The Rampage

ESL in Laos

Natalie Kahn

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This summer, I spent a week in Laos teaching English to the staff at Lao Friends Hospital for Children. Located in the city of Luang Prabang, it is considered to be the country’s best children’s hospital. This prestige is largely due to its foreign volunteer doctors and nurses, most of whom are from the USA or Australia, who come to train the medical staff. Because of the many international staff members working at the hospital, it is important that the staff be proficient in the English language. “We’re not trying to be patronizing; we’re just being honest: English is the key to medicine,” said a volunteer doctor.

Every doctor, nurse, therapist, and administrator in the hospital must take at least one English class a week, organized based on levels (pre-beginner, beginner, elementary, pre-intermediate, and intermediate). Interestingly,  many opt for extra classes, especially one-on-one lessons. The staff at the hospital shows a genuine desire to learn new words and practice their English. A communications volunteer remarked, “Everyone loves English class! It’s one of the staff’s favorite parts of the day.”

Over the course of the week, I worked as a teacher’s assistant to two employed teachers. The typical day would begin at 8:45 and end at 5:15. Classes would range from 1 to 10 people, and the staff would learn a variety of subjects, including grammar, reading, medical vocabulary, and research, and would also integrate them. For instance, students would label the parts of the respiratory system and learn each part’s function. Then, once they mastered that, they would study a respiratory problem, such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis, and present their research in English.

Nearly every day at four o’clock in the afternoon, I would lead a few English games downstairs, either in the IPD or the main corridor, such as charades, bananagrams, or “never have I ever.” Sometimes, young patients would come and watch us play or even join us.

Teaching was a great challenge, especially because I didn’t speak much Lao, with the exception of a few basic phrases, like “sabaidee” (hello), “khob chai” (thanks), and “chao su jang?” (what’s your name?). Often, I’d have to resort to drawing pictures on the board, charades, or Google Translate. Even so, it was gratifying to know that I’d be helping staff in their work and therefore sick children in their treatment.

One of the most common ailments at the hospital is malnutrition. Sticky rice, a cheap staple in a Laotian diet, lacks many of the necessary nutrients and has a very high sugar content. Food poisoning is also common, due to platters of food left sitting in the sun for hours. Another all-too-frequent occurrence involves motorbike accidents. Most people don’t have cars in Luang Prabang, so they ride motorbikes instead. There is a law stating that everyone must wear a helmet, but it is almost never enforced. People bring their helmetless babies on motorbikes while looking at their phones and driving at the same time.

I plan to volunteer again at the hospital, because it is impossible not to gain perspective from such experiences. I appreciate not only being born in a country with good medical treatment and a strong education system, but also having English as a first language, a language that is so vital and can be difficult to learn.

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