Week 1: Learning Lao

I once read an article about what it is like to have a job that involves traveling constantly and to countries where English is not the first spoken language or even the third. The author argued that if the people you work with speak English, instead of spending time learning the language in an attempt to connect with your foreign coworkers, you should spend that time actually forming relationships using the language you both know. He found that he was able to learn more about the culture and create connections with his coworkers quicker than if he had tried to learn their language first.

This advice was for people who would work in country for one to two years not for long-term work in one country, so I thought that as long as I reach out and ask questions I could do the same here in Laos. However, I feel as though I am missing out on something not being able to speak Lao. I have coworkers that speak some English but we could communicate more if I spoke Lao. I really enjoy making my coworkers laugh and getting to know all about them. I like getting lunches with different people and sharing experiences. However, language usually is not a barrier for me.

This is my first time in a country where I do not speak the language or where English is not spoken widely enough. I think Lao is very beautiful and could be fun to learn but it is also very different from the other languages I know. Lao involves using parts of my mouth I do not usually use when speaking, and ignoring the strict grammar rules that I am familiar with. I get by with a lot of non-verbal cues and the six things I know how to say.

At the same time, I think that the language barrier might not actually be as high as I think. Now that my first week is over, I have noticed the little moments that have let me connect with my coworkers. Trying the food and drinks that coworkers make or wearing a traditional sinh to work and discussing where to buy more have helped me get closer to the people in my work place. Unlike my study abroad trips, I do not have a host family to tell me the rules and the customs of Laos, so I am able to use my coworkers as resources for insight into the country I am living in.

According to Darla Deardorff, being able to communicate between cultures requires openness, curiosity, listening ad observing, and cultural awareness. And while these can be hard too, the reward of immersing yourself in a culture and really gaining knowledge about it creates an unforgettable link between you and the country you have come to know. I still plan to take lessons to learn some Lao (it is only 8 dollars an hour!), but I am not as scared that I will not have the chance to bond with my coworkers as I was before.