The Palei and the City: Language Endangerment and Socialization in the Context of Vietnam’s Rural–Urban Migrations

Author: Dave Paulson (Temple University)
Speaker: Dave Paulson
Topic: Language socialization
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


Studies of language endangerment have demonstrated how processes of urbanization and rural to urban migration have negatively affected the survival of the world’s endangered languages (Crystal 2002, Grinevald 2007, Harmon 1996, Krauss 2007, Simons and Lewis 2013, Whaley 2003). In many cases, indigenous communities are tasked to engage with the transformation of their material worlds and socioeconomic livelihoods, particularly in rapid developing nations, and this presents fewer opportunities to make meaningful use of, and conduct everyday interactions in, a minority language (Grenoble and Whaley 1998, Kraus 1992, Perley 2012). Cham has been spoken in the south-central region of Vietnam since the 2nd century but is spoken by only .1% of the Vietnamese population today. Each year, fewer and fewer people develop proficiency in Cham, and even less become literate in the indigenous writing system, Akhar thrah. As young people move away from the palei (village) into Ho Chi Minh City, they are presented with new sociolinguistic environments where they must position themselves in relation to their heritage language and the various other linguistic codes they encounter. Nevertheless, these movements also inspire reflexive efforts aimed at the preservation and promotion of Cham heritage in new urban spaces, and this requires rethinking the relationships between language vitality, migration, and socioeconomic transformation. Drawing from ethnographic observations of folk-heritage classrooms, community events, and homes, the present research examines how young people are socialized into the use of their community’s communicative traditions as they migrate to urban environments and become “temporary” residents of the city. These practices reflect a sociohistorically specific linguistic marketplace in Ho Chi Minh City that comprises wide-ranging levels of Cham-language proficiency, as well as divergent language ideologies that are (re)produced and transformed in everyday urban encounters. These include ideologically varied notions of correctness for written and spoken forms of expression in Cham, which are informed by competing beliefs about heritage, authenticity, and global cosmopolitanism. Through an investigation both informal and institutionally organized interactions, this study analyzes how young people are presented with new and sometimes contradictory opportunities for the acquisition and use of their endangered language in the context of rural–urban migration. In becoming regarded as competent users of the Cham language and Akhar thrah orthography, people leaving the palei illuminate how the countryside—iconized as a “source” of indigenous tradition—maintains a mutually constitutive relationship with the city amidst Vietnam’s rapid modernization.

Keywords: Language Endangerment, Socialization, Migration, Cham, Vietnam