One of our most rewarding days in Luang Prabang was spent visiting the Big Sister Mouse school, a 20 minute or so drive outside of the city. On the Sunday evening we had popped by the Big Brother Mouse centre in town and spent 2 hours helping teenagers and young adults practise their English.
Essentially, Big Brother Mouse was set up by a New England American, Sasha, a retired publisher who first visited Laos in 2003 and was shocked to hear the message “Lao people don’t read” i.e. outside of reading text books. Since then, he has worked to change that philosophy in conjunction with various local Lao people. Roll on a few years and Big Brother Mouse has been set up as a Lao-owned not for profit business complete with a publishing licence (apparently the only such licence outside of the capital, Vientiane). As well as publishing a few books, they run book parties when they take books into villages and have started to get children reading (the standard Laos school teaching style is for children to read text books by rote and then in exams, the children just recite passages off by heart: when I heard this, this struck a chord with me: it was pretty much exactly what I had seen in Nepal when we were doing voluntary work just outside of Pokhara). And the ultimate goal of Big Brother Mouse is to help change Laos from a country where people don’t read into a country where people love books which, baby step by baby step, is a goal I can see that they might achieve: apparently to date, over 200,000 Lao children have received their first book because of this organisation. Check them out at www.bigbrothermouse.com
In addition to getting books out to the villages, the centre also hosts English practice sessions which is how we got involved. When we visited, there were only boys in attendance which was a bit of a shame; when I asked why there were no girls, I was told they were too shy. That aside however, you couldn’t fault the enthusiasm of the students: some had travelled quite far and all on the off chance that foreign tourists would turn up and give up a bit of their holiday time to volunteer and chat with them. The range of language abilities was wide and you had to be a bit careful not to let the ones with better English dominate but everyone was so polite and grateful that it was an entirely positive experience. And you felt like you were helping even in such a short period of time.
So much so that we signed up for a full day’s volunteering at the Big Sister Mouse, the organisation’s new school which runs classes from pre school through to grade 4 and also has a boarding section for a few young adults who want to learn English and continue their studies.
After a quick briefing at the school but still not entirely knowing what to expect, we opened a door into the pre-school class which was complete mayhem as about 35 three year olds basically hurled themselves at us hugging our legs making it impossible to walk. As soon as you peeled off one little rug rat another tiny limpet took hold, each one with their head thrown back a full 90 degrees so they could stare upwards at us: to be fair they were undeniably cute if slightly out of control. We’d been told that we were to use some rather basic flash cards which had English words on them, the idea being that the kids would repeat the words back to you and thereby start to hear and get used to English words. Great idea in principle bit frankly it was hard enough getting the children to sit down and keep still let alone have them carefully repeat words after you. I’ve never really experienced anything like it but it was hysterical fun as they ran riot but I am not convinced we succeeded in achieving very much.
But what a difference a year makes. The next 2 classes up (4 and 5 year olds) were a whole different experience. Hats off to the pre-school teachers who somehow manage to install some sort of discipline. In these classes, they were all calmly sitting in a big circle when we joined each of them and then they all joined in a game of “Big Sister Mouse says….” which is the same as “Simon says” e.g. “Big Sister Mouse says put your hands on your head” and they pretty much all dutifully followed the instructions. Not entirely peacefully it has to be said although Peter did at one point try “Big Sister Mouse says put your hand on your mouth” to see if that might reduce noise levels a little. A cunning plan indeed. We also enjoyed a little more success with our flash cards with these groups and it seemed as though the children were really trying as they made perfect round mouth shapes when trying to say words such as “owl”. Very cute stuff.
The Lao language is tonal and doesn’t have many of the sounds that we have in the English alphabet e.g. no double consonants, their words don’t end in vowels, they don’t really have plurals (which means the “s” is often dropped at the end of English words, both for this reason and the fact they don’t use consonants at the end of their words). In addition, in Lao they don’t really do tenses (apparently you just pick these up from the context) and they also don’t use definite and indefinite articles which again means these are often dropped when they are trying to speak English (again, this was similar to my experience in Nepal).
And just to put it in context we were given a little example of how the Lao tones work: one word can have 3 or 4 different meanings depending on the pitch of the speaker’s voice (which itself can, of course, vary from speaker to speaker). So we were taken through a few examples of how one word can be pronounced in 4 different ways and then asked which word was being said. This was like one of those hearing tests when I think I hear the click rather than the actual sound and just had to make a wild guess in the dark, perhaps 1 sound or maybe 2 sounded slightly different but as for the last couple, all I could hear were absolutely identical words! We had no chance. And yet at the same time, here we were trying to get people to distinguish in English between the “r”, “v” and “w” sounds which frankly they were doing quite well at: our short introduction to the Lao tones certainly gave us a little food for thought.
As well as at the primary school, we also helped out in the junior school, again with small groups going through English words and trying to form a few sentences. To ensure that learning is kept fun, the short lessons are interspersed with “dancing sessions” in which the children line up in rows and follow specific actions to various songs including that old favourite, the Hokey Cokey. This all adds to the incredibly positive atmosphere that there is at this school and is a far cry from just learning by rote and having children endlessly (and somewhat boringly) repeat things. Ok it was pretty exhausting and at times, we did question what we had let ourselves in for, but all in all, it was a huge amount of fun for us too.
As well as working with the children, we also had some sessions with the young adults who stay at the centre and are here to improve their English language skills. This was a mixed group of girls and boys although again, the boys tended to dominate and the girls were more shy. Although we only began to scratch the surface, it was interesting to hear some of their life stories including how some of them had moved from the rural areas in the hope of finding work and getting better jobs in the future. As to why many of them wanted to learn English, the response ranged from wanting to be a tour guide (and being able to go anywhere) to English being so important as the international language and therefore an absolute necessity to learn. While some schools do still teach French here and apparently some older government officials are possibly a little more familiar with French than English, the importance of French is gradually being eradicated as English has almost completely taken over.