six of them. As Mike learned the hard way, the same sentence can mean: “I go to the office”, “buffalo go to the office”, or “male organ go to the office” depending on your tone. Seeing as how we seem to be incapable of even hearing the difference between some of these tones, I can foresee some challenges.

I have, however, picked up my first Lao word, sabaidee.

Sabaidee means hello – a friendly hello. You can also use it as goodbye. This is one word you hear everywhere in greeting and farewell, and on Friday night all the local staff Mike works with decided to formally say a friendly hello by inviting us to a banquet, that night, in our honour.

Kapono, his deputy, informed Mike of this plan at 3pm Friday afternoon.

The chosen restaurant was a five minute drive out of town, through a stand of coconut trees and out to the banks of the Khan river. When we arrived most of the office staff were already there, about forty of them, standing around on the tile patio overlooking the river, talking, laughing, and drinking Beerlao.

A word about beer… I don’t like it. I never have. I know that this is unusual for an Australian – it’s practically cultural heresy. But what I hadn’t known before I got here was that, in Laos, beer is similarly venerated. Beerlao, with its charming slogan, “beer of the wholehearted people”, is officially the national nectar. And, while refusing a drink in Australia won’t earn you much more than mockery, here it’s just not on. As Kapono said as he handed me a full glass of beer as soon as we arrived, “In Laos, drink together very important. Make like family.”

I looked from the beer, to Mike.

Mike smiled.

“Put some ice in it,” he said to me, sotto voce. “It’s better cold.”

So I loaded it up with ice, and I drank – again, and again, and again. For every two or three minutes someone would wander up to clink glasses with us and make an incomprehensible toast to health or life or work or happiness. And, as Mike informed me gently, if you toast, you must drink. And if someone wants to toast, you must toast.

And so I stumbled through the evening, a cultural neophyte, but learning fast. I learned for example, to be more careful in the future about what I put in my mouth when it’s battered and fried and I don’t know quite what might be inside. I learned to take Kapono seriously when he leans over the table, wiggles a cautionary finger at the fish, and says; “I think many many chili for you.” I learned that at Lao banquets, after everyone has finished eating the many many chilis, there will be very loud karaoke. And I learned that when there is karaoke, there is usually dancing.

Oh yes, dancing. Not swing dancing, mind you, or ballroom, or even disco – all of which I can make a decent go of. But something of a slow, stylized, Thai-esque, line dance.

As the guests of honour, I also learned that Mike and I were expected to open the dance floor. Mike smiled at me again as we got up to follow Kapono and his partner Aelan to the dance floor – a sort of coded apology for failing to forewarn me of this special privilege – and I smiled back. For what else can you do in front of forty watchful pairs of dark and merry eyes?

And so we danced. Or, more accurately, we shuffled after Kapono and Aelan, trying to imitate their tiny steps and fluid, twisting, hands. Above us a disco ball was generating a neon meteor shower – a hail of purple and green stars flashing across Mike’s face.

I tried. Aelan tried too.

“Look,” she said, slowing down her graceful fluttering and breaking down the moves for me. But in the five long minutes that we tripped in a circle to Nampang’s heartfelt wails, it was no good. One of my hands was supposed to twist in while the other faced out, and then they should have reversed. Here my thumb was supposed to be angled down – lightly kissing my first finger. There my fingers were to spread like a fan. I could master each of the poses in isolation, but I simply could not make my hands move simultaneously as they were supposed to – fluid and independent, in opposite directions.

I looked at Aelan again. She smiled.

“It is easy,” she said to me.

She meant to be encouraging.

I think.