Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Monday, March 20, 2006

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

Thursday, March 09, 2006


The Burmese language fell away from me as the plane gained altitude. I had revelled in it while visiting Burma but in one hour I was going to be back in Thailand and would once again need to grapple with the intricacies of the Thai language. I pulled out the Thai version of the language sheets and there it once again, the basics of a language at my fingertips. I'd spoken Thai for five or six days when I'd first arrived in South East Asia nearly a month earlier. I thought I'd forgotten almost everything. I hadn't. The language sheet had it all, like a safe holding the family heirlooms. For the next few of days I navigated around Bangkok, basking in the local culture and spinning out Thai phrases as and when I needed them. When the time was ripe, I caught a train and a bus north to Chang Rai - destination Laos.

The border between the two countries was about an hour's bus ride from Chang Rai. Thailand sat stern and modernized on one side of the Mekong River, on the other was slow and unconcerned Laos. A Thai border guard gave each of us a stamp in his or her passport then a small putt-putting launch took us on to the river. It was past the wet season, the Mekong was low and lazy. Smooth, canine rocks jutted above the surface of the river attesting to its perennial ferrocity. The launch paid them no heed. As we neared the opposite bank the somnambulistic grip of Laos began to take effect. Like a clock being dunked in treacle, time slowed down and matters of imminent importance took a back seat - Laos is the Jamaica of Asia.

It took a while to get through customs; there was no one there when we arrived. The door was shut and the shades were drawn. No problem, man. After a while, a uniformed agent sauntered up, then a mini-bank opened and everyone was duly stamped into the country and currency exchanged. No hustle, no bustle. As far as I remember, the man in the mini-bank even gave me slightly too much change; it was easier than bothering with all the fiddley dogends of the transaction.

I heard a story that managed to sum up the Lao character : An aid organization came to Laos with a new type of rice that would double the farmer's yield. On hearing this a Lao farmer was overjoyed, exclaiming, "Now I'll only have to work half as much."

To be continued....

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Traveling Around Myanmar (Burma)

After several days in Yangon I headed north in the direction of Mandalay. I visited a couple of towns and used slivers of Burmese everywhere I went. I love gaining the ability to speak a little of the local language; it is like getting a peek below the surface of a culture and also gives a delicious sense of belonging.

As the days expanded into weeks my vocabulary and ability grew. I had stumbling conversations with rickshaw drivers, haggled prices, ordered beers and meals, passed off comments, all of which spiced my experience toward a far richer taste. It is true that I often ended up hanging around with Burmese or Shan people who spoke good English, that naturally stalled the learning process but that wasn't important. The system I've set up for speaking a foreign language is really a dilletantes approach. My system granted me quick, easy access to Burmese that allowed me to function and make pleasanteries. I had and still have no long term interests in learning Burmese. Before I arrived in Burma I knew that the moment I left I would be leaving behind Burmese like a piece of discarded luggage. My trip was taking me from through Thailand, Burma and Laos. I wanted to speak Thai in Thailand, Burmese in Burma and Lao in Laos. Thai had worked, now Burmese had too, though it had proved to be more difficult. As my four weeks in Burma came toward a close, I knew the next challenge was Lao.

But before we go there let me wrap up the Burmese experience.

Burma was wonderful. The country, stressed as it is, took a liking to me. I learned about Theravada Buddhism through long and involved discussions with English speaking monks (though I did in fact learn the art of meditation from one who didn't speak any English). I taught English classes on several occasions, which turned out to be an awful lot of fun. I boated on Inle Lake, trekked to and stayed in remote Shan villages. I even got to stay in a Buddhist monestary where the monks made me the best meal I had anywhere in Burma. But by far the best of all was simply making friends and linking minds. I know the simple knowledge of Burmese I gained there helped to loosen me up. It provided a bridge from me to Burmese people and from them back to me.

Off to Laos in the next post.