In Laos, the official language is Lao. But official language aside, there is a horde of other languages they speak. English is one of these languages that locals speak. However, locals may not speak English as much as they speak Lao.
Laos has about 86 documented languages so far. But the most common of these is Lao.
The other languages are those used by its many ethnic groups.
French and English are also common languages in the country.
Lao’s other name is Laotian.
This is the official and the most dominant language of the country.
Over the years, there have been many migrations and conflicts that happened in Laos. This resulted in the ethnic compositions of Laos that we see today.
Lao is one of the tonal languages in the Southeast Asian region.
The language is further subdivided into dialects. These are Southern Lao, Vientiane Lao, and Western Lao. There are also dialects like Central and Northeastern Lao, as well as Northern Lao.
Out of these many dialects, it is Vientiane Lao that is widely understood. It is this dialect that served as a foundation to all the other dialects.
One should also note that many of these languages in Laos are quite similar to Thailand’s. Some of these are Tai Daeng, Phu Thai, Tai Dam, and Nyaw.
Lao and Thai share a huge amount of similarities when it comes to their vocabulary.
As years passed, Lao was able to absorb many other influences. These are Pali, Thai, and the language of the Khmer.
The Khmer script’s influence in Lao has its attributes to the Theravada Buddhists. These Buddhists visited the country on a mission to spread Buddhism in the land.
Many of these Lao dialects have six tones.
As of this time, about half of the population speaks Lao. About 3.3 million individuals can speak the language all over the world.
Aside from Laos, the northern part of Thailand also speaks a certain level of Lao. The same is true in some parts of Cambodia, France, and Australia. The US and Canada also have smaller communities that speak the language.
The Foreign Languages of Laos
As we all know, a smaller number of people in Laos speak foreign languages. These are mostly French and English.
In previous years, France was one of the countries that had a stronghold and influence in Asia.
Vietnam is one of the countries in the region that was able to retain French influence.
The French arrived in Laos in the 19th century. This resulted in the spread of the French language. In 1890, Laos became a French protectorate.
Over the years, the French language became more and more popular. In the first part of the 20th century, the language reached its highest popularity in the land.
By then, the French language was the most preferred among the elites. This was also the language preferred by those with higher professions and the elders. The same goes for the diplomats.
As of today, Laos has the second greatest number of Francophone locals in Asia.
With the French finally leaving Laos, another language threatened the former’s dominance. This is the English language.
As of today, the English language is primarily used in many of the country’s educational systems.
This level of eagerness is especially found in the younger generations. And as the years passed, the English language is fast becoming highly regarded. The English language has now become the language of global commerce.
The English language is now a compulsory course. It is taught in many of Laos’s educational institutions.
Just like the French language, English has dominated Laos in the past decades. The boost in the country’s tourism industry has also ensured the survival of this language.
English is common and understood by many locals. Much of the population of Vientiane speaks the language. The same is true when it comes to other touristy areas.
The country’s older generation learned the English language from the Vietnam War. The younger generation, on the other hand, learned English from school.
Both the English and French languages are common in Laos’s countryside.
What is the most common language in Laos?
Lao is the most dominant language of Laos. The language is from a family of Tai languages. Its cousins are the languages widely spoken in the neighboring countries.
The Lao language, as earlier discussed, has major dialects.
The first of these dialects is the Vientiane Lao. The dialect is common in the city of Vientiane and Bolikhamsai.
The second major dialect is Northern Lao. This is common in Luang Prabang, Sainyabuli, and Oudomxay.
There is also the dialect of the Northeastern Lao or commonly known as Tai Phuan. This is widely spoken in the areas of Xieng Khouang and Houaphanh.
Central Lao, on the other hand, is common in Savannakhet and Khammouane.
Finally, we have the Southern Lao dialect. This is dominant in the Champasak, Salavan, and Attapeu regions.
This is not official. But when it comes to the dominance of dialects, Vientiane Lao seems to be sitting on top.
Most of the Lao vocabulary has its roots in this dialect. And about 52% of the population of Laos speaks the dialect.
Worldwide, there are about 3.3 million who can speak Vientiane Lao.
There are six tones in the Lao dialect.
There are the low, mid, high, and rising tones. There are also the high falling and low falling tones.
A word may sound similar. But the differences in tones separate one similar word from the other. It is the tone that differentiates the meaning of a word, no matter how similar they sound.
For an untrained ear, this may be hard to decipher.
Similar to other languages, Lao has its very own alphabet.
In the Lao alphabet, there are 28 vowel sounds. In the writing system, the 28 vowel sounds stem from its mix of any of the 26 consonant and 18 vowel symbols.
Lao is also used as a second language for many ethnic groups.
Each of these groups has languages of its own. Such ethnic groups make sure to learn the Lao language. This ensures that they can communicate with outsiders.
The Minor Languages
Aside from Lao, there are also other minor languages in the country. In fact, there are more than 80 of them to date.
