Lao Project vs Esperanto Project

May 1, 2014: I started learning Esperanto. I studied for six weeks, and got good enough to do this video.

June 20, 2014: I started learning Lao. I studied for 11 weeks, with the goal of being able to have a five minute conversation by August 31st. That deadline came and went, and I still haven't had my five minute conversation yet. (Though I've had several 20 second conversations.)

Polyglot Punchout!
My favorite old-school Nintendo game: Polyglot Punchout!

What what wrong? Well, there are probably several things I could have done better. But I think the biggest reason is that not all languages are created equal.

Esperanto = Easy

One of the most common reactions I get when I tell people I studied Esperanto for six weeks is "Oh, is that Spanish?" No. No it isn't.

Esperanto, unlike most languages, is an invented language. It was created by a man named L. L. Zamenhof in the late 1800's. Zamenhof wanted it to be a politically neutral language that was easy to learn, so that people from all over the world could talk to each other.

Esperanto has a pretty easy to learn grammar system. Much of the vocabulary is based on English, Spanish, French, Italian and German words. Since I speak four of those languages and have studied the fifth, learning Esperanto words came quite easy for me.

Lao = Not So Easy

So, after doing so well, so quickly on Esperanto, I was feeling pretty good about myself. I decided to tackle a more difficult language. And since I know a handful of Lao people and see them at least once a week, I chose Lao.

Coming away from my Esperanto project with such easy success, I thought I could tackle any language with the same results.

Even though I did not reach my goal by my self-imposed deadline, I don't regret choosing Lao to learn. It's been quite a stretch, but stretching is good.

So what made Lao difficult for me?

Lao has a different Alphabet

I dabbled in Korean about a decade ago, but Lao is the first language that I've really been serious about that had a very different alphabet than the one I'm used to.

So what does Lao look like? If I want to write the word PasaLao (Lao language) it would look like this: ພາສາລາວ.

A huge chunk of my Lao study time was learning how to read and write it. And though I have done a good job learning the Lao alphabet, I still feel like a first grader trying to read. Flash cards helped quite a bit, as well as a Lao alphabet phone app I downloaded, a beginning Lao book and a couple of YouTube videos.

A new alphabet, though, is not something you can learn passively, just by reading a book or watching videos. The most helpful thing for me was to practice writing. Lots. And lots.

In addition to the alphabet being different than the one we use for English, it has over twice as many characters to learn as well.

Even though learning a different writing system was challenging, it was actually one of my favorite parts of learning Lao. I'm sure not everyone would agree, but learning a new alphabet was fun for me.

Lao does not put spaces in between words.

ImaginereadingEnglishlikethis. If you are a native English speaker, you could probably figure it out relatively easily, but someone learning English would find it very frustrating. One of the biggest struggles I had when trying to learn to read Lao was picking apart the words. Lao puts spaces between sentences, but not between words.

So the sentence "She likes white birds" becomes ລາວມັກນົກຂາວ. Once you learn Lao syllable rules, and since most Lao words are only one syllable, you can sometimes pick out words that way. But it's still hard. At least for me it is.

Lao puts vowels everywhere

All Lao syllables start with a consonant. (Some start with a silent consonant.) The vowel sound that follows that consonant can be written before, after, above or under the consonant. For example, to make the syllable gah you would use ກ for the G sound, and າ for the Ah sound, resulting in ກາ.

If you wanted to make the syllable go you would still use ກ for the G sound. You would use ໂ for the O sound. But ໂ always comes before the consonant, so you would write it ໂກ. That's like saying "go" but writing it "og".

Tricky, but easier to figure out than the nospacesbetweenwords rule.

Lao has different tones

We use tones in English, but we usually don't think about it. Say these two sentences.

You ate pizza.

You ate pizza?

By putting a rising tone on the last word, you made it sound like a question.

Lao uses tones differently than we do in English. In the example above, when we changed the tone on the word "pizza", the word still meant the same thing.

When you change the tone on a word in Lao, the word means something completely differently. For example ມາ (maa with a high tone) means "to come". ມ້າ (maa with a high falling tone) means "horse".

