• Pippa

Cracking the code

Apparently, if you are bilingual, learning additional languages is easy because you possess a certain key. That key is some mechanism in your brain, maybe left side or right, and it’s unique to those people who are natural language learners. That would be me but after years of not conscientiously applying myself to learning a new language the key was missing.


I stared at the 34 characters which make up the Lao consonants and blanched. The symbol which sounds like “L” looks like “S”, there are three separate symbols for “K” but the symbol which sounds “Ha” is shaped like one of those fake noses attached to a pair of glasses. That’s memorable! I’m trying to be upbeat until I realized that there are 28 vowel sounds each with a specific mark which is then placed over, under or near the consonant. And there are 6 tones only two of which are marked. I pulled out my calculator but you can do the math.


My experience of language learning involving a non-Latin alphabet took place earlier this year when I was putting together some survival Hindi for India. But it’s one thing when you are going travelling with a guide, quite something else when, as part of your volunteering commitment, you are required to make serious efforts to adapt to the new culture. I took myself over to the Play Store to seek out possible apps for Lao courses. Duolingo does not teach Lao. Simply Learn Lao is a free listen (as many times as you need to) and repeat approach together with transliteration to approximate the new sounds in English side-by-side with the Lao translation. It covers all the convenient categories which a beginner student wants to access: numbers, eating, going shopping, directions, for example, but it stops short at teaching the grammar.


Then I found Vanida over on You Tube. She’s more of the listen and repeat school and doesn’t teach grammar either but her pronunciation was clearer than the robotic tones of the Simply Learn Lao app because she’s a real person who smiles and makes jokes.


I started each morning by counting with Vanida and adding some new phrases, cross-checking the pronunciation on Simply Learn Lao and then looking up words in online Lao/English dictionaries to make lists of (transliterated) vocabulary I thought I needed. My plan was to add more phrases and substitute new words until it all made sense. Then it stopped making sense.


I returned to the Play Store. There I found the Study Lao App by somebody called Gregory H. Green from Northern Illinois University. In his introduction to the Lao writing system, the author is very clear about how important it is to memorize the consonants and vowels from the get go. He doesn’t “do” transliteration because the reality of living in Laos is that it uses the Lao alphabet. On went the light-bulb, here was a disciplined approach to learning. Memorizing! I read some more where Green describes the actual lessons in his course which “teaches you the basic grammatical structure of the Lao language, builds on your understanding of the writing system and provides you with opportunities to practice (sic) speaking”. And he’s built in all kinds of listening activities so this is, speaking as a language teacher, a well-structured language course. It’s free too.


I was feeling much more enthusiastic about Green’s approach, could still use the Simply Learn Lao listen and repeat approach as supplementary material and tune in to Vanida when I wanted a fix of cute. But it still felt like hard work as I began working my way through the high, middle and low consonant groups and stared in dismay at the paired consonants…paired? Language learning for those who like learning languages isn’t supposed to be this hard!


Yesterday while cleaning the windows as a way to avoid sitting down with the Lao alphabet I found the elusive key. I said a sentence aloud in French. Each word clicked into view as I formed the sentence. I said a sentence in Italian and again somewhere behind my forehead the words took shape. Then I spoke a word in English and there was a ready picture of the word, another word shape. I thought for a minute about how those images are created. Parts are arranged into bigger parts, letters become words, become sentences, become paragraphs, become blog posts. How do I acquire the parts this time? You draw those new characters, the same as you copied out French vocabulary when you were studying for tests in high school or wrote out Latin declensions over and over again. You encouraged your English students to take this approach. Do it Pippa!


I’ve mastered the consonants. I’m making good headway on the vowels and can read simple words in Lao! And I can also remember that the “S” is really an “L”.

When you see progress you start setting realistic objectives. By the time, I attend pre-departure Cuso International volunteer training this August, I will have completed at least the first five units of Gregory Green’s course, be able to rattle off the alphabet with confidence and count to a million courtesy of Vanida. Note, you have to learn how to count high in Lao because the smallest bank note is 500 kips. Shades of Italian liras all over again.




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