Why I’m Learning an Indigenous Language That I’ll Rarely Use
On Studying Sgaw Karen
To my left, just out of arm’s reach, a tall man hacks cuts from the torso of a pig that he’s laid across a giant slab of wood. I look back to the stone mortar and pestle in my hands. A shorter man with long curly hair throws a handful of dried chilies in. He stands back and smiles in approval as I smash them into oblivion and feel my eyes begin to burn. They speak to one another, but I’m silent.
Somewhere in the jungle along the Thai-Myanmar border, I’ve been drafted into the kitchen workforce on barbecue day in a Karen village. The Karen are a group of indigenous ethnic groups from Myanmar and northern Thailand. They speak any of a number of Sino-Tibetan indigenous languages. This village, on the green banks of the wide and muddy Salween River, speaks Sgaw Karen language.
My Decision To Learn Sgaw Karen
I’ve lived in Thailand for two years and my Thai is decent. I’ve dabbled in Burmese in honor of a couple trips to Myanmar. My Vietnamese goes as far as “can I take your picture?” and “take it easy.” But despite having close relationships with a number of Karen, I don’t speak a word of their languages.
I’ve never touched an indigenous language. At the beginning of this year, I realized I need to. Sgaw Karen it is.
Historical and cultural structures of power and privilege dictate the languages we choose to learn. National languages have a platform that allows them to spread, survive and evolve in a way that’s much harder for languages that lack this reach—especially indigenous languages. If we care about an indigenous culture, we have a duty to learn their language, to support them to preserve their culture and to spread this appreciation.
It makes sense to learn languages that are spoken widely and applicable to our lives, yes. For example, it was much easier to convince myself and others that learning Portuguese is a valuable pursuit (not that I got very far with that one), even though I have far more connections to Sgaw Karen. Indigenous languages are often spoken by a much smaller population and the chances that you’ll use one in an international metropolis may be much lower, for a whole host of reasons. But once you realize that a person can learn more than two or three languages in a lifetime, that’s no longer an excuse.
“Tabluh, tabluh,” says the long-haired guy as I pound his chilies. I look to him with a question on my face. We do a little translation through Thai—“tabluh” means “thank you.” My first word in Sgaw Karen. The guy adds garlic some garlic to the chili paste, a welcome change.
Soon, we step outside to throw the pork on the barbecue—a wide pit that’s already throwing off smoke. Salween River flows by, a broad expanse of silty brown water winding through the jungle. Within minutes, the smell of the barbecue is intoxicating and folks from around the village start passing through, ostensibly to say hello to my fellow cooks.
I realize I had an impending need for the word delicious. “Wee doh mah,” they tell me. And I’m mostly vegetarian.
The Importance Of Preserving Indigenous Languages
As Ellen Jovin, a well-known proponent of language learning put it, “Polyglottery is an antithesis to linguistic chauvinism.” As languages with more commercial or widely-recognized social value dominate, they corner and threaten languages that are central to cultural identities around the world, especially those of indigenous peoples.
Polyglottery may seem to some like a self-centered pursuit—it’s an incredible privilege for many, simply a part of life for others. But if we make the choice to take on a language based on our values, this decision becomes about understanding and supporting others, especially those whose lives feel impossibly different from our own. It helps justify the hours spent squinting at seemingly indistinguishable, cryptic, crop circle-esque characters. Language learning allows us to communicate with the people we care about and to use these relationships as a force for positive social good.