Many people like to tell me that the Lao language is easy, whereas English is difficult. I don’t know how they can compare since one is their mother tongue and the other a foreign language. If they’re simply saying that a foreign language is harder to learn than one’s first language, of course I agree.
Hidden in this assertion is the fact that many people in Laos are learning Lao as a second language if not a foreign language. Many ethnic minority children don’t use Lao until they start school and learning to read and write in Lao can’t be that easy. Nobody has ever told me directly that they have trouble with Lao. It’s probably a source of shame. Those who are proficiently bilingual are ones who have spent time in the cities and are not representative of what is happening in the countryside.
It may seem like hair splitting to make the distinction, but if these rural ethnic minority students are classified as learners of a foreign, not second language, there would be more sympathy. A second language by definition is a national or official language used in a country so it means that once you leave your door, you have the chance to learn by immersion. You will be expected to speak that language and it will be everywhere.
Lao is the national and official language, but in a remote ethnic village, you can walk out your door and never know it. Most villages don’t have street signs, billboards or even shop signs not to mention books and newspapers. Many villages can source radio and TV in their own local language or if they have a taste for TV dramas, will more often tune into Thai than Lao. Daily life can be conducted without Lao.
People learn second languages out of necessity, but study foreign languages because they are language nerds, hobbyists or frequent fliers. A foreign language is harder to learn because there is less language contact on a daily basis, but for this very reason, those interested in learning are willing to spend money for it. It’s not only big business, but academic studies and international organizations rally around the cause. When paying customers go to foreign language schools, they can expect to get properly trained in articulation, grammar and cultural norms. Bilingual teachers act as bridges or at least the texts are translated into a customer’s first language.
Second language learners rarely get these services. There are the assumptions that once immersed, students will simply learn how to swim. Unfortunately, learning Lao as a foreign language hasn’t emerged as a big cause. I’ve never seen a book, “Learning Lao for ethnic minorities” or seen Lao language learning programs on TV. Language acquisition is just supposed to happen on its own or through immersion in the schools and it ends up being either sink or swim. I’ve seen how many elementary school students learn to swim. They follow the crowd when they don’t understand. They lip sync when they’re not confident and share answers when they don’t have any clues themselves. If these swimming techniques work, many can complete school, but when they’re required to truly be able to read and write, they sink.
Much of what has been learned about teaching English as a foreign language can be used for helping speakers of ethnic minority languages when they learn Lao. The biggest shift is to question the premise that students will learn naturally through immersion. Can’t we find a way to help them read and write? It’s worth a try. We could see more students swimming.