I left my camera cable at home. This is the only picture I have that represents Laos and English literacy.
Luang Prabang, Laos wasn’t really my bag. Like Hoi An, Vietnam, it seemed a tourism board’s wet dream of picturesque buildings full of upmarket ethnic food, souvenir shops, and guesthouses, all designed to siphon travel dollars from tourists hoping to wrap themselves in a cozy cocoon of a UNESCO-verified city. The city was just too pretty, too comfortable, too perfect to seem like Southeast Asia, with its well-maintained sidewalks and well-placed, visible trash cans made from woven bamboo. You couldn’t walk anywhere without smelling sweet flowers and parting groups of colorful butterflies and songbirds.
In other words, Luang Prabang is actually kind of nice. Unfortunately, I’m starting to associate “nice” with “expensive” and possibly even “boring,” and after a few days in the city, I was ready to look at something besides tribal fabrics and eat something other than baguettes.
So, I decided to take advantage of the two Luang Prabang opportunities for native speakers to drop-in and work with Laotian children and adults who want to learn english on our last day in the city. The Big Brother Mouse Bookstore holds two open sessions daily (9:00 am and 5:00 pm) for young Laos adults to converse with english speakers. The Luang Prabang Library seeks volunteers from 1:00 pm to teach english to children or adults. Obviously a constant rotation of teachers without experience is not the best way to learn a language, but I’d argue it’s not the worst, either, especially in a country where the educational infrastructure lacks.
Teaching English at the Luang Prabang Library
Andy and I were the only volunteers at the library that operates volunteer-run english classes on a seasonal basis, when the kids in the city are on a break from school. These children can basically hang out at the library all day long when school isn’t in session, running around the yard, reading books, drawing in notebooks, before getting picked up by big brothers or parents on motorbikes in the afternoon. The level of freedom given to kids in this country is inspiring, but I’ll get to that in another post. Teenagers, and some adults, also come for lessons when they’re offered. Andy taught the adults while I taught the children, and we had drastically different experiences. His experience is written in the comments, and is so hilarious I actually cried from laughing. Mine is much more boring.
The staff at the library handed me a small book of the alphabet written especially for Laos children and guided me into a room where about 10 children waited for me with little notebooks and pens. Their english was minimal; they recognized the alphabet letters and knew how to respond to the basic questions about name and age. I went through the alphabet and had them write down the days of the week. It was clear that the kids were copying the letters, but not really understanding how they work together, and I didn’t have the language skills to communicate with them in Laos about the sounds the letters make. It wasn’t really working, so I just decided that I would teach vocabulary…of the body, because that’s what I had on me.
All of the kids knew the “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” song, but I soon realized they didn’t know the names of the body parts they were pointing to. Somehow, I was able to get everyone standing up and learning words like “pinky” and “elbow” by dancing around and assigning each body part motion. We played a game where I would do the motion and the kids would yell out the name of the body part. I taught them verbs like “jump,” “sit down,” and “stand up,” and had them so worn out we could actually get to spelling some of those words.
While the experience of playing with cute kids was fun, I’m not sure I did any good. Would another volunteer go over body parts in the future? Would they have enough repetition to actually commit the words and their meanings to memory?
Probably not. It seems like this arrangement certainly can’t hurt the kids, who are still practicing english despite being on a school break, but I think it serves better to educate tourists. After the session, the people who run the library told me about how their organization works, operating the Laos equivalent of bookmobiles on boats that wind up and down the rivers, reaching villages without libraries of their own. Andy and I made a donation to the library. I’m blogging about it now.
I left thinking about literacy in poor countries and motivated to make it to the evening session at Big Brother Mouse.
Teaching English at Big Brother Mouse
Big Brother Mouse is a bookstore and publisher of Laos children’s books. Very few stories exist in Laos for children, and literacy in their native language is probably more important for the majority of the kids in the country. The organization finds donors, writers, and illustrators who can make books especially for kids, as well as some for adults and tourists. Signs around the store encourage visitors to buy books to distribute to kids met in villages during travel. I bought four, which promptly made their way to the bottom of my suitcase that was never around when I encountered kids.
The language sessions at the Luang Prabang Big Brother Mouse store are essentially unstructured. The store communicates to the tourist and local communities and arranges conversational encounters between the two groups. The goal is for the English speakers to get the Laos speakers talking and to be available to answer any questions they might have about vocabulary or word usage.
When I arrived, I sat next to a young monk reading a Sherlock Holmes book with Laos and English side-by-side. We spoke about where he came from (a village in the North, part of tribe that starts with a “P,” probably Phunoi), how he practices English with tourists, how he has been a monk for a year, how he probably won’t be a monk forever, but he is learning a lot–much more than in his village school. Soon, two modern Laos guys in their 20s joined us, and I tried my hardest to answer all of their questions.
I don’t think I was helpful. When trying to define words like “prospect” and explain the difference in usage of “let” and “let’s,” I could only come up with synonyms that were more complex. Honestly, I felt a bit incapable and incompetent. I just kept talking, answering questions, hoping this interaction was helpful in some way.
Then, the monk had a question. It was a word he had heard used by some tourists who had come to his temple. The word?
I died a little bit as I clutched my phantom pearls. Is this what people feel like when their kid asks where babies come from? I mean, what were a bunch of tourists were doing talking about pornography in a Buddhist temple? Why do I have to answer this question?? The innocence! It’s gooooooone!!!
I answered honestly after only a small pause, thus completing one of the top ten awkward moments of my life. What’s really sad is that all the words the guys asked me to define, “pornography” was the only one whose meaning I could communicate quickly, efficiently, and in a way that was understood. Out of my four hours of English teaching, this, this was the moment where true comprehension occurred.
Literacy in Laos
Joking aside, Laos has a very young, very rural population without access to books in their own language, let alone books that teach english geared to Laos speakers. That there is a need for anyone, even tourists only in town for a day or so, to teach english to the more educated urbanites speaks volumes about the state of education across the country. Unlike Thailand, Laos does not attract scores of young people wanting to live abroad while teaching english. Unlike Korea, Laos does not have institutional procedures set up to recruit and secure english teachers in schools.
If you want to help, you don’t need to come to Laos. You can donate to Big Brother Mouse online and contribute to the growing body of children’s books.
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