Written by Sam
When our Lao staff come to work with us, their English language skills are usually very limited. They may have had some lessons at school, but often that has been pushed to the back of their memory. At the Bamboo Lounge Training Restaurant, we want to try to teach our Lao staff as much English as we can, not only to improve their prospects, but also to encourage them to have confidence in themselves and their abilities.
However, with so much to learn and do at the restaurant, the usual structured, hour-long English lessons are just not feasible; there are too many distractions and jobs to get done. So we’ve found that a mixture of short bursts of English teaching, combined with talking to the staff in English where possible, is a workable way of achieving progress.
With the very new staff, a good place to start is simple ten to fifteen-minute vocabulary lessons, using fruit or vegetables for instance. All the staff have their own notebook for writing down any new words they learn. As a western staff member who does not know much Lao, I’ve found it’s helpful to take the opportunity to ask the Lao staff what the items are called in Lao as well, so that it’s more of a language exchange than a language lesson.
Another excellent implementation recently has been a laminated list on the side of the fridge, with all ingredients written in English and Lao, and also the way it’s pronounced in English written in Lao script, and vice-versa. This is incredibly useful when trying to explain what ingredients go into a dish.
The quickest way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it, and the Lao staff definitely pick up a lot just by being around the western staff speaking English to each other day in, day out. You soon realize that over time, the Lao staff can understand a lot of what you are saying; the problem is that they lack the confidence to use English themselves. Often when I cannot understand what the girls here are trying to tell me, they will use English as a last resort.
We give the Lao staff lots of encouragement and compliments when they use English and slowly but surely this pays off. Recently, a few of girls have been writing their shopping lists in English, which is great to see. Also just recently, one of the girls (who understands a lot of English) started asking the western staff how they were in the morning in English. We were quite taken aback! It was so exciting to see this development, which seems small, but must have taken a lot of courage on her part. Now she is taking customer orders and is gaining confidence in doing this.
When the Lao staff do start speaking English, it is not only great for them, but can be a hugely rewarding experience for the western staff as well. Talking to Korly, who has the best grasp of English of all the Lao staff, can yield fascinating insights into Lao culture, and how Lao people think about things. Some ideas and innovations that we take for granted are completely alien concepts to someone from Luang Namtha. A couple of the western staff have recently been talking to Korly about things like space travel, the sun and the stars, which has been fun and interesting for them and for her.
Teaching English at Bamboo Lounge is a greatly rewarding and worthwhile endeavor, but like most endeavors of that nature, it is a slow process; it takes time. Luckily the Lao way of life allows for plenty of this, and that’s fine by us. If we wanted to rush everything, we might as well go back to the West.