Thursday, May 14, 2015

Laos and LOTE

Although the expansion of English is not inevitable and may even be slowing down (see entry for July 2, 2010), over the last two or three decades it has spread to the extent that many educational systems divide foreign language instruction into two categories: English; and Languages Other Than English (LOTE).

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to a university in Laos. The first time I went to that country was as a backpacker in 1990, when tourists were rare. During the visit I went down the Mekong to Savannakhet. It was a long, slow trip and the small boat was crowded, so I spent a lot of time up on deck to get fresh air. I think my two friends and myself were the only foreign passengers and when we were together below no one approached us. I suppose they were shy.

But when I was alone up on deck several people did come to speak to me. First, a guy started talking to me in fluent German. I was still young enough to remember the German I'd learnt at school and heard all about the years he had spent studying engineering in Dresden. Then two women approached me in Russian. Having studied it before visiting the Soviet Union a few years before I was able to follow much of what they told me about being medical students in Moscow. Later, someone chatted to me in Czech. Although my Czech was limited to a few months of evening classes I was surprised how much I was able to understand about his job at laboratory in Prague. And then someone addressed me in Hungarian and I reached my limit! But fortunately the guy who had been in East Germany translated for us.

This experience intrigued me. Far from any large cities, the passengers on this small boat looked to me like they had little international experience. No one seemed to speak English, although a few older people had some French. Yet quite a number had studied or lived overseas and languages like German, Czech and Hungarian were international languages for them. They had studied them in order to pursue overseas studies or overseas work unavailable in their poor, thinly populated homeland. It reminded me that it is often the poor, not the rich, who are the most ‘international’ as they are forced to cross borders for their livelihood, learning new languages on the way.

I had similar experiences in other parts of Southeast Asia. In those days socialist countries like Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam had close economic and political links with the Eastern Bloc, so eastern European languages, especially Russian, were important to them.

Laotions still go overseas to study and work. Some still go to Russia, and there seems to be renewed interest in France, the former colonial power. But far more go to America, Australia or the UK, and interest in English is much higher than in any other language. Many students who go to countries like Germany or Holland learn English rather than German or Dutch as they can study in it there and may be able to use it elsewhere too. Apart from Thai, which is close enough to Lao for people to understand without formal study, Chinese is the next most important language in Laos nowadays, but it can still be categorised as one of those LOTE.

The apparent decline of LOTE as international languages in Asia leaves me with mixed feelings. It’s sad that the variety of languages and cultural experiences Laotians used to get is narrowing to English-speaking cultures. On the other hand, being able to study in a variety of countries using English, rather than having to spend years learning other languages before starting to study what they want, lowers the burden for many people.