In daily life, I speak Lao so I’m not sure how well the average Lao person speaks English, but tourists in Luang Prabang say it’s not spectacular. Not to feel inferior though, most populations in most countries are struggling with English. Yet, considering the opportunity and the need, Luang Prabang could rise above the rest.
A student in the backwaters of Phongsali has an excuse. Try as they might, they might not find a native-English speaker to converse with in years. As the rare alien stumbling through some rural town, I’ve had the experience of being snatched up by the eager student who had been waiting for eons for someone like me to pass through.
Working and studying in Luang Prabang as many young people do, you wouldn’t have to stumble far to find an opportunity to communicate in English. It’s a strength, not a weakness that one would be exposed to any variant of world English. The exposure to the world through tourists is a living university of diversity. It just takes the initiative.
In most tourist cities, vendors, waitresses and receptionists can function fairly well with a basic level of English. They’ve mastered what’s required of them to do the job and there isn’t a great incentive to go further. Employees who operate according to their supervisor’s orders are not likely to take much initiative on their own and even with hours of idle days during the low season, most seem to educate themselves simply with Thai dramas played at high volume.
It’s not fair to compare. Isolated experiences can’t typify a population, but one encounter I had in which English competency went far beyond check-in and check-out was in Ho Chi Minh City. I found that the average receptionist in any number of budget hotels could talk like lawyers. “I’m sorry, but we can’t take responsibility for your lost camera as I explained that we do have a safety deposit box and that this is the appropriate precaution against theft.” They could negotiate prices as easy as eating a bowl of noodles which they sometimes simultaneously did. My feeling is that their language abilities reflects their perceived need and their perceived need is pretty high.
In another unfair comparison, I met some avid communicators in Yogjakarta in Java. Borobodur is nearby and tourists come from around the world. The average service industry worker has minimally passable English, but one student in particular struck me as being unusually proactive. He set up an English club at his university and through online social networking like couch surfing, would invite a steady flow of travelers to join and converse. He taught Bahasa Indonesia through Skype with someone in France and worked with several academics doing research. He was inquisitive and dug into conversations in a way that showed he had no only mastered language, but culture as well.
In Luang Prabang, students work in guesthouses to make it easier to pass their classes. The potential for not only language learning, but of experiencing and interacting with the world is right under their noses. Without fluency, language remains quaint and tourists leave without a deep understanding of this country.
Some day soon we will see schools promoting international business and international communication, but it all begins with a conversation, an open mind and the recognition that language is the bridge. It’s a bridge that we can cross as soon as we dare to take that first step.