Ethnicity and Language



The people of Laos are often categorised by their distribution by elevation (lowlands, midlands and upper high lands), as this somewhat correlates with ethnic groupings. More than half of the nation's population is ethnic Lao—the principal lowland inhabitants, and the politically and culturally dominant people of Laos. The Lao belong to the Tai linguistic group who began migrating south from China in the first millennium CE. Ten per cent belong to other "lowland" groups, which together with the Lao people make up the Lao Loum (lowland people).

In the central and southern mountains, Mon-Khmer-speaking groups, known as Lao Theung or mid-slope Laotians, predominate. Other terms are Khmu, Khamu (Kammu) or Kha as the Lao Loum refer to them to indicate their Austroasiatic language affiliation. However, the latter is considered pejorative, meaning 'slave'. They were the indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos. Some Vietnamese, Laotian Chinese, and Thai minorities remain, particularly in the towns, but many left after independence in the late 1940s, many of whom relocated either to Vietnam, Hong Kong, or to France. Lao Theung constitute about 30% of the population.

Hill people and minority cultures of Laos such as the Hmong, Yao (Mien) (Hmong-Mien), Dao, Shan, and several Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples have lived in isolated regions of Laos for many years. Mountain/hill tribes of mixed ethno/cultural-linguistic heritage are found in northern Laos, which include the Lua and Khmu people who are indigenous to Laos. Collectively, they are known as Lao Soung or highland Laotians. Lao Soung account for about 10% of the population.


The official and majority language is Lao, a language of the Tai-Kadai language family. However, only slightly more than half of the population speaks Lao natively. The remainder, particularly in rural areas, speak ethnic minority languages. The Lao alphabet, which evolved sometime between the 13th and 14th centuries, was derived from the ancient Khmer script and is very similar to Thai script. Languages like Khmu (Austroasiatic) and Hmong (Hmong-Mien) are spoken by minorities, particularly in the midland and highland areas. A number of Laotian sign languages are used in areas with high rates of congenital deafness.

French is used in government and commerce, and Laos is a member of the French-speaking organisation of La Francophonie. The organisation estimated in 2010 that there were 173,800 French speakers in Laos. The French language's decline was slower and occurred later in Laos than in Vietnam and Cambodia, as the monarchy of Laos had close political relations with France. At the eve of the Vietnam War, the Secret War was beginning in Laos as political factions between communist Pathet Lao and the government occurred. Pathet Lao-held areas used Lao as their sole language and following the end of the Vietnam War, French began its sharp decline in Laos. Additionally, many elite and French-educated Lao immigrated to nations such as the United States and France to escape government persecution. With the end of isolationism in the early 1990s however, the French language rebounded, thanks to the establishment of French, Swiss and Canadian relations and the opening of French-language centers in central Laos. Today, French has a healthier status in Laos than the other Francophone nations of Asia and about 35% of all students in Laos receive their education in French, with the language being a required course in many schools. French is also used in public works in central and southern Laos and Luang Prabang and is a language of diplomacy and of the elite classes, higher professions and elders.

English, the language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has become increasingly studied in recent years.