For the first time in its history, the Hamilton Lugar School’s Language Workshop will offer Hakha Lai in its upcoming summer term. Hakha Lai (pronounced Hak-HA Lai) is a language spoken in the Chin State in Myanmar and in refugee communities across the world, primarily in the United States, Norway, and Australia.
Indiana is home to one of the largest populations of Burmese Chin refugees in the world, numbering at least 25,000.
Despite the substantial presence of this community in the Indianapolis area, Hakha Lai language services are in critically short supply. Schools, hospitals, emergency service providers, and social service providers in central Indiana all struggle to communicate with native speakers of Hakha Lai and other Chin languages, who fled Myanmar due to violence against Christians and other minorities.
The Language Workshop’s course is aimed at providing professionals and students with sufficient language skills to better serve this community, as well as those interested in doing field works in Chin State.
The course was developed in collaboration with the Chin Languages Research Project. Professor Kelly Berkson founded the project in 2018. Since its launch, the multidisciplinary team of graduate students, undergraduate lab members, and IU Linguistics faculty members has undertaken a research and service agenda devoted to developing both linguistic resources—aimed at understanding Chin languages on a scholarly level—and practical resources, such as speech recognition technology for use in emergency rooms.
Over the past year, the Project has been translating educational COVID-19 materials for distribution in Chin communities.
Prof. Berkson points to benefits for native English speakers in Indiana to understand Hakha Lai. “By offering this language class, we’re providing an opportunity for people to get to know some of their neighbors in a way that will hopefully allow for the fostering of connections and fruitful relationships moving forward,” she says.
The relationship between IU and members of the Myanmar diaspora, she hopes, will include not just teaching and studying languages but expanding into discussions of public policy, planning, and public health.
IU’s many Burmese undergraduate and graduate students—in addition to events such as the America’s Role in the World® session on the future of human rights in Myanmar with Rohingya activist Wai Wai Nu, who received the School’s Global Voices for Change Award—indicate that the relationship between the diaspora and HLS grows stronger every year.
The Hakha Lai program is designed to develop students’ linguistic competency and cultural literacy rapidly and effectively, through formal classroom instruction, extracurricular activities, extensive use of authentic materials, and real-time interactions with instructors and presenters from Burmese refugee communities in Indiana and beyond. Classes are conducted primarily in Hakha Lai, and emphasize the development of oral communication skills.
The instructor of the course, Dr. Kenneth Van Bik, grew up in Hakha, Chin State, Myanmar, before moving to California for graduate school. He received his PhD on the Chin languages and has published widely on the subject.
“I hope students will gain a basic conversational skill and become aware of how the language is used in the Lai cultural contexts. If a person is a heritage language learner, they will learn how to explain Lai grammar to Chin Americans whose dominant language is English,” said Dr. Van Bik.
“I think it’s important to continue to diversify the Language Workshop’s offerings because it’s a way for us as an institution to continue to say we value language—not just dominant languages—but languages in general,” says Prof. Berkson.
The course forms an important part of the Hamilton Lugar School’s mission of providing students the training, skills, and knowledge they need to be globally ready and able to serve communities in need.
To learn more about languages taught at the Hamilton Lugar School’s Language Workshop, visit languageworkshop.indiana.edu.