Endangered Languages In and Around Laos: An Overview of Opportunities.

Published in Ogmios No. 52 (a newsletter for endangered language research).

Neo-colonialism, or…? Australian P.M. Julia Gillard with her pupils in Laos. Note the red scarves (紅領巾, Khăn quàng đỏ).

From a very pragmatic point of view, we could group the languages of the area into four categories, by their written status.

① There are languages that are not written now, and have no prior written tradition.
② There are languages that were formerly written (in their own
orthography) but are no longer written, and now increasingly exist as
an adjunct to some other language of formal education (such as Lao,
Thai, etc.). In some cases, this is a clear prelude to language
extinction, but in other cases, people seem confident (rightly or
wrongly) that their languages can thrive through diglossia.
③ There are languages that have new writing systems, and now have the
potential to take on a durable existence in this form.
④ There are the official written languages supported by institutions
(both secular and religious) that may themselves (nevertheless) be
enangered, or face serious questions as to their long-term viability.

To expand on the last point first, it is very obvious that lowland Lao
is not in a strong position within Laos, where it is the first
language of a minority of the citizens, albeit the minority
concentrated in the largest cities, controlling the military, and so
on. Meanwhile, the same language (lowland Lao) exists within Thailand
in category 2, where ethnically-Lao citizens of Thailand will
invariably read, write and receive education in Thai, but generally
continue to speak Lao at home (if not in the workplace).

Donor (center), apparatchik (left), and teacher (right), in the context of a typical (21st century) classroom in rural Laos (wooden walls, no electricity, no windows, no bathrooms, etc.; the chalk-board is made of black paint on wood or bamboo).

Under category 3, the best-known examples are those that have had the
most involvement from foreign missionaries, and that use scripts
more-or-less derivative of the Roman alphabet. Lisu has been
relatively successful, whereas written Akha, Iu-Mien (Yao), and Wa are
relative failures.

The idea that the modern Lao alphabet could be extensible to include
other languages was reflected on (in the past tense) by various
government officials whom I spoke to, and documented in one or two
reports that I saw. The basic principle was to produce new consonants
(where necessary) on the same pattern as Lao follows for ຫ + ມ = ໝ (h
+ m = hm). The Lao government tried for decades to encourage the
Hmong to use a modified form of the Lao alphabet to (phonetically)
write their own language (rather than systems of writing that were
ineluctably linked to both America and Christianity). I tried to find
samples of this during my time in the region, but while I did speak
with government officials who could remember seeing such things
(produced sometimes in conjunction with efforts at having
radio-broadcasts in Hmong), I never found an extant publication or
pamphlet of this kind.

The ubiquitous Karaoke DVD: minority language education with zero government funding.

The vast majority of Lao people (speaking any language) are probably
unaware that any such policy (of many languages united by one
orthography, mutatis mutandis) was ever pursued, and there is no trace
of it whatsoever in the new curriculum that the Lao government
produced in partnership with Australian aid (post 2000, with much of
the activity being more recent than 2005, when foreign donors became
increasingly involved in alleviating the scarcity of textbooks in
rural areas, etc.). Although this is misleading, the impression one
would get from looking at the materials on paper is that the current
education strategy does not acknowledge the existence of minority
languages at all —neither Tai-Kadai languages that could be easily
accomodated by a lowland Lao education system, nor indigenous
Mon-Khmer languages (such as Khmu) that would really require unique
educational materials to be designed.

(Presumably, the students are learning to play ball by Australian Rules?)

One of the Lao officials overseeing the Australian-funded project
explained to me the modestly bilingual aspect of their plans (I note
that she was herself a member of a non-Tai ethnic minority). The
government’s strategy had been to recruit young people from the
various target villages who spoke the local minority language as their
mother tongue, and to then bring them into the city, and provide them
with teacher-training, to then send them back to the same village, to
teach (bilingually) in their community of origin (a plan devised and
pursued very much in dependence upon foreign donors, with the
Australian government being the most vocal).

From a Lao perspective, it might be supposed that the government
expected that the same type of polyglot society that had been
ubiquitous within the Lao military a few decades earlier would
(similarly) spring up spontaneously in these conditions. Although
this expectation reflects the historical experience of many
administrators in the country (who are themselves military veterans),
it is false.

From an Australian perspective, however, it is difficult to see how
the new model of education was meant to create anything other than a
monolingual future for Laos (as Australia has pursued its own
monolingual future, in a genocidal context, etc.). Vague statements
of policy such as “education for all” really do seem to mean,
“language assimilation for all”, from the standpoint of the donor

A snippet from a map showing language distribution, village-by-village, that I made while working in Northern Laos.

