The official language of the LPDR is Lao as spoken and written in Vientiane. As an official language, it has successfully become the lingua franca between all Lao and non-Lao ethnic groups in Laos. Of course, native Lao is spoken with differing tonal accents and with slightly differing vocabularies as you move from one part of the country to the next, especially in a north to south direction. But it is the Vientiane dialect that is most widely understood.
Modern Lao linguists recognize five basic dialects within the country: Vientiane Lao; northern Lao (spoken in Sainyabuli, Bokeo, Udomxai, Phongsali, Luang Nam Tha and Luang Prabang): north-eastern Lao (Xieng Khuang and Hua Phan), central Lao (Khammuan and Bolikhamxui); and finally southern Lao (Champasak, Savannakhet, Salavun, Attapeu and Sekong). Each of these can he further divided into various subdialects; the differences between the Lao spoken in the neighbouring provinces of Xieng Khuang and Hua Phan, for example, is readily apparent to those who know Lao well.
All dialects of Lao are members of the Thai half or the Thai-Kadai family of languages and are closely related to languages spoken in Thailand, northern Myanmar and pockets of China's Yunnan and Guangxi Provinces. Standard Lao is indeed close enough to standard Thai (as spoken in central Thailand) that, for native speakers, the two are mutually intelligible. In Fact, virtually all of the speakers of Lao west of the Annamite Chain can easily understand spoken Thai, since the bulk of the television and radio they tune in to is broadcast From Thailand.
Among educated Lao, written Thai is also easily understood, in spite of the fact that the two scripts differ (to about the same degree that the Greek and Roman scripts differ). This is because many of the text hooks used at the college and university level in Laos are actually Thai texts.
Even more similar to Standard Lao arc Thailand's northern and north-eastern Thai dialects. In fact there arc more Lao speakers living in Thailand than in Laos. Hence if you are travelling to Laos after a spell in Thailand (especially the north-cast) you should be able to put whatever you learned in Thailand to good use in Laos. (It doesn't work as well in the opposite direction; native Thais can't always understand Lao since they've had less exposure to it.)
In the cities and towns of the Mekong river valley, French is intermittently understood. In spite of its colonial history, French remains the official second language of the government and many official documents are written in French as well as Lao. Shop signs sometimes appear in French (alongside Lao, as mandated by law), though signs in English are becoming more common these days. As in Vietnam, the former colonial language is increasingly viewed as irrelevant in a region that has adopted English as the lingua franca of business and trade, and among young Lao students English is now much more popular than French. Lao over the age of 50 may understand a little English, but to a lesser extent than French.
Many Russian-trained Lao can also speak Russian, though the language has drastically fallen from favour. The Russian Cultural Centre now offers more English courses than it does Russian, and the most popular event at the centre is an evening satellite TV program of English-language shows. The occasional Lao who studied abroad in Cuba or Eastern Europe may be able to speak Spanish, German, Czech, Polish or even Bulgarian.
It pays to learn as much Lao as possible during your stay in the country, since speaking and understanding the language not only enhances verbal communication but garners a great deal of respect from the Lao people you come into contact with
Prior to the consolidation of the various Lao meuang (principalities) in the 14th century, there was little demand for a written language. When a written language was deemed necessary by the Lan Xang monarchy, Lao scholars based their script on an early alphabet devised by the Thais (which in turn had been created by Khmer scholars who used south Indian scripts as models!). The alphabet used in Laos is closer to the original prototype; the original Thai script was later extensively revised (which is why Lao looks 'older' than Thai, even though it is newer as a written language).
Before 1975 at least four spelling systems were in use. Because modern printing never really got established in Laos (most of the advanced textbooks being in Thai, French, or Vietnamese before the Revolution), Lao spelling wasn't standardized until after the Pathet Lao takeover. The current system has been highly simplified by transliterating all foreign loan words according to their sound only, and not their written Form. Lao script can therefore be learned much more quickly than Thai or Khmer, both of which typically attempt to transcribe foreign borrowings letter For letter no mailer what the actual pronunciation is.
One peculiarity of the post-1975 system is that it forbade the use of the Lao letter Ã¢â‚¬ËœrÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ in words where it was more commonly pronounced as an 'I', reportedly because of the association of the 'r' with classical Thai although the 'r' was virtually lost in Laos (converting to 'h' in some cases and to 'I' in others), in many parts of Thailand it is still quite strong. Hence the names of former Lao kings Setthathirat and Phothisarat came to be rendered as Setthathilat and Phothisalat in post-1975 Lao script. In the last two or three years the government has loosened its restrictions' and although the nasty 'r' is not taught in the school system, it is once again permitted in signage and in historical documents. Other scripts still in use include lao tham(dhamma Lao), used for' writing Pali scriptures, and various Thai tribal scripts, the most popular and widespread being that of the Thai Neua (which has become standardized via Xishuangbanna, China).
The Lao script today consists of 30 consonants (formed from 20 basic sounds) and 28 vowels and diphthongs (15 individual symbols used in varying combinations). Complementing the consonant. and vowel symbols are four tone marks, only two of which are commonly used in creating the six different tones (in combination with all the other symbols). Written Lao proceeds from left to right, though vowel-signs may appear in a number of positions relative to consonants: before, after, above, below or 'around' (ie before, above and after).
Although learning the alphabet isn't difficult, the writing system itself is fairly complex, so unless you are planning to have a lengthy stay in Laos you should perhaps make learning to speak the language your main priority.