So, how hard is Lao to learn?
The main areas of difficulty are going to be the tonal nature of the language the complexity of the writing system.
- Vocabulary – Laos has a number of loanwords from Pali and Sanskrit. There has also been a lot of language exchange between Lao, Thai and Khmer. During the colonial era, Lao was a colony of France and French still has a strong influence on the country. In more recent years English has take root because of globalisation.
- Grammar – There are lots of simple features to the grammar of Lao. There is no noun gender, no case system or verb don’t change for tense or subject. The word order is the same as English, if a little less fixed. There are lots of pronouns though, and you will spend a lot of time understanding their use for varying levels of formality.
- Speaking/Listening – There are a lot of vowel sounds in Lao, this can be tricky to both pronounce and detect in other speakers. On top of that Lao is a tonal language. In fact, there are 6 tones in the Vientiane dialect. Tones can be tricky, but the tones in Lao are more regular and easy to distinguish.
- Writing/Reading – The Lao script developed from the old Khmer script. It is an many ways very similar to Thai script. The consonant symbol is central to the syllable and around this are positioned small diacritic markers which denote vowels. Above the consonant are also added vowel markers. If you are unfamiliar with an Abugida script you will certainly find this new style of writing tricky and writing in Lao can take a long time to develop as a skill.
So that is just a quick overview of Lao. Let’s look at this question in a bit more detail.
How Hard Is Lao to Learn Really?
Vocabulary in Lao is either formed through compounding where base words combine to produce new vocabulary, or reduplication where words are repeated to form new words.
On top of that there are a number of loanwords in Lao. The earlier loanwords came from Sanskrit and Pali then later from nearby languages of Thai and Chinese. Lao was a colony of France for a number of years and French is still important to this day in the education system and amongst the elite.
In the era of globalisation English has taken on a greater role amongst the local people and a lot of vocabulary associated with business, technology and popular culture has been adopted.
So if you have a background in French or to a lesser extent English, then you can begin to build your vocabulary a little faster.
Lao grammar is quite nice and shouldn’t cause too many difficulties. There is no case system, the verbs don’t change for tense or subject and the nouns have no gender.
- Word Order – Lao has a subject-verb-object word order but this can change if the object is the emphasis of the sentence.
- Pronouns – In Lao the subject and object pronouns are the same. Also, there are many more pronouns than in English for the different levels of politeness necessary in Lao culture. Initially you won’t need to know all of these but over time it is best to pick up more and more.
- Nouns – Nouns don’t change for plurality and don’t require articles. Some verbs can change to nouns easily just by placing the word kåan before the verb. There is also no case system in Lao language. The use of classifiers in Lao is common.
- Verbs – The verbs themselves in Lao don’t change for tense or subject. Instead they use time markers to denote when and how the action took place. So, to give an example to talk about the past you can use the word yesterday. There are both verbs for be and have in Lao, but the verb for be cannot be used in a subject-be-adjective type of sentence like in English.
- Prepositions – There are many prepositions in Lao. These function much like they would in English.
- Adjectives – In Lao the adjectives always are placed before the noun that they are describing.
- Questions – To form questions you can either use a question tag at the end of a sentence or use specific question words.
Any tonal language is going to be difficult for someone new to tones. Lao has 6 tones but they are quite easy to recognise.
- Consonant sounds – There are 19 consonant sounds in Lao, these sounds are familiar to English speakers. Consonant sounds can occur at the beginning of the syllable or sometimes at the end.
- Vowel Sounds – There are 13 vowel sounds in Lao which combine to create 14 diphthongs. The only difference between some of these vowel sounds is the length of the vowel. The vowel sounds of Lao are common sounds found in English.
- Tones – There are 6 tones in Lao. This is more than either Mandarin or Thai. However, the tones of Lao are a little easier to recognise because they form more distinct pitch combinations.
- Low Tone – Low pitch on a flat constant level
- Mid Tone – Mid level pitch on a flat constant level
- High Tone – High pitch on a flat constant level
- Rising Tone – Starting low and rising to a mid level pitch
- High Falling Tone – Starting high, moving higher then dropping to a mid level pitch
- Low Falling Tone – Starting at a mid level pitch and dropping to a low pitch
The Lao script evolved from an Old Khmer script which in turned was developed from an Brahmi script. The writing system is similar to written Thai and conceptually similar to Burmese.
