Week 5: Bridging the Linguistic Gap

“Lina if you add “-s” to the end of a word it becomes plural, meaning there are more than one. For instance, how many chairs do you see here?” Lina looks very focused as she slowly counts in English, “One…two…three…” In response, I ask “Is that more than one?” “YES! So you add an “s” to the end! ChairS!” she jubilantly exclaims. Every day after work one of my co-fellows or I teach our coworker’s seven-year-old cousin English grammar. Because in a country so ethnically (and linguistically) diverse and whose main language (Lao) has such a small international presence, oftentimes English is required to get a better job.

As I sit with seven-year-old Lina as she begins to learn the nuances of English grammar, I am incredibly grateful to have my native language be the go-to international lingua franca. It’s a privilege I cannot imagine living without. A few minutes later in our lesson, my co-worker Noi walks over to say hi to Lina. Noi notices a small cut on my face and asks what happened. Between my broken Lao and her broken English, I find myself completely unable to communicate that I fell down while hiking over the weekend because it was raining. Lina immediately comprehends the linguistic barrier and having already heard my story, answers Noi’s question herself.

Language has been my biggest challenge since arriving here in Laos. When I first moved to Spain on my gap year, it was hard. I had taken one year of Spanish, knew the basics of the language, but that was it. But even from the beginning I could, for instance, order food from a restaurant AND communicate my eating constraints. Between classes in Spanish, everyone around me trying to improve their Spanish skills, and being immersed in life in Salamanca, I was able to get along quite well and improve.

You can’t fake speaking Lao. It’s not a romance language, doesn’t use the same lettering system. It includes sounds my mouth (and brain) is unsure how to form. In English, tone communicates emotions—like excitement, confusion, anger. Whereas, when I am unsure of my Lao abilities and speak with a question tone out of a lack of confidence, I am completely changing the meaning of a sentence. For example, the word “guy,” depending on your tone, can mean near, far, and chicken.

It was a weird and uncomfortable realization that I will in August; despite help from my coworkers, Lao language lessons, and my Lao language exchange partner; still, barely be able to speak Lao and be completely illiterate in the language.

Last week a huge thunderstorm hit one evening (Laos is solidly in the middle of monsoon season), trapping my co-fellows and me in our apartment for a few hours. When it finally dissipated around 7:30pm, we decided to treat ourselves to pizza. We each say “Khoiy aow” and point to the pizza we wanted. The waiter looked at us confused, so we try again “Saam pizzas. Neung small cheese, seung medium cheese thin crust, saam medium cheese.” This counting confuses our waiter more as he writes down that we want one of the first pizza, two of the second, and three of the third. After a lot of confusion for both parties, we manage to correctly order our food. It is times like these I feel guilty for not having better Lao.

For a ten-week internship as a college student, it is not practical or expected to fully learn Lao. Most of my coworkers speak English and are helping us learn Lao. Additionally, almost all of our work product, like the Stakeholder analysis for a UN-Habitat land program that I am currently writing, has to be in English. Even though my complete illiteracy and extremely limited speaking abilities do not hinder my ability to work, it’s hard to not feel guilty sometimes.

I think the biggest take away from this linguistic barrier is a huge appreciation for people forcibly thrust into situations with large linguistic barriers; for example, refugees.