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At a glance: Lao People's Democratic Republic

UNICEF helps children overcome language barriers at schools in Lao PDR

‘Schools of Quality’

© UNICEF Lao PDR/2009
Chapa Sutcha, nine-years-old, with classmates at their primary school where they are learning Lao.

By Simon Ingram

TAMY VILLAGE, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 2 March 2010 – Breakfast in the household of a rice farmer named Mr. Sutcha is a hearty affair that includes grilled fish cooked over a fire, a mound of sticky rice, and fresh spring onions dipped in a hot chilli sauce. It’s the kind of sustenance that Mr. Sutcha’s eldest daughter, Chapa, 9, needs for the school day ahead of her.

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Conversation around the low dinner table inside the family’s wooden stilt home is carried on in Akha, one of dozens of tongues that make up the complex linguistic and ethnic quilt that is modern-day Laos. It is the dominant language in this remote mountain area close to the border with China. 

But when Chapa and her friends enter the little school building on the outskirts of Tamy village, they must switch to Lao, the country’s official language, which is used for the entire primary school curriculum. To most Akha children, Lao is as foreign as English or French, and the challenge of learning it can deter parents from sending their children to school at all.

Opportunity for an education

This language barrier is a challenge that the Lao PDR Government has had to address, especially in places like Tamy. The village’s school is one of over 1,100 schools applying a UNICEF-backed strategy to improve the quality of primary education in Lao PDR. A key principle of this ‘Schools of Quality’ approach is that no children, including those from ethnic backgrounds, should miss out on the opportunity for an education.

© UNICEF Lao PDR/2009
Chapa Sutcha, 9, is the only child in her family currently going to school.

According to Bunthieng Keovanglart, the District Education Advisor responsible for the Tamy village school, pragmatism is the best way to ensure that ethnic children surmount the language barrier in the classroom.

“Of course, Lao is the official language in school,” says Mr. Keovanglart. “But ethnic languages are very important in the classroom, especially for grade-one and grade-two students, as these children cannot speak Lao at all. Teachers must have at least a basic knowledge of the local language before they can start teaching in schools like Tamy.”

Importance of being bilingual

It is in this context that bilingual teachers like Ms. Sano, one of three permanent staff at the school, are such an important asset.

The 26-year-old teacher is herself Akha and didn’t start learning Lao until she was a teenager. With the bilingual skills she possesses, she can help students such as Chapa gain the confidence in speaking, reading and writing in Lao – which will be essential for her to have choices outside the confines of the community.

“If someone understands Lao language, they can travel around the country to study or to work,” Ms. Sano explains. “But anyone who can’t speak Lao is unable to communicate with other people, so they have to stay in their own village or work in the fields.”

‘I like going to school’

One new feature of the Tamy school – introduced as part of the Schools of Quality approach – are the little bamboo reading huts set up in the playground. Groups of children gather in them after school hours to read or sing together in the Lao language. The setting is both informal and supportive, and Chapa now says that learning Lao is her favourite subject at school.

“I like going to school,” she says. ”The teachers are nice and I have many friends there.”

Her father is also newly optimistic about her future: “We want her not just to finish primary school but to go on to the district [secondary] school later, as well,” he says. “That way, she will have a good future.”




UNICEF correspondent Simon Ingram reports on efforts to help children overcome language barriers in Lao PDR.
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