By Patrick Kennedy
When you first start learning a language, everything is challenging, and both the Lao and Thai languages are considered hard languages to learn in particular, since the alphabets for each look very exotic to westerners, and since they are both tonal languages. First of all, both languages are interrelated – there is a significant overlap between the two languages in terms of the same or similar alphabetic symbols, as well as many common words between the two languages. From my experiences of studying Lao and Thai, I wanted to offer my observations and suggestions on how to study them.
Firstly, for the absolute beginner, I recommend “Easy Thai” by Gordon H. Allison and “Lao Basics” by Sam Brier. You can find both books at Amazon.com – as well as at many bookstores. Secondly, if you want to learn Thai quickly, I think you should consider a quick crash course in Laotian first. There are several reasons for this approach. First, Lao is definitely easier to learn than Thai. As the author of Easy Thai says of the Lao language:
Although the Lao language is itself considered as a separate language and not a dialect of Thai — it is true — you will find that practically speaking it is an older, more-orthographically-simple form of Thai that is relatively easy to learn for anyone….
Thus, learning Lao will make it easier to learn Thai – and, indeed, most Lao people learn Thai as they grow up, as Thai pop culture and commercial products provide both exposure to the Thai language and a general necessity to learn Thai. I recommend learning Lao first, as a crash course, even if your interests are really to learn Thai. And here are more reasons why -
1. As noted, Lao is much simpler.
2. Thai is much more complex!
3. If you know a little Lao, you will be able to speak with the Thai taxi driver better, because he probably speaks “pasa Isan” (“pasa” means language, and Isan is the Northeast region of Thailand, which was formerly a part of Laos.
4. One third of the population of Thailand speaks “pasa Isan”, which is basically “pasa Lao”!
5. You won’t be seen as a snobby foreigner learning Thai — the Thai Isan and Lao people will really appreciate it!
6. Again, the two language are largely interrelated, but Lao will help simplify your future Thai studies.
7. Both books are very slim – about a 100 pages each – so, studying Lao can be a real crash course!
8. The author of the Thai Easy book encourages the student to learn the alphabet as quickly as possible – it’s harder if you go too slow! Thus, if you want to learn Thai, learn Lao rapidly, then move on to the Thai book.
9. The Lao Basics book has an audio CD to help learn the alphabet and basic vocabulary, whereas there is no audio CD for the Easy Thai book.
Finally, as Sam Brier in the Lao Basics book says:
Thank you Gordon Allison, the author of Easy Thai — the book that Lao Basics is modeled after. I found Easy Thai in a Bangkok bookstore and quickly saw that it simplified what seemed to me a very complex language. After using it to grasp the basics of Thai in a rather short period of time, I thought to myself, ‘If there were only a book like this for learning Lao.’ Unable to find one, I decided to write it myself.
Indeed, Sam Brier was right, and to a larger degree, his book is a clearer distillation of Gordon Allison’s approach for the Lao language, and if you study Sam’s book rapidly, you will have the basic keys to learning Thai, as well as having the rudimentary skills of speaking “pasa Isan” with a third of the population of Thailand (20 million people!), along with speaking Lao with about 6.5 million Lao people in Laos! Having established our learning approach, let’s move on!
Now the fun part, study the Lao Basics book for about a month, then move on to the Easy Thai book. If your goal is just to learn Lao, then obviously study the Lao Basics book for several months. But even if your primary goal is to study Lao, keep on going and eventually study the Thai language. The Isan people in Thailand are Thais (and also speak Thai), and you should say certain Thai expressions, such as “thank you” in Thai as you speak “pasa Isan”. Moreover, you will have a much fuller regional background if you study Thai. So, it just makes sense to learn both languages, as they will strengthen your linguistic skills in Thai and Lao, along with the shared cultural knowledge you will gain in the Southeast Asian area as you study these interrelated languages.
When it is time to start studying the Easy Thai book, you will be happy you started with the Lao book first. The reason why is that Lao has 26 consonants and 28 vowels, whereas Thai has 44 consonants and 32 basic vowels! Moreover, the Thai characters tend to be more ornate, and many are used frequently, while other Thai characters are used less frequently. It will greatly aid your studies of these two S/E Asian languages by learning Lao first (or eventually), which will provide essential shortcuts into the inter-workings of these two interrelated languages. Also, as noted, the Lao Basics book does an even better job of presenting the Lao language, has an audio CD, and will give you the essential shortcuts to really understand the Thai Easy book, which is a little older in it’s English expressions and typefaces and lacks an audio CD.