Conversely, I heard several different perspectives on a foreign-funded
project to create educational films in the Khmu language, that ended
in disaster. The objective of providing minority-language education
(via DVDs) was reportedly regarded positively by the higher levels of
the Party in the capital city, but was reacted to with fear and
apprehension by the local (provincial) Commmunist officials. This
project ended with the sole foreign executive fleeing the country
amidst death-threats, and work suddenly stopping on all projects.
This scenario is a consequence of the structure of Communism, though
not of any particular government policy; instead, it reflects the lack
of any clear policy toward endangered languages, and the conflicted
feelings that exist (but cannot be discussed) amongst the (unelected)
government’s apparatchiks.

It is also noteworthy that the Australian reports on these programs
refer to training “ethnic minority teachers” as standard phraseology.
This conflicts with the Lao government policy of never referring to
the non-Lao languages as “minority” (partly in recognition of the fact
that they are, collectively, the numerical majority in the country,
and partly out of a peculiar sense of showing respect for the rural
periphery that many Lao officials whom I spoke to took very
seriously). The Australian phrasing also seems to echo a
British-empire schedule of values, presuming the bloodline of the
teachers to be more important than the languages they are capable of
communicating in, or the languages they are actually trained to teach

Quite a number of anecdotes reached my ears about the defects of the
ensuing process of reform. Reportedly, many of the teachers of the
old curriculum quit as soon as the new textbooks were distributed,
protesting that their own level of education was not high enough to
teach the new material. However, their eagerness to resign also
reflected the fact that the wages for the job were so low that they
typically regarded this as a sort of hobby, supplemental to some other
job or role in the community (as housewife, farmer, etc.).

Karaoke in the Tai Dam language.

The ideological shift in the textbooks may have been significant for
some of these teachers, but this was never confessed to me directly.
I spoke at length with a woman who received her own childhood
education in a cave, taking shelter from U.S. aerial bombardment on
the Lao-Vietnamese border. She had given up teaching (to instead earn
her income from a manual trade) due to a variety of factors that she
specified. However, left unstated was the significance (if any) of
the shift from the “anti-feudalist” rhetoric of “high Communism” to a
vaguely nationalistic narrative that embraced the former kings of Laos
as a continuum leading up to the current era.

Although I would not describe the woman I interviewed as a believer in
Communism, the discontinuity between her own education and the type of
education she would be (now) expected to provide is extreme. When the
financial motivation to teach is extremely weak, ideological
motivation will be significant, even if it is also weak. Conversely,
if the purpose of education is merely economic, it is impossible to
ask teachers to sacrifice their own economic interests to support the
education system.

This is Dai (傣語) karaoke with diglossia in simplified Chinese, in contrast to (see next illustration)…

With all of these factors taken together, a significant number of the
people who received teacher-training did not (thereafter) accept the
job, or else they did not keep the job for very long. The rate of pay
was so low relative to the cost of bus-fare (required to reach rural
areas) that teachers would often arrive weeks late for the start of
the term because they would (in effect) go on strike until their
superiors agreed to (informally) pay their transport costs. I saw one
example of this myself, and then learned that it was common through
inquiry. I have only seen Australian reports stating the number of
“ethnic minority” persons trained, not measuring the real outcomes by
contrast (i.e., how many of the trainees actually taught for how many
years, in how many languages, after training was complete); a 2009
AusAID report simply stated that it had doubts as to how many of these
teachers really remained in the field. If reliable statistics exist,
I haven’t seen them.

…Dai (傣語) karaoke with diglossia in Thai.

The Lao government remains very much reliant on “local hiring” to
recruit people who speak local languages, as they never developed any
formal capacity in minority languages within the capital or central
educational institutions; this has become an intractable problem
because, fundamentally, the Communist Party no longer has a monopoly
on upward social mobility. Military service and Buddhist monasticism,
likewise, have very much receded in significance as routes to upward
social mobility for the rural poor (of any ethnic group).

Anyone from an ethnic-minority village who has the know-how to travel
back-and-forth to the capital city is (ipso facto) already in a
position to be “relatively wealthy” by the standards of that village,
and will be able to earn more than a government schoolteacher (either
in the village, in the capital, or as a middleman between the two).
In one cluster of villages on the Burmese border (where several
mutually-incomprehensible languages were spoken), I was delighted to
discover just one man who could communicate with me in Lao. I was
later told by others that he was indeed the only man who could speak
Lao in those villages, and that he had recently been recruited by the
Communist Party for some bilingual administrative role.