The most common of these minor languages are the Khmu and Hmong languages. Other minor languages are Akha, Arem, Bana, and Katu. There are also Ksingmul, Lamet, Phai, and Tai Daeng. Finally, there is Phu Thai and Tai Dam.
Aside from them, there are other not-so-popular minor languages.
This is the largest ethnic community in the country.
With 500,000 speakers, this is perhaps one of the most popular of the minor languages. Such a language is common in the five provinces of the north. These are Bokeo, Luang, Prabang, Luangnam Tha, Oudomxay, and Phongsaly.
The language is different from the others in many ways. One of these is because of the influence of the neighboring regions.
The language is also different in its number of consonants. Additionally, the Khmu language possesses a lexical range.
The lexical range makes this language easy to understand. But this also makes it more difficult. This is for speakers to communicate with people in other regions.
The locals of these five provinces usually speak about three or four languages. These languages are in addition to Khmu.
But the locals speak Lao when dealing with the representatives of the government. The same is true when they communicate in school or when talking with people from the south.
The communities in the mountains of Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar speak Hmong.
The Hmong language is further subdivided into two: The White Hmong and the Green or Blue Hmong. Locally, people refer to the White Hmong as Hmong Daw and the Green/Blue Hmong as Hmong Njua.
Hmong Daw is the more dominant of the two. Its writing system comes with eight or twelve sounds. All these reflect the tones of the Hmong Daw dialect.
Although spoken mostly by neighboring communities, both of these Hmong dialects have differences.
The first difference is in its vocabulary. The second is in their pronunciation. Then, there are also differences in word structure and grammar.
Locals who speak Hmong also speak Lao to communicate with outsiders.
What are the essential phrases to learn when visiting Laos?
Even if one can communicate in French or English in Laos, it is of essence to learn a few basic phrases. Some of these are Saibaidee for Hello or Khop Jai for Thank you. These phrases, while simple, help send the message across to locals.
It would be hard for anyone to understand all those squiggly alphabets of Lao. But this does not mean one cannot communicate with the locals.
There are a few phrases one can learn to win the favor of the people of Laos.
Lao words do not have any official transliteration to the alphabet we use. And one might see the same words with similar sounds spelled differently every time.
There are a few grammar rules. The Lao language also does not require proper usage of punctuation. Spaces do not even hold much bearing in the language.
For a native English speaker, this may be hard.
But here are a few phrases you could learn.
Hello – Saibaidee
The usual greeting in Laos is saibaidee (suh-bye-dee). Bow with your hands pressed together at the chest just like you do it in Thailand.
If you want to say, “How are you?” you only need to say, “Jao saibaidee baw?”
If it is “Good morning,” it should be “saibaidee ton sao.” But if you want to say “Good evening,” it should be “Saibaidee nyam leng.”
Thank you – Khop Jai
“Khop jai” or “khop chai” means “Thank you” in Lao.
If you want to say “Thank you very much,” you should say “Khop jai lai lai” or “Khop jai deu.” When people in Laos thank you, your response should be, “Baw pen nyang.”
Yes/No – Doi or Men/Baw
When in Laos, it is common to hear people say, “Doi, doi, doi.” This is a local’s way of agreeing in the conversation.
Another way to affirm is to say, “Men.”
“Baw” means “No”.
Goodbye – La Gon
A form of goodbye in Laos, when translated into the English language, means “stay well”. In Laos, people say “La gon” to anyone leaving.
Customs in Laos requires that you always have to look for the host when you attend a party before you go.
Either one can wave goodbye or bow with hands together.
Not too spicy – Baw Pet
Asian food can be too spicy for the Western palate most of the time.
When in Laos, you may need to say “Baw pet” most times.
A lot of food in Laos and neighboring countries in the region uses 10 to 20 chili peppers at one time.
Pepper in Lao is “Mak pet”.
If you want it spicier, you can tell the cook you want “pet noy nung”.
Water – Nam
One of the things travelers should remember is that tap water is not that safe in Laos.
Even the locals do not drink tap water.
Nam is what you say when you want some water.
And when they give you water in a pitcher or a jug, fear not. As mentioned, even the locals do not drink tap water.
One is assured that water in a jug is not from the tap.
Delicious – Sep
“Sep” is the equivalent of delicious in Laos.
If you just had something delicious, this is the word to use. “Sep lai” is another phrase you can use with the same meaning.
Very expensive – Pheng lai
Common in these parts of the globe, this phrase is useful when in night markets and bazaars.
You can always ask the merchants to lower the price. When you want to tell them that the item is expensive, you say “Pheng lai”.
Usually, the merchants would give you a discount of about 10 to 15%.
Be mindful, however, of too much haggling. Locals do not appreciate haggling too much.
At the end of the day, one should understand that the merchants get their livelihood from selling. And no, they are not trying to rip tourists off.