Even if you have already been studying Thai for a while, I think you will benefit greatly from studying some Lao language for many of the reasons already stated. As for myself, I have studied Lao for well over a year and a half now, and I am just beginning into my Thai studies. After buying several books on Thai and feeling completely lost and confused, I decided to purchase the book mentioned by Sam Brier in Lao Basics, because it must have been a very seminal work for Thai language studies. Indeed, Easy Thai is such a great book for the very complicated Thai language. And if you acquire both books, I think you will have a solid basis to learn both of these fascinating and interrelated Southeast Asian languages.
Sook dii (good luck) and enjoy your studies!
(Pardon any mistakes and typos – I prepared this text rapidly, and I’m not using any good speller-checker software in its creation. Feel free to send any comments, and I will update the text accordingly.)
Last week I rode my brand new bicycle from Arlington to DC, which is only about 2 or 3 miles away, to finally see the famous cherry blossoms trees in full bloom. For several years now, I have thought it would be cool to see them personally during their blooming. Having studied some Japanese language in the past, I was aware of the history of the cherry blossom trees, being a gift from a Tokyo Mayor in 1912 to the United States of America as a gift of friendship between our two countries. As I am currently studying Laotian at the Foreign Language Institute, this was the perfect time if ever to see them, so I jumped on my bike and rode down to the Washington Mall.
It was a Sunday morning, and it turned out to be a very cold and gray day. My hands were freezing as I tried to snap the best shots possible. I only had my Google Nexus Android phone with me, and I wasn’t prepared for the cold weather, as it had been warmer for several days leading up to the weekend. As a result, most of the pictures didn’t turn out so well, but as picky and persistent as I was, there were a few that were truly spectacular.
Perhaps one day I will see some cherry blossom trees in Japan as well, which I am sure would also be classic. However, for now, I am more than captivated with what I saw. I’d like to share a few beautiful pictures from that day with you. Feel free to click on them for a full size viewing.
First of all, I think the Japanese are doing a tremendous job in the face of an epic earthquake and nuclear crisis. Granted, it might take months to mitigate the current nuclear situation and it’s associated risks. By design, the overall radioactive output should be limited, even as current events are still unfolding in a less than ideal manner. Hopefully the situation can be contained as quickly as possible. But even if it is not fully contained for months, or even several years, nuclear energy remains a future reality that the world must face.
Japan’s earthquake caused a nuclear nightmare, to be sure, but the Japanese authorities should – overall – be commended on the handling of the crisis in the wake of the epic 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Many people are understandably clamoring to ban nuclear energy as a result, and many takeaway lessons will be learned – including how to design nuclear plants that are even safer.
There is a fundamental, worldwide problem looming in the not-too-distant future: the world is running out of oil. What is the world going to do when when it runs out? In a world rapidly running out of oil, it will not be feasible to ban nuclear energy. It’s more of a question of how best to manage it. It might not be desirable in all cases, or even appropriate in some locales, but in a world running out of oil, nuclear energy is realpolitik. You have to deal with the world as it really is. You might want to change the world, but that takes time. When more suitable energy sources and technologies make nuclear energy less than ideal, only then can we move beyond nuclear energy as a viable energy alternative.
According to USA Today 1, the United States gets 37.3% of it’s energy needs from oil, 24.7% from natural gas, 20.9% from coal, 8.8% from nuclear energy, and just over 8% from other sources. Seems like nuclear energy doesn’t really matter all that much, except that the world is running out of oil.
To get some context, the oil industry began about 150 years ago in the United States, in a little town in Pennsylvania called Titusville. In fact, it was in 1859 when the first oil well in Titusville produced 25 barrels of oil. Amazingly, world oil supplies have peaked today – that is, in the year 2010 or so – and world oil capacity will be exhausted sometime in the next century. With energy demand soaring, including rapidly expanding regions in Asia, such as China, this is a serious worldwide crisis with global ramifications.
With that in mind, let’s review the famous Hubbert Curve 2. In 1956, M. King Hubbert, a Shell Oil geologist, proposed a production curve, which has a bell-shaped curve. Production from any specific oil well would ramp up quickly as production increased and would then peak and drop back down quickly, until all the oil was exhausted from the well. Hubbert then further extrapolated his model to world oil production. The Hubbert Curve accurately predicted that the United States’ oil reserves would peak in 1970 3.
In a world running out of oil (and even natural gas), and with consumption sky rocketing around the world, what Pollyanna really believes that nuclear energy will really be totally shelved? Well, maybe it will be shelved in Germany, but not for long. The ensuing energy crisis will press nuclear energy back into full production. Coal is plentiful and cheap, but when compared to oil and nuclear energy, it’s effects on the environment are far worse than oil and nuclear energy. In fact, naturally recurring radioactive elements in coal make it even worse than nuclear energy4. Indeed, we can’t even ban coal (though we should require environmental filtering of its emissions) until we start creating a more sustainable energy model. And that we must do, if we expect the world to survive for another millenium.