Within a month of my meeting him, he had apparently been imprisoned as
he had become involved in cross-border drug trafficking as soon as he
had adopted his new position as a government official. This reflects
both the absolute scarcity of bilingual persons available for the
government to employ and, also, the desperation of such people to seek
out corruption in a context of laughably low salaries, and near-zero
upward social mobility.

No, this is not a Buddhist temple; note the three languages on the road-sign; this is the casino in ບໍ່ແກ້ວ province, N.W. Laos.

Meanwhile, Buddhism has lost its ancient monopoly on the teaching of
literacy, and monastic education in Laos has very little to offer its
students aside from food and shelter (although this is, itself, a
significant difference from the secular education system, where
neither housing nor meals are provided).

In the year 1976, the number of lower-secondary students receiving
their education within the Buddhist monasteries of Laos was 26,268.
This had grown, in 1996 to 119,992. With the acceleration of “western
influence” in the decade that followed thereafter, a casual observer
might expect the numbers to then stagnate or drop, but no: in 2006,
the number had increased again to 183,588 children.

While the budget of the foreign-funded education reforms can be
measured in the millions of dollars, it deserves to be asked if
(empirically) this has had a greater effect on language and ethnic
identity than the (penniless) Buddhist temples. The total numbers
(for students of all ages) indicate that 36% of Lao students were
receiving their education within monastery walls in 2006. Very nearly
zero of the monastic students are female, and so this represents a
much larger portion of the male population.

For the most part, the monasteries are very much the domain of local
language and local dialect, partly due to the absence of any
centralizing influence. At one rural monastery, the most senior monk
looked to me about 16 years of age (he could not have been older than
19) and he was solely in charge of the education of a small flock of
children. Whereas the monasteries of Thailand may be full of books
that are never used (with layers of dust to prove the point), in this
particular monastery I did not see a single book in any language.

Special thanks to 小熊 for this photograph.

Hand-written manuscripts (using local orthography) remain touchstones
of local traditions —but they are of largely symbolic value and are
of zero interest to the younger generation who do not learn to read
them (i.e., category 2, above). Painting the names of donors on the
monastery walls using the local orthography remains important, and, in
fact, this made it very easy to take a “census” of the local
language-groups in any given village, as they would often be
represented in a varity of writing systems sharing a single wall.

These factors do not exclusively involve Tai-Kadai peoples. Within
Yunnan, there are Mon-Khmer peoples who converted to Theravada
Buddhism centuries ago while continuing to speak their own languages
(e.g., the Bulang or Blang) and, within Laos, I heard one detailed
account of a Khmu village that had converted to Theravada Buddhism as
a whole, under the charismatic leadership of a local war hero, in
recent years. Their language, culture, etc., remained Khmu, but they
had decided to reject the animal-sacrifices of their traditional
religion, and also to reject the message of Christian missionaries
(who have been active in the Khmu language). This type of scenario
relies totally on the structure of power created by Communism, and yet
has nothing whatsoever to do with any intentional policy of the
Communist Party.

Wikipedia’s map of the Khmu language’s supposed distribution within Laos. In praxis, the geography of economic opportunity (following after a long period of wartime dislocation and relocation) has resulted in significant numbers of Khmu speakers settling in the cities, or wherever they find employment. I met Khmu speakers everywhere I went in Laos (both rural and urban).

The status of endangered languages within Laos has to be understood in
this peculiar context: the official language of the state is itself
rather weak and marginal. Communism is still the official ideology,
but Theravada Buddhism has re-emerged as the state religion, with
expectations that it will perform its former (and ancient) educational
function for a large number of students, but without any institutional
capacity to do so. Perhaps thankfully, Buddhist education in Laos has
had no foreign involvement comparable to Australia’s intervention in
secular education. What, therefore, is the future of Laos’s
endangered languages in an era of open borders, electronic
communication, and so on?

As a sort of test-case, I think it’s worthwhile to consider the
reformed Shan script as a non-Romanized example of the third category,
as set out at the start of the article. This new form given to the
written language is pliant enough to work for a variety of dialects
and Northern Tai languages, and it now shows more potential than
(e.g.) the 20th century scripts devised for Tai minorities by the
local governments of Yunnan, China (or the attempts to simply foist
typewriter-Thai, mutatis mutandis, onto minority languages of Northern
Thailand). On the other side of Burma’s borders, I have observed the
new Shan writing expanding through distinctively 21st century media,
such as Karaoke DVDs, etc., and this clearly has the potential to
appeal to speakers of minority languages (other than Shan) that are in
categories 1 and 2 in the region, either because their own language
has some level of mutual-comprehensibility with Shan, or because they
feel more sympathy toward Shan than a totally alien language-of-state
(such as Chinese in Yunnan, or, possibly, some will regard Burmese,
Lao and Thai as more alien than Shan, etc.).

