How many languages do you speak? How many writing systems do you master? Many languages exist in written form, the letters I am using for this English article for example come from the Latin alphabet. Other languages have different writing systems, such as Lao, which uses the Lao script and looks like this: ຄົນລາວ. Traveling through Laos in 2018, I got to meet Xai and Alex from the Iu-Mien-tribe. We practiced English together, which is their 3rd language so far.
Traveling through the area of Vang Vieng, I was looking out for organic farms and places to volunteer. I wanted to contribute to the local community and learn about the ecosystem in the area. This is how I came to the Organic Farm Vang Vieng which was founded by “Mr. T.” in 1996 and now run by Haiyone and Duangkeo.
I got to meet Duangkeo (also called Keo) when I stayed at the farm. She took the time to tell me about the farm’s history, gave me the opportunity to help and learn for a day and introduced me to Alex and Xai, two boys from the local tribe Iu Mien.
Alex and Xai from the Iu-Mien-tribe
When it comes to the total number of local tribes in Laos, there are different opinions: According to Keo, Laos is home to 68 tribes altogether. The World Factbook, published by the CIA, speaks about 49 officially recognized ethnic groups but an estimation of more than 200 in reality. In any case, one of those tribes is called Iu Mien, whose people live in China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Staying and helping at the organic farm, I got to meet two members: Alex and Xai.
Keo asked me to help by teaching some English to the boys. During the day, they work in the fields. If they learn the international lingua franca, they have more possibilities for how to make a living. This is how I got the chance to meet them; we had a nice evening at the farm, practicing what is their third language so far.
Their 3rd writing system
Growing up, Alex and Xai acquired their local language, the Iu Mien language. The Iu Mien writing system is close to Chinese and very hard to learn for Iu Mien speakers. At school, the boys learned Lao, the national language, which looks like this: ຄົນລາວ.
Being fluent in two languages at a young age, they now start learning English for getting equipped to make a living in the tourism sector. Since English uses the latin alphabet, this is the third writing system they get familiar with. We practiced some common phrases they might be asked from travelers, such as “Do you speak English?” – “A little bit.” or “How much is it?” – “One thousand Kib.”
Cultural imperialism vs. empowering education
Experiences like these always have a little bit of a bad aftertaste for me. Teaching locals English – the current international lingua franca – seems like a very egoistic measure. If you spin this thought further, you teach a local society something which makes it easier to earn their money in tourism. That is, to serve tourists so that we – the “western” world have a more convenient time there, exploring (and exploiting) their country.
Cultural imperialism in connection to tourism is a largely discussed topic in some circles, others hear about it for the first time, which is why it is so important to me to mention it at this point. If your response to that is “well, that’s how globalization works” or “We cannot do anything about that”, I disagree. It is up to all of us to shape the future in a positive way. Traveling with the expectation that everyone in a developing country should speak English to serve you as a tourist is not one of them.
Education can make a difference though for sure, that is one of my strongest beliefs. The question is: What do you want to teach and why? I love the example of the “Solar Mamas” in Erwin Wagenhofer’s film But Beautiful: At the Indian Barefoot College, women from all over the world can receive an education to install solar plants in their own local community.
The women go through a training program and, after graduation from Barefoot College, go back to their villages in 92 countries worldwide to build sustainable ways of gaining power and facilitating an independent lifestyle for innumerable people. That is a great example of education for empowerment, isn’t it?
Saying my goodbyes
After an hour of studying together, time has come to say our goodbyes. It has been dark for a while and Alex and Xai have an early day tomorrow. Thank you, the 2 of you, for sharing your evening with me and being so curious about the English language! All the best to you, use your new skills wisely 🙂
Photos & Text: Kerstin Schachinger
- more about the Organic Farm near Vang Vieng
- more memory bubbles from Laos 2018
- more memory bubbles from Asia