Each syllable is represented by a consonant symbol. On its own this consonant symbol will have an assumed vowel sound. If the vowel sound is to be changed then vowel diacritics can be placed above, below or to the side of the central consonant. Also, to denote the tones a special marker appears above the consonant.
It is also important to note that there are usually no spaces between words in the Lao script. The spaces traditional occur between sentences.
The script is probably the most difficult feature of Lao to master. This can take many months and even years.
Why Learn Lao?
It is safe to say that Lao isn’t often the first language people would choose to take on if they wanted to take up a new foreign language. That being said, there are a number of good reasons why Lao would be a great language to learn. Ill try and outline a few here.
- If you plan to dive into the languages of that region of South East Asia then Lao is a good place to start. The local ethnic people speak a variety of language related to Lao and if you first start out with Lao it can be a stepping stone to learn the other language of the region. It is also related to Thai, so why not be a little different and try Lao.
- The distinct Lao script is a marvel to behold. It is certainly difficult to learn but once you have master it, id argue it is well worth the effort. It is developed from old Khmer script and has a long and interesting history. Once you can read the script much of the language you see, be it in the menus, on the street signs, or on the sides of building will become more open to you.
- In learning Lao you can get to know the culture better. This region of South East Asia is less well trodden and so people don’t understand the people as well as they might Thais or the Vietnamese. The locals are a fascinating bunch and the region is dotted with amazing cultural sights that are enhanced greatly by learning the language. You can really venture into the back and beyond if you know the language and the experience will be much safer in you can get by in Lao.
- Lao is a tonal language, so it has good company in the form of Cantonese, Mandarin, Thai and Burmese. Tonal languages are truly fascinating and initially a big challenge. The skill of producing and ultimately detecting tones is very useful and also high fulfilling. The tones of the Lao language are distinctly different to other language and present a unique challenge.
Who Speaks Lao?
Lao is the official language of Laos. There are a number of dialects of Lao, but the Vientiane dialect is the most spoken. Lao is spoken by around 3.6 million people as a first language in a country of 7.2 million people. As a second language another 1 million are thought to speak Lao. There are thought to be 5 dialects of Lao; Northern Lao, North Eastern Lao, Central Lao, Southern Lao and Vientiane Lao. There are over 86 languages in Laos but in large part Lao functions as a lingua franca for the region.
Lao is also very similar to dialects of Thai spoken in the north and north-east of Thailand. The Thai language is often well understood by many of the local people in Laos because of the heavy cultural influence of Thailand. The converse is not true as most Thais cannot understand Lao.
What Is the Difference Between Lao and Thai?
The countries of Laos and Thailand are next to each other in South East Asia. Consequently, there has been a lot of linguistic exchange between the languages over the years. As such there are many similarities and differences between the two languages. In particular, the Isan Thai spoken in northern Thailand is very similar.
In terms of vocabulary both languages share a lot of vocabulary roots. However, Thai has more loanwords from Pali and Sanskrit than Lao does. In truth around 70% of the vocabulary is the same. Some exceptions are words like the pronouns or the question words.
The grammar of the two languages is very similar. A notable difference is the creation of negatives in a sentence, this can lead to the structure a sentence being different.
For pronunciation, Thai has 5 tones and Lao has 6. This can lead to some confusion as to the meaning of certain words and phrases. There is also a specific sound ny. This ny sound is only found in Lao.
The writing systems look similar and they share a lot of common letters. Lao however is a simpler and more phonetic script and Thai is closer to the Sanskrit script. Many consonants that are found in Thai, are not to be found in the Lao script.
Do People in Laos Speak English?
People in Laos do speak English, particularly in the tourist areas. However, of the European languages, French is probably the most common as it is sometimes the language of instruction in school and widely spoken amongst the country’s elite.
Laos was in fact a colony of France and the historical roots have persisted over the many years since. The local people have a great deal of respect for the French language and so unlike other countries heavily influenced by globalisation and the arrival of English, Lao has remained independent.