Once you learn the tone rules, you can tell by the way word is written what tone it will have, but these rules were complicated for me, and I never mastered them.

Lao has relatively few English cognates

So it's not too hard for any English speaker to figure what the Italian word telefono. But you wouldn't recognize that ໂທລະສັບ (to-la-sap) meant the same exact thing in Lao.

All the languages I've learned so far have been European languages, and they have quite a few words that are really easy to figure out the meaning of. Lao? Not so much.

Lao grammar is, well, different

I wouldn't say that Lao grammar is harder than English. The verb rules are actually much easier than most European languages. But because the grammar is different, it does take a little getting used to.

Lao doesn't have verb conjugation, doesn't have articles like "a" and "the", and doesn't change nouns to show singular or plural tense.

For example, if I wanted to say "The boy sees a bird" in Lao, I would say "Boy see bird" (but using Lao words, not English words, of course).

"A boy sees the bird" is also "Boy see bird". Same with "A boy sees birds" or "The boys see the birds"; they all translate to "Boy see bird". You have to learn to use contextual clues to differentiate between the different shades of meaning that are explicit in English and most European languages.

Other factors

There were a few other factors that made it harder to learn Lao that aren't part of the language itself. The biggest being that there aren't as many great resources for Lao online as there are for Esperanto and some other languages I've studied. has free courses that take you from an absolute beginner to an intermediate level Esperanto speaker and beyond. I found some decent Lao resources, but nothing like what's out there for other languages.

And even worse, I've found some resources online with incorrect information.

So what now?

After 4 months of almost exclusively studying one language at a time (first Esperanto and then Lao), I'm declaring September Study-What-I-Feel-Like Month.

My wife disagrees with my decision, and is encouraging me to continue with Lao. Mostly I agree with her, but I want to make sure I'm not forgetting the other languages I've studied. So during September my main focus will still be Lao, but I will be taking several guilt-free days off from Lao and spend some time on the other 5 languages I've studied.

My main Lao-related goal for September is to finally get those pesky tone rules down, so that when I see a written word in Lao I'll know which tone to use when I say it.

I really am enjoying Lao. It's been fun to push myself to learn a more difficult language. It's just a little more difficult than I thought it would be.

What are you going to accomplish this month on your language project? Let everyone know in the comments. And good luck!


Stephanie 10 September 2014

When I learned Spanish, I was able to have a basic conversation within 3 months. Sure, I made mistakes, but I could happily babble away with a language partner for an hour without using any English. I may or may not have felt slightly pleased with myself: "Hey, I'm *good* at this language thing!".

Then I started learning Tagalog and got the smugness punched out of me. Ha! I'm currently on month five, and I still talk like a toddler. The kind of toddler who started talking really late. And Tagalog words are very easy to write/spell/read, with lots of English and Spanish loan words, so I have even fewer obstacles than you do with Lao.

It's a fun challenge! And it's a good thing I married a Filipino instead of a Portuguese or Italian speaker - can you even imagine how cringe-worthingly smug I'd be right now?

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Kent Roper 10 September 2014

Thank goodness for difficult languages that put is in our place.

When I lived in Italy I bought an Italian-Tagalog phrase book, because there are lots of Filipinos living in Milan. I only learned about 20 phrases, but they were fun to use on the subway whenever I sat next to a Filipino.

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Peter 21 September 2016

Wow! I give you respect for learning the Lao language. I lived in Laos for 7 years when I was a child, and Lao was officially my first language. The grammar is different with almost no acceptions (very straight forward). I learned how to write when I was 15, and it was weird at first. At first, it was hard to read so I would sound out the word/sentence. The Lao alphabet really isn't that hard with an exception of the tone markers. On the bright, languages like Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai, and Cantonese will be easier for you.
My mom is from Laos and my dad learned Lao later in high school and during college. I still speak Lao around the house with my parents, and it is a fun language to speak. Speaking to a Lao person in the U.S. in Lao will make their day because it's really rare to find someone that wants to learn their language.

Good Luck!

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