“Ok, now make your tongue touch the roof of your mouth when you say the “L” in mul-berry,” says Ajaan Michael. Sith, Eah, Doua, Mimi, Jen, Sengchan, Chan and Chanla, immediately erupt in a cacophony of “mulberry”-like sounds — after about three or four attempts and watching each other’s concentrated faces as they force their tongues to make the right sound, the group bursts into laughter!
For the last two weeks, one of our tables at the Silk Road Cafe has become a makeshift classroom. Our guides and cafe servers sit with Ajaan Michael — Teacher Michael — who leads the group in improving their English pronunciation, communication and language skills. Ajaan Michael joined the Ock Pop Tok (OPT) team this month as part of the company’s commitment to help staff improve their English and provide a better customer experience. Over the course of one year, Ajaan Michael will work with OPT’s staff at the Living Crafts Centre and our shops in town.
English is often the third or fourth language for our Lao staff, after their ethnic dialect, Lao and Thai. Many acquired their knowledge of English while studying at the monastery or, for a select few, while attending secondary school. They communicate daily with our visitors and customers, many of whom also speak English as a second or third or fourth language. The interactions can be entertaining – and at times frustrating!
“Above all I teach people to be gentle with themselves and others when interacting, specially in cross-cultural settings,” states Ajaan Michael. “When your English is not great or theirs (the customers’) is not great, make a commitment to make the interaction better for yourself and them. And have a sense of humour!” he tells his students. In addition to teaching English grammar and vocabulary, Ajaan Michael also covers body language, listening skills, customer service and managing expectations.
Perhaps the most challenging points of communication involve explaining concepts like fair trade, empowerment, sustainable income, among other social and development concepts which are central to OPTs work. The concepts themselves are understood and appreciated by our staff – but saying it all out loud, in English, with hard-to-pronounce words can be daunting. Ajaan Michael works with our staff to come up with easier, more personalized ways to explain OPT’s ethos and work with Lao artisans.
Lao language (and Khmer, Hmong and Katu dialects among others spoken here) does not sound like English. There are some letters and sounds in English that have no Lao equivalent. Ajaan Michael employs some unusually entertaining and funny tools in order to get his students to understand that it takes not only knowing the word, but also training to mouth and tongue to move in a completely different way. “I manipulate their mouths. I will stick things in their mouths, pull their mouths, and use a mirror, make faces. They laugh, but by the end of class they know the difference between w and v! Its fun for me and for them, and it works!” says Ajaan Michael.
Ock Pop Tok’s mission and values are grounded in raising the profile of Lao textiles and the artisans who make them. We regularly create opportunities for our artisans to develop their skills and travel outside Laos to meet and interact with other artisans and supporters of folk art. This spirit of empowering and creating opportunities for professional and personal growth extends to all employees of Ock Pop Tok. Our guides and retail staff are true cultural ambassadors – they interact with visitors daily, and they wish to communicate effectively and genuinely. Whether it is recounting the life-cycle of a silkworm, explaining the difference between chok, kit and ikat styles of weaving, highlighting the flavours of laab and khaipaen, or simply connecting with a traveler from another culture — it is clear that our staff enjoys the experience of learning and practicing!
A little about Ajaan Michael:
Ajaan Michael, aka Michael Sebastian, has been teaching students in Luang Prabang for the past six years. Michael single-handedly runs the SMILE Project, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing language skills and educational opportunities for Lao monks, orphans, marginalized and abandoned youth, and anyone else who simply wants to learn English in an engaging and supportive environment.