Reconsidering Language Endangerment in Mainland Southeast Asia

Author: Emily Long Olsen (CUNY Graduate Center)
Speaker: Emily Long Olsen
Topic: Language Documentation
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


Kachok [ISO 639-3: xkk] is a minority language of Cambodia, spoken in rural northeastern Ratanakiri province. On Ethnologue (Simons & Fennig 2018), the language status of Kachok is listed as “6b: Threatened.” I argue that the Kachok language and community illustrate the need for a system which, in determining a language’s endangerment status, considers its local context.
In Mainland Southeast Asian (MSEA), rates of linguistic diversity remain high. Many of the languages spoken in MSEA are frequently considered endangered by the larger linguistic community based on widely-used universal scales of language endangerment. The Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS) was developed by Fishman (1991) as a universal framework for evaluating a language’s status based on factors including its use in institutionalized contexts (government, education, media), the size of the population of native speakers, and the rate of intergenerational transmission.

“Zomia” is a name for the large region of land in MSEA that stretches across the highlands of Vietnam, Laos, Northern Thailand, southwestern China, and into Myanmar. It was coined in by social scientist William van Schendel in an effort to characterize the area for its unique political and social history (van Schendel 2002, as paraphrased in Michaud, 2010).

A holistic model of language status in the area of Zomia must reflect the unique set of social and political circumstances that characterize its people groups. Because of the isolation and independence of the people in this area, media and education are not widespread; This factor must be weighted less heavily than it is in other areas of the world where all young speakers attend school and/or consume media in a majority language. A comprehensive model of language health also considers the value that the community assigns to its own language and how it is or is not correlated with traditional measures such as population size, bilingualism, and intergenerational transmission.

Kachok and other languages of MSEA exemplify the importance of evaluating a language’s vitality and health in a local, regional context as opposed to a global one. By more comprehensively evaluating a language’s vitality, a clearer image of the linguistic diversity of MSEA and its prognosis comes into focus.


Fishman, J. A. (1991). Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages (Vol. 76). Multilingual matters.

Michaud, J. (2010). Editorial–Zomia and beyond. Journal of Global History, 5(2), 187–214.
Keywords: endangered, Mon-Khmer, Kachok, Cambodia