MIHS grad brings English to schools in Laos
June 30, 2009 · Updated 3:49 PM
Like many graduates from Mercer Island High School, Martin Momoda headed off to college and into the “real world” with big dreams about the future. But few could have predicted that he would wind up the sole proprietor of his own book company in the mountainous, rural Southeast Asian country of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos.
The former Islander has made a living as an entrepreneur of educational textbooks in a Communist, agrarian county of seven million by writing and publishing English as a Second Language textbooks.
In the three years spent in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos, Momoda has authored and published 45,000 text books under four titles intended for school children eager to learn how to read English.
His next project will be about Laotian sign language.
While the number may seem small by American standards, Momoda, 49, says Laotian society is not accustomed to teaching the public from their own books.
“The Island Books bookstore has more books than the National Library in Vientiane,” he said, referring to the largest public repository of books in the nation’s capital.
But the jump from Mercer Island to Laos is less of a stretch than it seems, Momoda said, thanks to the upbringing that his parents gave him and local teachers who educated him. He says they both showed him how much spark and belief an education can provide to those who are eager to learn. He remembered Mercer Island School District teachers like Ruth Newman, Milt Yanick and Fran Call, who inspired him to work hard and be confident.
“They were teachers who were brilliant, who cared about what they taught,” he said. “I’m grateful I had that.”
He fondly remembers Call’s student bicycle tours from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to Seattle as fostering his zest for a challenge. Momoda is still an avid cyclist, using it as his mode of transportation in Laos for selling his books at every business and school he can find. The country’s limited infrastructure makes it difficult to widely distribute his books or develop his company. His printer also acts as his warehouse and distributor while he is away making sales calls.
“If they only had Amazon.com, my life would be so much easier,” he said.
After graduating from Wesleyan University in the early ’80s, Momoda headed off to comparatively wealthy Japan, working for many years as an English teacher. At a time of dramatic financial growth there, Momoda figured it would be a great time to leverage his English skills while learning about his cultural heritage firsthand. The fact that he never learned Japanese was, well, secondary.
“I usually do things without a big plan in the beginning,” he said.
Momoda added that he realized how dependent education was on the quality of teachers and their tools of the trade: books.
The idea for a Laotian book business came from a vacation that the former Islander spent there. Soon, he was working as a volunteer teacher in the provincial city of Luang Prabang. He immediately noticed that the majority of the time in the classroom was spent by teachers writing lessons onto a chalkboard and students copying the text down. Educators earn the equivalent of $40 per month, classrooms are often filled with 50 or 60 students and few books to teach from, and teachers face overwhelming challenges.
“There’s an old saying in Laos,” he said, “If you want to be a teacher, you might as well raise pigs.”
The elegant, cursive script of Laotian — based on the ancient Sanskrit language — is closer in concept to an alphabet than a language based on logograms and pictograms, such as Chinese. But teaching English has not been a priority until recent times.
According to the CIA World Factbook, an estimated 80 percent of Laotians make a living from the land, such as growing rice. But much of the county’s growth recently has come in the form of foreign investment and tourism — conducted in the world’s predominant business language: English. That’s where Momoda feels he can make the biggest impact.
Of the few English textbooks used in Laotian classrooms, he said, few if any made an attempt to frame the lessons in a practical setting. He recognized a need for bilingual textbooks that provided a local context. A competitor’s textbook, for example, uses the same English conversations translated into Lao as their Japanese or Chinese versions.
“People there need English for practical purposes to support jobs in tourism,” he said. “These other books are giving directions to Rockefeller Center [in New York City] in Lao.”
Momoda hopes that his teaching experience will give the textbooks the competitive edge he needs to be successful and give teachers and students the tools they need to learn English that they can use, not memorize.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s the most fun.”
Learn more about the people of Laos and Martin Momoda’s textbooks at his Web site, www.momobooks.asia.