The Most Common Problems Students in Laos Face When Learning English
2019-04-01 Linda Dunsmore Alumni Experiences
Learning a second language is never easy but the problems that each learner faces are not all the same. Sometimes the grammar of your first language is completely different from your second language. There might be sounds you do not know how to make because your first language does not have them. You might have limited access to fluent speakers of the language you are learning. All of these are true for Lao learners trying to acquire English as a second language.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Mary A.
“Teaching students new vocabulary and how to pronounce it requires patience and creativity.”
The national language in Laos is called Lao. It is missing many of the sounds that native English speakers take for granted. They have no “r” sound, no blended consonants such as “th” or ‘st”, and there are very few ending sounds in Lao. To make it even more difficult, Lao is a tonal language. This means Lao students often concentrate on the tone the teacher says the word in instead of paying attention to the pronunciation of the letters.
All this conspires to make pronouncing even the simplest English word a challenge. Take the words “bedroom” and “bathroom”, for example. “Bedroom” becomes “betloom” and “bathroom” also “betloom”. So not only do these words become difficult to understand they sound exactly the same. Therefore, teaching Lao students new vocabulary and how to pronounce it requires patience and creativity on the part of both the teacher and the students.
“Spoken and written grammar are huge hurdles.”
That is not even the biggest challenge faced by Lao students. Both spoken and written grammar are huge hurdles. Let’s start with spoken grammar. Lao does not have plurals for words, they add another word but the original does not change. So in Lao “cat” changes to “two cat” or “many cat”. This means that not only does a Lao learner have to grasp the concept of plurals but they have to learn two words for something they only have one word for and then remember which to use. For example “foot” and “feet”. You might think that simply adding an “s” or “es” to a word is not that difficult but remember, Lao does not have blended consonants and words that end in a consonant that they have to had an “s” to becomes a tongue twisting challenge to pronounce.
To make it even more of a challenge, Lao does not have tenses. So past and present tense are just as challenging as plurals. If that is not enough Lao word order is also different. This means that in Lao a “red ball” becomes a “ball red”. Learning English grammar is a monumental challenge for Lao learners.
“The Lao writing system is completely different compared to English.”
Now let’s look at the differences between Lao and English writing. Lao writing has no spaces between the words, the alphabet is completely different, they traditionally do not use any punctuation, and they do not read words so much as syllables. To add to all of this Lao is a basically phonetic language, each letter has a sound it makes and only one sound. So a Lao learner has no easy time learning to read and write English.
“The exposure to English is very limited in Laos.”
If all of this is not enough challenge for Lao learners just add in the fact that there are very few English speakers in Laos. The exposure to English that the average Lao learner has is limited to the time in the classroom and sometimes a chance encounter with a tourist. This makes retaining and practicing English a challenge even for the most confident of Lao students. With the limited number of English speakers many of the English teachers don’t even speak English fluently.
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Even with all of these challenges there are many Lao students studying English. With every level of fluency they gain their job opportunities become more numerous and better paying. In as poor a country as Laos this means that the students are more likely to be motivated by a true desire to master the difficult task of learning English.
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