Solving Common Problems Encountered by Lao Students of English
As an EFL teacher in Vientiane, Laos, I have seen that Lao speakers have unique challenges with learning English. Some of these challenges are due to linguistic differences between Lao and English, while others are due to cultural differences between Laos and the Western countries where English is spoken. In this paper, I reflect on how I can help my Lao students overcome their particular issues with pronunciation, intonation, and stress.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Rilla T. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
My students’ most common pronunciation problem is probably differentiating between /r/ and /l/. My name, Rilla, sounds like “Wiorlaa,” because Lao does not have a true /r/ sound (although it does have a few /r/-like sounds). Fricatives and affricates are generally hard, as is differentiating between /w/ and /v/ (because Lao has no true /w/ or /v/ sound, only a sound that is halfway in between).
How to Work on Them?
I plan to take some time, when the course schedule allows, to work on these sounds, and then make the correct pronunciation of these sounds one of the grading criteria in their presentation rubrics. These include showing the class pictures that show what the tongue is doing differently when a speaker pronounces /r/ and /l/, and then having students pronounce words with /r/ and /l/ while a partner checks to make sure that the tongue is visible for /l/ but not for /r/.
Intonation is one of the things I like to emphasize in my class. Because Lao is a tonal language, the rising and falling of the voice are largely determined by the words themselves. Consequently, intonation doesn’t convey nuance nearly as much as it does in English, and so my students struggle with it. Their speech is sometimes pretty monotone, which forces me to listen very closely to understand the thrust of what they’re saying.
I have taught intonation by writing sentences on the board and drawing arrows through them, and by “conducting” sentences so that the height of my hand corresponds to the pitch at a given moment, just as Unit 13 suggested. Fascinatingly, though, before I tried these strategies, I needed to explain that “In English, we use a picture of ‘low’ and ‘high,’ ‘up’ and ‘down,’ to talk about sound,” because when I asked my boss whether or not the Lao language used this metaphor, she said it did not. Also, Youtube has an excellent series of videos called “Intonation with Jennifer,” which I have shown to teach more about the subject and give students some drills to practice.
The concept of stressing syllables is also foreign to my students. In Lao, words are almost all monosyllabic, and syllables are all stressed equally. (I asked a Lao friend yesterday if an orange was “mak GI and” or “mak gi ANG,” and she just looked at me blankly and said they were the same.) So when my students speak, their stress patterns are often wrong or nonexistent, and that makes it quite hard for me to understand.
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So I tell my students that when they learn new vocabulary, they should be sure to learn it with the correct stress pattern. I think I should also teach them about what Unit 13 says about the rules for stress in English.
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