We were trying to teach this 5th grade class Lao, but since it’s not their mother tongue, they were having trouble with classifiers such as, “one desk” as opposed to “one student”. A student stood up and protested, “Teacher, let’s study English. It’s easier.” They’re not particularly resistant to learning Lao. They know the importance, but it’s just not that easy.
What’s going to happen to these students? Soon, they’ll be trying to progress to secondary school and are not likely to succeed if they don’t know Lao well. What happens after that? How important is language for landing the good jobs and the best positions? Obviously, people in any country are at a disadvantage if they don’t speak the official language, but what are the problems when speaking a dialect?
In many ways, Laos is quite liberal about the use of local dialects. No standard is enforced with iron rule throughout the country. TV is not widespread enough to establish a standard in people’s ears, radio is localized and surely Vientiane and Luang Prabang would tussle over which should be considered official. In fact, one prominent Lao linguist told me that the essence of Lao is in the way people can communicate over regional differences. A busload of people from different provinces is likely to end up in merriment with the variations and consequent misunderstandings used for good-natured joking. The acceptance of different speech forms can be understood as an acceptance of language diversity and is not a bad thing.
A dialect can be identified by the consistencies found in a certain region or community of people. They are linguistically rule-governed in a way that only the talented can imitate, but I rarely hear Lao people use language variations to typify or stereotype people of a certain region. Maybe the sharpness of a Champasak dialect can be misunderstood as an angry outburst, but I have not heard southern people typified as hot-blooded or short-tempered.
I can’t really say if accents identifying ethnic minorities are used for typecasting or stereotyping. I know people are able to identify certain patterns and variations, but I have never heard it mimicked or used in a ching-chong derogatory way. One reason could be that in such a rich soup of language diversity, it is just another way of speaking. On the other hand, without a standard, people might not be able to identify when something is correct or incorrect. Are students who are clearly making mistakes being let off the hook from teachers who are not confident in identifying them?
I suspect that students who are learning Lao as a second language are not adopting a distinctly different speech pattern in their community because in many villages, they don’t use Lao at all. They are only using Lao in the classroom and rather than develop their own dialect, their speech is ad hoc for classroom use. I have found variations even within one classroom.
In this case, rather than dialect or variation, we might just have to call them mistakes. Without understanding the standard or even having a chance to deviate from one, students are confused by the writing and pronunciation system. They can’t read much less write and that’s where we see students hit the wall. That’s when students say, “Teacher, let’s study English. It’s easier.”