Edit: This article originally appeared on my first website fierygivingtree.com which I’ve since closed.
As mentioned, I am spending a bit of time in Thailand and a trip to renew our visa brought us to the wonderful country of Laos. For about half of the trip, I was actually sick (assumed parasite) but our interaction with various students in Laos allows me to rate it as one of my best trips. We greatly valued the time volunteering to converse with them, aiding them in learning English.
The focus of our volunteering was in Luang Prabang, an UNESCO World Heritage City, which focuses on preserving a cities’ cultural and natural heritage. It has the effect of creating a time capsule of a quieter city with lovely older buildings, pre-skyscrappers and 10,000 taxis. It is easy to walk around the city and we were joined with other tourists desiring to peek into this lovely city along the river.
On our second night, when I decided I would return to the land of activity (tired of lying in bed sick), we explored the city and ended up ascending Mount Phou Si, accessed by about 200 stairs, at sunset. The Mount gives a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding city and rivers below. While up there, James decided to practice a bit of Japanese with some Japanese students that were talking. To our surprise, the two males turned out to actually be from Laos and spoke amazingly good English. They ended up inviting us to an English class at a local temple. We agreed to go and found a class of students lead by Ajaan Michael, a truly fantastic English teacher. He was able to provide concrete examples of word pronunciations and could question their word choices that engaged them and made them think about their sentence structure. He invited us to the front of the classroom to introduce ourselves and allows students to ask us questions, engaging us in dialogue. They then requested that we ask questions of them.
The class was composed of mostly male students, but did have two female students in attendance. Their ages ranged from 14, at the youngest, to a couple that were in their late twenties. Many were born in the surrounding villages but working in Luang Prabang, biking in and out of the city each day. They were all united in a desire to learn English. They asked questions about our jobs, places we had traveled to, and how many languages we spoke, among others. The night concluded with a pronunciation game where the students spoke a word and we wrote what we heard. The words written were then reviewed to help them focus on proper pronunciation.
In speaking with Ajaan Michael, after class, we learned that he teaches these classes for free and works to sponsor some of the students so that they can continue their English lessons, providing housing and food. He is able to maintain his work through an organization he created called the Smile Project. English is an important tool for the students so they can get better jobs and enhance their ability to make a livelihood. Ajaan Michael explained it was a necessity for them to speak it so that their jobs were not taken by foreigners who could speak English. His dedication to the students was awesome.
Prior to coming to the city we also heard about an organization called Big Brother Mouse, another opportunity that allows the students to meet with tourists to practice their English. Foreigners go to their office at set “Conversation” times, for two hour blocks, to speak with students. The first night we went, the moment we sat down, we were greeted with students interested in practicing their English. Every conversation began with “Hello, what is your name?” and went from there. It was really amazing and quite inspiring, the dedication the students had to learning English. It was also reflected in their grasp of the English language! At one point, a young lady was confirming a future perfect tense with me. I struggled through an explanation, the best I could, not having thought of that in over 20 or more years.
We ended up volunteering with Big Brother Mouse the two remaining nights of our stay. I claim a love of art, music and volunteering. This trip, it was only volunteering that got me out of bed, the wonderful students and their excitement having such a strong pull for me. The art galleries and music will have to wait for our return trip, which we are excited to think about and reunite with the students.
Should you ever be in Luang Prabang, definitely spend a few hours conversing with the students, it is VERY rewarding. Their personalities are so genuine and their desire to learn is very inspiring. Seek out a student of Ajaan Michael too (one will surely be in attendance at Big Brother Mouse) and go to one of his classes. He is an inspiring teacher and it is a truly great experience. If your trip is a bit in the future, consider sponsoring Ajaan Michael’s with a few dollars. He is directly making a difference in the life of Laos students and unlike larger organizations, the money goes directly to supporting their learning and welfare. I am happy to support him and the wonderful students!
Big Brother Mouse also hosts book parties for local villages, bringing books to them, some who have never seen a book before. Read more about them here.
Benefits of volunteering with English students –
- Opportunity to meet International Students and learn about them.
- Provide your skills of English to eager students.
- Enjoy learning about their culture and assist with their future livelihood.
- It is rewarding!
Who you’ll be working with –
- Awesome students.
Level of commitment necessary –