On day 4 of an 8-day trip to Laos, we went to a tourist site called Mt. Phousi in Luang Prabang. There were a bunch of tourists up there checking out the panoramic view of the city as the sun was setting. At one point, I started talking to these 3 Japanese people to practice my Japanese.
One of the 2 boys in the group then said in near-perfect English that they were both actually from Laos, and were just practicing Japanese with the pretty girl from Tokyo. They said they like to practice languages with tourists because their teachers aren’t native speakers, so it isn’t the best way to learn.
Gabriel & Abraham then invited us to a free English class they had about an hour later at 7:30-9pm to help talk to the class. We figured we’d either have an interesting experience or wake up in a tub full of ice missing a kidney, but they seemed sincere enough, and we agreed to meet them at the Buddhist temple where the class was held.
We found our way in the dark to the class under what amounted to a carport at the temple. There was an American guy named Michael standing at a torn-up chalk board, teaching a class of about 25 kids ranging in age from 14-20 or so.
All of the kids were from very poor or non-existent families (Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world). Most had come from villages far away with no running water or electricity and without their families to try to get an education. In Laos, attending even public school costs money for families, so many kids just never go at all. We found out later that this teacher even rents a room for several of the basically orphaned students.
The S.M.I.L.E. Project is the extremely underfunded group Michael runs to help these kids. Most of the money comes from his own pockets and of course his time teaching these free classes.
These kids were trying to learn to speak English (some also spoke Japanese) to try to get better jobs and futures. This free class was just one of several that these eager-to-learn kids went to on a daily basis. Orphans, novice monks, and other impoverished kids with little money or means trying to learn more than their schools could teach them. They do this all on their own time, and despite the deck severely stacked against them in just about every conceivable way.
Michael asked us to go to the front of the class and answer questions from the students. After 30 minutes of rapid questions about our lives, we played a pronunciation game with them. They’d pick a word out of a bag, and 1 kid would try to say it. Us 4 native English speakers would write what we heard them say. If none of us got the word right, it went to the next kid to try, and so on.
Some words were tough: Blazed became breezed, etc. Sometimes all the way around the room. But in the end, we helped them how to say the words a little better each time. We played around the class several times, burning through both the few donated pieces of chalk they had and crumbs of chalk found on the ground from previous classes.
We stayed after and chatted with many of the kids, and made arrangements to see them again.
The kids told us about another place in Luang Prabang called Big Brother Mouse which trades books to help kids learn English, again for free. And visiting tourists are encouraged to come by during 2 daily conversation sessions to help kids with their language skills.
After that first night, we ended up spending the rest of our trip with these kids and at this place, practicing English, trying to remember rules that I haven’t had to recall for 25 years, and having a great time.
Small Example of Why we Loved it
The 2nd night at Big Brother Mouse, Maria was working with this Khmu kid named Kiet (read about her experience on her volunteering blog here). He was new to the city from his remote village, and had only started his first-ever job at a bakery in town. He had a lot of trouble understanding anything she said. But she realized after a time that if she wrote down what she said, he could read it and instantly reply in very good English.
After I spent some time working with him, he finally told me that he had been trying to learn English on his own, but this was the first time he’d ever spoken with native English speakers. So the way he’d read it in his books was what he knew, but not how it sounded when spoken by a native.
He was thrilled and encouraged to see how much his world could open up after that first night there. To see his face light up at the possibilities was exciting to witness.
We wanted to see these things, and still do. We’ll be back again soon for another hopefully longer visit to see these things and visit our new friends.
There was a lot more touristy stuff to see in this UNESCO World Heritage city, but we never made it to the national museum, the epic waterfalls, elephant camps, a Mekong river tour, or the famous caves filled with thousands of Buddha images.
It turned out we had better things to do.