Is something similar possible for Khmu, and other non-Tai-Kadai
languages? I would like to think so, but it obviously will not
transpire under Christian missionary leadership, nor under Australian
government patronage.

However, all of the languages in the third category rely on upward
social mobility (or the perception of it) to motivate students. If
there is no way to earn money through a language, it recedes into
category 1 or 2, as a language of the elderly left behind on the
homestead, while the younger generation pursues economic opportunities
in the city (or at least on other farms, etc.) —and this is,
generally, a decisive step toward language extinction within the next
100 years.

An image of the camps circa 1975, from the same agency who put their logo on it: https://www.unhcr.or.th/about/thailand

The economy of the anti-Communist refugee camps (disbanded within
living memory) was a powerful motivation for ethnic minorities to
assert their own identity, and intensify their commitment to their
particular language and dialect. They were powerfully motivated to be
non-Lao, non-Thai, non-Vietnamese, and non-Chinese (although they may
have, as individuals, had strong links to any or all of those
languages, before arriving in the camp). This was rewarded partly by
the peculiar politics of American intervention in the region (and the
explicitly tribal organization of the refugee camps themselves),
partly through the prospect of migrating to the U.S. (or at least of
receiving money from relatives relocated to the U.S., etc.), and
partly by various foreign (Christian) churches. In this context it
became economically and politically viable (e.g.) for the Iu-Mien to
be primarily or exclusively Iu-Mien, with English as their
(aspirational or actual) second language, rejecting (or minimizing)
their links to other languages like Chinese and Lao. Today, that
could not possibly make economic sense for an Iu-Mien family living
within Laos; this type of motivation has disappeared, and both the
scholars of minority languages and the native speakers are (frankly)
still in a period of post-war adjustment.

Consider, also, that the refugee camps provided educational materials
translated into these myriad minority languages (on a shoestring
budget, with hand-drawn illustrations, etc.), whereas the
Australian-funded national education system of Laos provides nothing
of the kind for any language (other than Lao). Having spent many
hours with textbooks of this kind (sometimes published by photocopier,
etc.) I would point out that a future historian might find it absurd
that refugee camps produced better textbooks (for many of these
languages) than the Communist government of Laos or China in a period
of relative peace and prosperity.

An image from the current generation of the refugee camps in the golden triange (in 2012). See: http://damirsagolj.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/voices-of-myanmar-refugees-2/

The prospects for the endangered languages “at the bottom” have
shifted around with the geopolitics “at the top”. The older
generation in Laos today has lived through the disappearance of
French, Russian and German as prestige languages. Despite the
geographic distances involved, links to East Germany had been
especially strong (under the Schwesternationen system, with German-run
colleges and factories in Vientiane), whereas contact with China was
almost nil due to the hostilities of the Sino-Soviet split. Through
their recent economic reintegration into their own continent, the
various peoples of Laos have rediscovered nearby “giant” languages
(that seemed so distant during the Cold War era), such as Chinese,
Burmese, even Japanese, and so on.

Foreign donors need to sympathize with the fact that the younger
generation may sincerely aspire to learn a major language such as
Chinese, and to visit China (etc.), rather than devoting their lives
to the language of the village that they happen to have been born in.
Whereas international volunteers (myself included) made a choice to
study obscure languages, people born into these circumstances never
made any such choice, and instead have to struggle with various routes
to bilingualism, trilingualism, etc., just to have access to basic
social services (the electricity bill is written in Lao, and the
nearest dentist may speak only Vietnamese, and so on).

In terms of actionable advice, (1) it is clear to me that a very small
charity could make a positive contribution to the status of any of the
endangered languages of the region through the same type of cultural
activities that I have mentioned the new Shan script as now
(commercially) engaged in. In terms of an affordable, effective
intervention (with few negative side-effects) it has to be said that
funding Karaoke videos in the target language is hard to beat —and it
does not require the type of government involvement that brought
disaster upon the Khmu film project mentioned.

(2) For charities working with a larger budget, or on a larger scale,
the clear challenge is to provide parallel educational materials that
supplement whatever forms of upward social mobility already exist in
the given society. It is clearly impossible for a person who speaks
Khmu to learn chemistry in Khmu only; however, it would be genuinely
meaningful if they were able to study subjects of this kind with the
Khmu language in parallel, and this might avoid the trap of the
younger generation only being able to discuss “simple things” in their
grandparents’ tongue, while relying on the language of the state for
the adult realm of discourse (about commercial and political affairs,
etc.). [End.]