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Language in Laos

Language in Laos

Language is an important part of every society, also in Laos. Learning a bit of Lao will be appreciated by the locals and many people will be happy and might even laugh if a foreigner tries to speak their language. A bit more information about language in Laos on this page.

Lao

Lao (or Laotian) is the official language of the Lao PDR. Most Lao speakers are actually living in Thailand in the area named Isan (or Isaan) and are ethnic Lao people in Thailand. The Lao script is also connected to the Thai script but there are differences. Most Lao people are able to understand, read and talk Thai. Laos has five different ‘dialects’ but ethnic Lao people can normally understand each other, although some words change in different parts of the country and the language is not officially standardised. Although there is no official standard, the dialect spoken in Vientiane  became the ‘de facto’ standard. Lao has six different tones. The tones are important and the meaning of words can change completely if the tone is different. Lao is spoken by about 20 to 25 milion native speakers in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Other Asian languages in Laos

Lao is not the only language spoken in Laos and the estimates are that between 70 to 120 other languages are also spoken by different ethnic groups in the country. Compared to the population of under 7 milion people Laos has a lot of languages spoken by its people and a lot of diversity. It means Lao is a second language for many people in Laos as well. Not all citizens in Laos are able to speak Lao but the younger generation is more likely to be able to communicate in Lao language with Lao people who are not able to speak their language. In the countryside (and the remote areas of Laos) with many ethnic non-Lao people it might sometimes be difficult to find people who speak Lao. Thai is understood by many in Laos because Thai TV is popular in the country and Thai music is heard everywhere as well. Vietnamese is a language also spoken by many people within Laos and especially in the border areas with Vietnam and at the markets you can hear a lot of Vietnamese. Chinese and southern Chinese dialects and languages are heard more and more in the country because of Chinese people migrating to Laos, especially in the north of the country the importance of the Chinese language is growing.

French

Some people (especially French tourists) think that many people speak French in Laos because it used to be a French colony until 1953, but the fact is that French is not understood or spoken by most of the people in Lao and never expanded its influence to the lower educated people of the country. The language is used by the government sometimes as a second language for limited purposes but replaced by English many times. People who went to school before the revolution in 1975 have sometimes learnt a bit of French but for most people the knowledge never became more than just a few words. Some older people do speak French but many of the people who had better positions (and higher education) before the revolutuon left the country. In Luang Prabang, Pakse and Vientiane you might still meet some older people who like to speak some French with you and are happy to practise the language they’ve learned a long time ago. Some younger people study French and Laos is member of l’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (International Organisation of La Francophonie in English), an organization representing countries and regions where French is the first or customary language, where a significant proportion of the population are French speakers or where there is a notable affiliation with French culture.

English

This language is the prefered language of many children to learn as a foreign language and the language mostly used in tourism as well. English is also the official language of the South East Asian ASEAN countries and you can find several language schools/ centres in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet. Still English is not spoken by many people and especially outside more touristy areas in the most tourist places of the country you will have to search long to find someone who can speak English (if you can find someone at all).

German, Russian, Spanish and other languages

German, Bulgarian, Polish and Spanish is spoken by a small group of people who studied in these countries in the 1970s and 1980s (and some Lao students still go to Cuba to study) but don’t expect to meet many people who are able to speak the languages mentioned. Russian is spoken by more people (also many who work for the government) because the former Soviet Union provided many scholarships for Lao citizens. The language is losing ground now because the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. In 2014 the relations between Laos and Russia were renewed and 200 students went to study in Russia. There is a Russian Embassy School in Vientiane and their are plans for another Russian school in the capital. Small numbers of Lao students study or studied in South Korea and Japan.

Some words and phrases in Lao

Learn some Lao! It’s a fun way to interact with locals and surely some people will appreciate your efforts! A phrasebook is always easy and nice…

General:

hello – sabaidee
goodbye (good luck) – sohk dee
yes – doi (polite) or euh
no – baw
thank you –  kop chai
thank you very much – kop chai lai lai
you’re welcome, no problem – baw pen yang
how much? – thao dai?
what is your name? – chao seu nyang?
my name is… – Koi seu…
foreigner (literally Frenchman) – falang

Food & Drinks:

water – nam
drinking water – nam deum
beer – bia
rice – khao
bread -khao jii
coffee – kafeh
fish – paa
chicken – khai

On to road etc.:

toilet/ bathroom – hong nam
temple – wat
street – thanon
small side street – soi
village – baan
island – don
mountain – phou
waterfall – nam tok taat
market – talaat

Numbers:

1 – neung
2 – sowng
3 – saam
4 – si
5 – haa
6 – hok
7 – jet
8 – paet
9 – kao
10 – sip
11 – sip et
12 – sip sawng …. etc
20 – sao
21 – sao et
22 – sao sowng
30 – saam sip
40 – si sip
50 – haa sip
60 – hok sip
70 – jet sip
80 – paet sip
90 – kao sip
100 – neung hoy (or ‘loy’)
200 – sowng loy
1,000 – neung phan
10,000 – sip pan/ neung meun
20,000 – sao pan
30,000 – sam sip pan
100,000 – neung sen
200,000 – sowng sen
250,000 – sowng sen ha sip pan
500,000 – ha sen
1,000,000 – neung lan
10,000,000 – sip lan
100,000,000 – hoy lan
1,000,000,000 – pan lan/ neung tue