When Prof. Abby Cohn, linguistics, and director of the Southeast Asia Program, sought to offer a research methods class this semester focusing on the language Lao, she asked everyone around her if they knew of a native speaker willing to help.
As it turns out, the answer lay in West Campus’ Alice Cook House, where Bey Sisouphone serves as a dining hall worker — and is one of roughly three million people worldwide who speak the Southeast Asian tongue, which is the native language of Laos.
Sisouphone, a native of Laos, was eager to help in the endeavor, and with the understanding of her manager, worked with Cohn to offer their class right in Alice Cook House three times a week — a distinctive academic setting for an even more unique linguistic experience.
According to Cohn, the arrangement was perfect, citing Sisouphone’s warm personality and “sensitivity” to the language.
“What’s really important for us to make the class work is first of all, the personality of the person we are working with, that they enjoy sharing,” Cohn said in an interview with The Sun. “And Bey is amazing because [she] likes to share. Also, even if someone is a native speaker of their language they may not have a lot of sensitivity to their language … When someone has that sensitivity to their language it works really well and Bey turns out to be really great at that.”
“I like to teach people how to speak Lao,” Sisouphone said in an interview with the Sun. “I learn from students and students learn from me too.”
The course does not represent Sisouphone’s first brush with the front of the classroom, having taught fifth grade back in Laos before she immigrated in 2003. Upon moving to New York, she did not know any English and took ESL classes while working with her husband at their restaurant. She has worked for the University for six years, beginning in Statler Hotel and, for the past two years, on West Campus.
Sisouphone is dedicated to sharing her language with the people around her. At home, she and her husband talk exclusively to her 12-year-old son in their native tongue.
Lao is the national language of Laos, and according to Cohn, is quite similar to Thai from a linguistic point of view. According to Cohn, no universities teach Lao, something she wanted to change.
The class is not a traditional lecture-style course emphasizing basic conversational skills, according to the teaching duo, but rather focuses on learning the structure itself of the language. As a result, the class may sometimes spend the whole time asking Sisouphone questions about a simple statement in Lao.
In the class, Cohn and Sisouphone stress that while something may be grammatically correct, it may not be appropriate to say. For example, Sisouphone explained that while there are two ways to say “old” in Lao, one has a disrespectful connotation. For this reason, Cohn found it especially helpful to have a native speaker like Sisouphone when learning.
Beyond that, Sisouphone’s vibrant and friendly personality is apparent when she enters the room, something well-known by frequent diners at Alice Cook House and now by her students.
“She was really energetic, which I think contributed to both the pace of the class and the volume of material that we could cover,” Nielson Hul, grad, a student in the class, said in an email to the Sun. “She seems like she would be fun to work with.”
“She has been very generous about sharing her language with us, and her animation and enthusiasm has made the class a lot of fun,” Mary Moroney, grad, another student in the class, told the Sun. “Not only is she patient with us as we work to understand the Lao language, she seems to really enjoy answering our questions and having us practice speaking Lao. We’ve been so lucky to be able to have her as our teacher this semester.”
As Cohn puts it, teaching the class has allowed Sisouphone to “come full circle,” after leaving her teaching career behind sixteen years ago in Laos. While there are currently no plans to continue the class in future semesters, Sisouphone’s answer to The Sun about teaching the course again was simple — an enthusiastic “yes.”