Speaking Lao in Laos
I had my first Lao conversation within two hours of arriving in the country. Perhaps the word "conversation" is a little hyperbolic. What I wanted to know was whether there was still a boat going up a certain river. Using the Lao language sheet for the first time I tried out a couple of rapidly made up sentences on a local boatman. As with all the language sheets it worked on the principle of modifying color-coded template sentences with words from adjacent color-coded word lists. I can't say the results were poetry but the boatman did understand. He said the river was too low. It meant I would have to change my plans. It didn't matter. What did was that I'd made myself understood. I was so excited I bought us each a large beer to celebrate.
To be fair, switching over from Thai to Lao is not the world's greatest trick. The two languages are very similar, perhaps as close as Dutch is to German, maybe even closer. A great deal of the Lao vocabulary is completely different and even the words that are almost identical have different tonal patterns, but the pronunciation, the word order and the general feel of the language remains very close to that its neighbor's.
To cut a long story short, I did some wonderful trekking in Northern Laos near the village of Vieng Phoukhaa, then caught a launch down the Mekong to the sleepy town of Luang Prabang. I intended to get some business cards made there.Trying to find a place to make them was a trip all by itself. First I needed to learn the term for "business card". It was too esoteric to be included in the word lists so I bought a dictionary and found it there. I slipped the words into the template sentence, "Where is it possible to...?" along with the verb "make" then tried it out the newly constructed phrase on the nearest warm body. I was met by a completely blank look. I tried it out on someone else; this time my interogatee ran her eyes over me as though doubting my sanity. I was confused. Why wasn't the phrase working? I'd tried out the template sentence before using different permutations and it had worked just fine. At a stationers I met a woman who spoke French. Through her I discovered that the term in the dictionary was wrong. Once I learned the real word, everything turned around. Later on that day I had a pile of freshly minted business cards.
On the business cards I made the decision to stop calling my creations "language sheets", I'd never particulary liked the term, and started officially calling them "Do-It-Yourself Phrasemakers" or just "Phrasemakers". It's not very elegant but it does have the benefit of succinctly describing what they do.
To be continued