Shannon Bischoff, Jens Clegg, Harold Odden & Chad Thompson – University of Copenhagen

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Mon Language and Well Being: A Case Study in Community-Based Research and Heritage Language Maintenance in the US

Shannon Bischoff, Jens Clegg, Harold Odden & Chad Thompson, Purdue University Fort Wayne

We present a case study and preliminary findings from a community-based research project (Rice 2010, 2011; Czaykowska-Higgins 2009; among others), involving Mon refugees in Fort Wayne Indiana. The Mon are an ethnic group indigenous to Burma (Myanmar) and speak the Mon language (ISO 639-3/monn1252). Since the end of British colonial rule in 1948, the ethnic Burman have dominated Burma politically, culturally, and linguistically. This has led to civil war, the displacement of various other ethnic groups, and Burmanization within the country (South 2013). As a result Mon culture and language have been under threat within the national borders of Burma and elsewhere where Mon refugees and their children have assimilated to local cultures such as in Thailand (Mon 2010). In response, Mon activists established language and cultural education efforts to preserve and maintain linguistic, literary, and cultural knowledge and practices of the Mon community. These practices have been brought to refugee communities in Thailand, Singapore, and the United States.

Mon refugees began arriving in Fort Wayne Indiana in the US in 1993. Today there are perhaps 1,000 Mon community members in Fort Wayne with approximately 600 youth under 18 years-of-age, many of whom were born in the US. By 1999 the Fort Wayne community had established Mon language classes which today serve over 100 students. The Mon school has been modeled after similar endeavors in Burma associated with Mon Theravada Buddhist temples, and is today housed in Fort Wayne at the community temple. The classes focus on language instruction through community developed resources and curriculum grounded in Buddhism with an emphasis on spoken and literary Mon. In 2013 we began working with refugees of Burma in Fort Wayne collecting data on linguistic practices and attitudes. Out of this research a relationship developed between Mon leaders and the project leader of the linguistic survey. Community leaders expressed a desire to find measureable ways to study the broader impacts of the summer language programs on the community in the hopes of demonstrating the value of Mon language education. Additionally, older Mon speakers in the community were concerned that younger speakers were not learning the language fluently. This led to the development of the project under discussion. Working in consultation and collaboration with Mon leaders, the research team developed a study intended to shed light on the linguistic abilities of Mon language students, their wellbeing, and any correlations between the two. Research (see Wakefield & Hudley 2007; Phinney et al. 2001; among others), has shown that there is correlation between heritage language attitudes and use and aspects of individual wellbeing, such as academic outcomes. We believed a study in the Mon community could add to our understanding of such correlations as the Fort Wayne Mon community has a number of characteristics that make such research of interest in the US context. These characteristics include:

  • a long literary tradition that is considered a key aspect of their culture;
  • fluency in Mon as a defining attribute of ethnic/national identity;
  • the language and culture is threatened in their homeland and so steps had been taken to preserve it before coming to Fort Wayne; language classes have been conducted in Fort Wayne for thirteen years; and
  • language and culture are tied to Theravada Buddhism, and the Buddhist temple is the location of the language classes and cultural activities.

The research involved assessing fluency, literacy, and general wellbeing of 100 bilingual (to varying degrees) Mon youth (8 – 25 years of age) involved in the language school community. The team used a variety of techniques to measure phonological production of specific phones found in Mon but not English that community leaders believed were not productively found in the speech of youth (e.g., voiceless sonorants and implosives). In addition, participants were given lexical tasks and other linguistic tasks designed to measure community defined fluency. Further, a medical anthropologist on the team developed protocols (e.g. survey data, blood pressure, academic transcripts), to collect data on various dimensions of physiological, psychological, and social wellbeing. Preliminary findings from the study suggest a positive correlation between prosocial behavior and various measures of fluency and literacy in Mon adolescents. This is of particular significance to the community as leaders expressed that a primary factor for developing the language school was to promote behaviors consonant with Mon values and Theravada Buddhism. In addition, early findings suggest that there is correlation between greater fluency in Mon and other aspects of well-being such as greater academic success and lower level of externalizing behaviors. While the data is still being analyzed, preliminary findings suggest that the language and cultural program in general is having a positive impact on the youth of the community. The study also demonstrates the potential for such collaborative projects for preservation of minority languages as well as fostering refugee/immigrant community relations with the broader community.


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