One of my favorite stories to tell is about the first year of my marriage to Thip, when I tried to study the Thai language. It took me a while before realizing that I was boning up on the wrong language. Thip and most of the people of The Isaan really speak a form of Lao, not Thai!
Isaan Lao incorporates a lot of Thai, though, so my usual response, in
when asked if I can speak Lao is:
“Wow Lao bo-dai!” (speak Lao cannot!)
This usually cracks everyone up.
I follow this up quickly with some clarification:
“Sah-peak Thai nit-noy, nit-noy, nit-noy (speak Thai a little, a little, a little). Sah-peak Lao nit-noy, nit-noy (speak Lao a little, a little – better than Thai). Sah-peak Isaan nit-noy. (speak Isaan Lao a little – best of the three).”
Although a very crudely simple statement, it contains a lot more information than one would think at first glance. It effectively communicates to people that I know there is a difference between the three and that I am focusing on Isaan Lao first, Lao second and Thai third. That somewhat endears me to Lao people as I let them know that Isaan and Lao are close, linguistically, and my focus is on Lao before
Thai. I always get a favorable
response to this.
Very handy for me has been a pocket-size dictionary/phrasebook entitled “Lao-English, English-Lao Romanized” by James Higbie. Really, I wouldn’t be very interesting to Lao people for very long without this very-portable book. There are no Lao fonts used, but rather half the book is Lao as it is written in English translated into written English. The other half is English translated into what the Lao word sounds like in English. It is a fantastic resource and helps me especially when I get stuck in trying to communicate or understand the gist of a particularly interesting Lao conversation.