Speech Sounds and Linguistic Features of the Chin Language of Myanmar (Burma)
Categories: English Language Learners - Evaluation and Therapy
One challenge that Speech-Language Pathologists face when asked to conduct a speech-language evaluation on a bilingual speaker or someone who speaks a language other than English is understanding whether their speech and language patterns are typical or whether they are indicative of a speech disorder or language disorder. There are a number of Chin speakers in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the United States. Knowledge of the speech sounds that exist in Chin, the rules for how those sounds can be combined, and the language structures of Chin will help us to be able to make better decisions about whether Chin speakers we evaluate have speech and language disorders or whether their patterns are typical for Chin-English bilingual language development.
Conflict and violence in Myanmar (Burma) have led many people from that region to the United States. As children from Myanmar enter the United States school system, they bring with them their native tongue and begin learning English in school. For speech-language pathologists, it is important for us to understand the Chin speech sounds and Chin language features in order to better understand expected patterns that may be used by native Chin speakers as they develop proficiency in the English language.
According to Ethnomed, the majority of Chin refugees entering the United States have limited education and are between the ages of 20-40, many with young children. There is a sizeable population of Chin people in the Seattle area.
In this post, we will share information about the Chin language spoken by those from Myanmar. It is also called Hakha Chin or Lai. In a separate post we will share information about Karen. There are many Karenic languages. We gathered information about the Karenic language spoken by most people, which is S’gaw Karen.
Where is the Chin language spoken?
Chin is spoken in western Myanmar (Burma) in the Chin State, as well as northeastern India and southeastern Bangladesh. Chin is spoken by roughly half a million people.
What language family does Chin originate from?
It is a language that stems from the Sino-Tibetan language family. Both the Latin script and Burmese script are used for the written language.
Are there different dialects of the Chin language?
There are approximately 40-45 dialects of the Chin language. The most commonly spoken are Tedim, Hakha, Falam, and Mindat Cho. (See Leslie Morris’s comment below–some linguists consider these to be different languages rather than dialects.)
Customary Greetings and Nonverbal Interactions for Chin speakers
- The Chin people often greet each other with a gentle handshake.
- Direct eye contact can be viewed as a challenge and impolite.
- Most Chin do not look each other directly in the eyes when speaking to one another.
- According to the Center for Applied Linguistics (2007), there is a high degree of respect for elders. Signs of respect include bending at the waist and crossing both arms over the chest. Sitting at a lower level than elders is also a sign of respect. Pointing feet towards anyone is a sign of disrespect.
- It is common for children to be quiet when in the presence of elders. This is a sign of respect.
Chin Speech Sounds
Below are Venn diagrams that include the consonant and vowel phonemes of Chin as they compare to English. The sounds on the left side of the Venn diagrams are unique to Chin. The sounds on the right side of the Venn diagram are unique to English. The sounds in the center of the Venn diagram are shared sounds. Note that three of the sounds exist in both languages but, in Chin, are produced with slight dentalization, unlike in English.
The vowel sounds of Chin all exist in English. There are no vowel sounds in Chin that do not exist in English but there are many English vowel sounds that do not exist in Chin. The result of this for a Chin-speaker learning English is that they may substitute a vowel from their vowel repertoire when they encounter an unfamiliar vowel sound in English. This is a typical pattern that can be understood as Chin-influenced English. It is not indicative of a speech disorder.
Phonology in the Chin Language
- Words are primarily monosyllabic but there are some multisyllabic words that have been borrowed from other languages.
- Chin is a tonal language. Syllables can be rising, falling or low tone.
- Hakha Chin has voiced and voiceless consonants like English but also has aspirated consonants that differentiate meaning. For example, there are three bilabial plosives, p, b, and pʰ.
- The parent language of Chin, Proto-Chin, included [g] (voiced velar plosive) but it was eventually lost from the language. There are a number of borrowed words used in Chin that include [g] but it is rare.
Chin Language Features
- Chin has a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) sentence structure. An example of this is, “I ball throw.” Subject-Verb and Object Verb are also acceptable structures.
- Negation follows the verb in Chin, unlike in English. Thus a structure such as, “I ball throw not” or “I go not” would be acceptable.
- Plurality is marked by adding a suffix. There are a number of different suffixes that can be used to mark plurals. Thus, when learning English, the practice of adding a suffix to mark plurality will not be a new concept.
- Possession is indicated by syntax and not morphology (‘s), as in English.
- There are no definite articles in Chin.
- There are no indefinite articles in Chin.
- Adjectives follow nouns. For example, the description “pillow orange” would be an expected pattern for a Chin speaker in the process of learning English.
- Quantity is also marked after the the noun (e.g. pillows three) instead of prior to the nouns (e.g. three pillows), as is typical in English.
For more information about the process of evaluating speech and language skills in bilinguals, get a copy of Difference or Disorder: Understanding Speech and Language Development in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. It is available in paperback and ebook versions.
We also have online courses to walk you through this process for speech and language. The book and two courses come in the Difference or Disorders Essentials Pack.
For more information about Chin speech sound and Chin language features, see the World Atlas of Language Structures Online.
The Open Language Archives also has valuable information about the Chin language.
Appreciate the attention given to the group of languages that are spoken in the Chin State of Myanmar as well as parts of India. EthnoMed.org does refer to “dialects” of the “Chin language”, but linguists consider these to be distinct languages, not dialects. Indiana University linguist Kelly Berkson founded the Chin Languages Project in 2018 to learn more about this poorly documented language group and to help develop “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.”
Thank you so much for sharing this. I always appreciate your anthropological expertise. I’ll make a note in the post for readers to check out our comment.
Thank you! Thank you! I have had to do my own research over the past years for both Chin and Karen. We have a fairly large community in our district in Houston so this is very appreciated. Keep up the good work!
Thanks for the kind words! We are so happy to help!