Posted by: Anna | June 6, 2011

Big Brother Mouse

This morning, we went to Big Brother Mouse, which although it rather sounds like a Disney version of 1984, is actually a really cool charity in Laos. Big Brother Mouse provides books to children in Laos. I never considered that there are countries in the world where books are rarely published in the native language because there are not enough readers for it to make sense for a for-profit publisher. Laos is one of those countries. Big Brother Mouse translates or writes, illustrates, and publishes books for children in Laos, and they are about the only ones who do.

Big Brother Mouse also has an informal English practice for young adults who want to learn English. If you are a native English speaker, you show up at 9 AM, any day but Sunday. You speak English with whatever Laos teenagers show up. That’s it – you just volunteer your time. There is no training, other than to speak slowly. The office doesn’t know who is coming – it is open to anyone who wants to come.

When we arrived, there was only one girl who worked in the office. We wondered if it wasn’t happening that day…maybe it had been cancelled? We asked, and she sat us down with a young boy I hadn’t noticed at first. He was 13, and we got through a few opening questions. What is your name? How old are you? We then asked if he had any brothers or sisters, and he didn’t understand. Another girl showed up, an Australian, and commented that today there were more English speakers than learners. Hmmm…we tried another question on the 13 year old – where are you from? No – still didn’t understand. Hmmm….He jumped up, ran and got a children’s English book about shapes (written for a 5 year old native English speaker) and wanted to read it with us.

He bravely started reading the book, pausing and looking at me expectantly when he didn’t know a word. I would say it slowly for him, and he would repeat it back to me. No phonetics here – he would just memorize the whole word. I don’t know if that is a result of how he learned Laos or if it is a result of never being taught phonetics / sounding out words. I have no idea what the current “best” way to teach kids to read or speak English is, so I could only help as best I knew how.

Meanwhile, Tommy and the Australian had another learner, a very small statured 24 year old studying English and law at the same time. He had a half-page composition he wanted to review about why he likes the night market better than the other markets. He didn’t know many grammatical terms, so explaining why a sentence was flawed was very difficult. He spoke quietly and didn’t always let us know when he didn’t understand. Tommy had to work to read his subtle signals, not really Tommy’s strong suit.

My original young student decided to leave, and another teenager sat down at my table. This guy was 17, and he had been studying English for five months. He was outgoing and personable. He peppered me with questions, and I struggled to get a question back to him. He can speak Hmong (local ethnic language) and Laos. After getting all my basic statistics, he pointedly asked me why I don’t have any children if I’ve been married for three years already. Funny the things that you wouldn’t ask a stranger in the States that I get asked all the time here. He then asked me about the weather in my home country; we had heard that the students have a fascination with snow. The Big Brother Mouse website advises that if you have snow in your home country to share it with the students. I think my student was disappointed that I don’t get very much snow where I am from. I asked him how he finds the weather in Laos – he said it was cool in the mornings and hot in the afternoons. I think we must be in different places – under no circumstances would I describe the mornings as cool. He was amazed that I didn’t like coconut – he had never met ANYONE who didn’t like coconut!

Eventually a friend of his joined us. He had only studied English for four months….that fifth month must have really been a big turning point. His English was much worse. He had a very hard time understanding anything I said, and would respond in only the shortest of answers. He also spoke really quietly. I commend him on his courage to come and try to learn – I was terrified to speak French to French people when I had been studying French for years. They had been let out of school for a couple of hours to come to Big Brother Mouse, so perhaps he didn’t have a choice. Still…very bold.

After they left, I went and joined Tommy, who was still sitting with his original student and another who had joined. (I guess I wasn’t as fun since mine kept leaving!). I started talking to a young man who was 21, studying English and tourism in college. He wanted to be a tour guide because of the economic opportunity (my words, not his). He shared an amazing fact (in his mind) with me – that one of his friends who could speak Italian and worked as a tour guide once made $60 USD in one day! It really shows the difference in pay scales and cost of living to think that is an incredible fact. I felt sort of odd when he was asking me about my travels, and I explained that I had been to so many countries, and am not going home for several more months. A trip like mine is totally out of reach for him, at least for now. (With the dollar on its current downward course, who knows!)

He spoke the best English of the day and didn’t hesitate to ask me questions. He also pulled out his workbook (very similar to the type of work I did in first year French in junior high) and asked me several questions about sections he didn’t understand. When we talked about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, he expressed that he thought all the Japanese people probably wanted to move to other countries so they could find work. An interesting conclusion, revealing a great deal more about Laos than Japan.

Anna gets into teaching English

When it was time to go, we stopped to buy a few books. Each book costs between $1.50 – 4.00, and most are in Laos and English. They are similar in how they are manufactured to a high quality coloring book, but with brightly colored illustrations inside. Big Brother Mouse suggests that you take them and hand them out as you travel to spread more books around Laos. I’m excited to hand out some books on the next part of our journey.

I’m really impressed with the work of Big Brother Mouse. Each book has to be sponsored, and it ranges from $1000 – $4000 approximately to sponsor a new book to be illustrated, translated or written, and printed. They have a display in the front of books that are waiting for sponsors.

The "Sponsor a book" wall

A big part of how Big Brother Mouse spreads books and the culture of reading around Laos is through book parties at village schools. They load up a bunch of books, travel to a village school, and have a party for the kids. There are snacks, songs, and an introduction to owning a book. They give the kids a chance to draw. Then each kid gets to pick out one book to take home. Big Brother Mouse leaves the teacher with an extra 50 books to essentially start a small library where the kids can bring their book back and trade it for another book. It is simple and cool. Book parties need sponsors too (around $200-400).

I’m so glad we stopped by for English practice. Although it was mentally challenging, it was also an interesting glimpse into the lives of some young Laos.



  1. Thanks for sharing your story. I need to do this during the next trip back to Laos.

  2. Really enjoyed reading about this. is the website.

    Here is an article about it.

  3. You guys never cease to amaze me! XOOXOX Kita

  4. Wow, how hard that must have been for both the students and you. No real lesson plan or idea of how to proceed. But what a neat cultural exchange. Thanks for your time in leaving a better impression of Americans in a tiny corner of the world.

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