Lao (ພາສາລາວ pháa-sǎa láo) is the main language of Laos. Thai is also closely related to Lao, and the Isaan dialect spoken in the northeast is, with minor differences in vocabulary aside, virtually identical to Lao.
It is best not to try to learn Lao from local magazines, local books or the internet as they are sometimes fully Thai language (and completely not Lao). The best way to learn Lao is to learn Thai first, then learn Lao while listening to Lao people speaking.
Lao is a tonal language with six tones in the Vientiane dialect: low, mid, high, rising, high falling, and low falling. Meanings are dependent on the tone, so try not to inflect your sentences; in particular, questions should be pronounced as flat statements, without the rising intonation (“…yes?”) typical to English questions.
The script used to write Lao has the same Brahmic base as Thai and Khmer, and Thai readers will be able to figure out most of it. The Lao written language is essentially alphabetic and, thanks to extensive post-revolutionary meddling, now considerably more phonetic than Thai or Khmer. Still, there are 30 consonants, 15 vowel symbols plus 4 tone marks to learn, and the Lao also share the Thai aversion to spaces between words. Lao remains a bit of challenge to pick up, even though it is usually considered easier to learn than Thai.
Lao romanization is bedeviled by the incompatibility between French and English pronunciation. Most older transliterations are French-based, while newer ones are English-based. The French-style “Vientiane“, for example, is more accurately spelled “Wiang Chan” in English. Wikivoyage uses a modern English-based orthography modeled on the Thai system, but the French transliterations have been noted below when appropriate.
Lao has a complicated set of vowels that distinguishes between vowel length (short and long) and vowel position (front and back). Vowel signs are always written around consonants.
French transliterations use “ou” for “u” (eg. “Louang Prabang”) and often tag an unpronounced “e” at the end of words to stop the consonant from being swallowed (eg. “Kaysone Phomvihane“).
- like in the ‘i’ in ‘nit’
- like in the ‘ee’ in ‘beer’ or ‘Feet’
- like in the ‘u’ in ‘bum’
- like in the ‘a’ in ‘father’
- like in the ‘a’ in ‘fat’
- like in the ‘e’ in ‘fence’
- like in the ‘a’ in ‘bait’
- like in the ‘u’ for ‘fruit’
- like in the ‘oo’ in ‘mood’
- like in the ‘aw’ in ‘saw’
- like in the ‘um’ in ‘drum’
- not found in English, but similar to the ‘uh’ in ‘huh’
- not found in English, but similar to the ‘i’ in ‘sir’ or the ‘eux’ from the French ‘deux’