Languages in Northern Laos

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Axon
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Languages in Northern Laos

Postby Axon » Tue Jul 30, 2019 3:07 pm

It's my last of seven nights in Laos, and I thought I would post some information about the languages I've used during this trip.

I'm traveling with a very good friend of mine from college. We're both tall, white, American men, and this definitely affects the languages that people assume we speak. He can speak basic Mandarin and some Spanish.

We entered from Thanh Hóa, Vietnam, where I used Mandarin to confirm the bus schedule with somebody at the bus station. The bus was filled with Vietnamese people, some of whom spoke a little Lao. In Laos, we stayed in four cities.

1. Sam Nuea, Vieng Xay (day trip) - Very few foreign tourists, but one cafe operated by an American. Vietnamese spoken by long-distance bus drivers. Some people in shops and restaurants understood some Vietnamese or English, and many restaurants had Vietnamese written on their signs. Our guesthouse owner spoke only Lao. Audio tours of Vieng Xay caves offered in English with English-speaking tour guide. Children shouted "Hello" at us on the street.

2. Muang Hiam - Very few foreign tourists. Some English spoken at the bus station. Less Vietnamese on signs. Our guesthouse owner spoke only Lao. Spoke English at the pharmacy and Mandarin at a general store owned by a Chinese immigrant. Children shouted "Hello" at us on the street.

3. Nong Khiaw - Many foreign tourists. A handful of signs in Vietnamese and Chinese, most in English. Many restaurant owners spoke English; our guesthouse owner knew a few words but kept switching to Lao on me. Restaurants off the main street likely to have monolingual staff. Children shouted "Sabaidee" at us on the street.

4. Luang Namtha - Some foreign tourists. Many signs in Chinese and English, a few with Vietnamese as well. Many restaurant and shop owners were Chinese immigrants and spoke Mandarin and sometimes Cantonese. Restaurants and hotels had a surprising number of German books on their shelves. Shops off the main street likely to have monolingual staff, visibly shocked when I spoke Lao. Our guesthouse owner spoke good English. Children did not shout at us on the street.

A couple of observations:

- Vietnamese is a strong asset to have in Laos. Not only are there many Vietnamese people living or doing business in Laos, but Vietnamese makes the cut along with Chinese and English as languages that Lao people are often interested in learning.
- The influence of Chinese wasn't very strong until we got to Oudomxay or Luang Namtha provinces, at which point it ramped up hard because that's where the Chinese railway is being built. It was very common along the highway in those provinces to see Chinese/Lao bilingual road signs or safety posters near construction sites.
- That said, there are still many small towns where buses will stop for repairs or food, and where Lao people mostly just speak Lao.
- Some people will take it in stride that a foreigner is speaking Lao, and others will heap praise upon you for saying the simplest things.
- More than half of signs in shops and on streets have no English, though bus schedules often have transliterations of city names.
- A lot of music and TV is in Thai and I imagine that someone fluent in Thai would have no trouble at all communicating in Laos.

I didn't make any effort to learn any of the dozens of other languages spoken in Laos. I believe that I sometimes heard people on the street talking in other languages, but I can't be sure. I did see an ad for a Hmong-speaking taxi service in Sam Nuea.

Overall, I'm very glad that I spent a little time on Lao before arriving. I wish I had been a little better at predicting what I would need, though of course you don't need much because context goes such a long way. I look forward to maintaining and improving my tourist Lao for next time!
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Lawyer&Mom
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Re: Languages in Northern Laos

Postby Lawyer&Mom » Tue Jul 30, 2019 7:04 pm

How much French did you see or hear?
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Re: Languages in Northern Laos

Postby nooj » Wed Jul 31, 2019 2:46 am

I traveled through Laos for about a month. You won't hear French spoken naturally anywhere. You have to go looking for it. Indochine does not exist any longer, don't expect to use French or be understood in this language in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia.

In a small town, I visited a pharmacist to get some stuff. The pharmacist was around 50-60 years old. She spoke no English but she did speak some French, because her father, also a pharmacist, had taught her. And that's how our business transaction went.
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Re: Languages in Northern Laos

Postby Adrianslont » Wed Jul 31, 2019 3:58 am

While it is true that Indochine no longer exists, I have seen numerous groups of French tourists in the temples around Siem Reap being led by relatively young French speaking Cambodian guides - so if you are a French speaker you will be catered to in the tourist spots.

And there were ads for French classes around Siem Reap.

But this amount of French speaking likely is more to do with large numbers of French tourists than anything else. I have seen the same in Bali, Balinese dive masters who are fluent in French and cafe owners and touts with some basics to sell their wares in certain parts of Bali. And signage in French. And of course, Bali is not a former colony of France so it’s all about skilling up for economic reasons.

Axon, I enjoyed your post!
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Lawyer&Mom
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Re: Languages in Northern Laos

Postby Lawyer&Mom » Wed Jul 31, 2019 2:56 pm

I’m not looking for Indochine. Wikipedia says that French is widely used in Laotian education and signage, and since Axon didn’t mention French at all, I was curious.
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Re: Languages in Northern Laos

Postby Axon » Thu Aug 01, 2019 12:39 pm

Lawyer&Mom wrote:How much French did you see or hear?


The only French I saw or heard was on public bank signs. Even provincial government buildings only had signs in English and Lao. My French is not very good so I didn't ask anybody if they spoke it, but I'm guessing that few people would have. Most tourist placards were only in English and Lao.

I do remember visiting the Ethnology Museum in Hanoi three years ago and meeting an employee who spoke only Vietnamese and flawless French. I bet you could find young people in Laos who were interested in the humanities enough to study French, particularly if you went looking for them in the bigger cities.

In Nong Khiaw there was one prominently-placed tourist agency with signs all in Hebrew and a little hand-drawn Israeli flag. There I also saw a handful of agencies offering that French was spoken there.

And since nooj also mentioned pharmacies, the word in Latin script on their signs is "Pharmacie" more often than not.
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Re: Languages in Northern Laos

Postby Lawyer&Mom » Thu Aug 01, 2019 3:37 pm

The shadows, ghosts and remnants of former colonial languages are always interesting to me. Language change is fascinating.
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