Chin Languages Research Project

If someone had told me three years ago that I was living an hour away from a robust, multilingual community in which 30 or more under-resourced languages were being spoken, I wouldn’t have believed them. In late 2017, however, I learned that Indiana is home to over 25,000 Burmese refugees, many of whom live in Indianapolis, hail from Chin State in western Myanmar/ Burma, and speak languages from the Kuki-Chin branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family. Chin languages are under-studied (many entirely undocumented), exhibit numerous typologically rare properties, and are spoken by thousands of people an hour north of campus. It’s the kind of thing that leaves a speech scientist speechless.

This reality led to the creation of the Chin Languages Resource Project, a developing collaboration between IU linguists and members of the Indianapolis Chin community. It began in January 2018 with a field methods class devoted to Laiholh/ Hakha Chin, a lingua franca in both Chin State and Indianapolis. Since then, IU undergraduate members of the Indianapolis Chin community have become essential members of my lab. Our team of graduate students, UG lab members, and faculty members from around campus has undertaken a research and service agenda devoted to developing both linguistic resources (e.g. analytical, theoretical) and practical resources (e.g. speech technology for use in emergency rooms).

The opportunity to conduct fruitful linguistic research right here in our own backyard is invaluable, and the scholarly possibilities are myriad. Given the number of language-related needs in any refugee community, so too are the opportunities to be of practical use. By weaving first generation, native-speaker students into the fabric of the research process from the ground up, the project imparts contextualized, transferable, scientific training and re-imagines the relationship between fieldwork and outreach, research and service, documentation and empowerment.

Project highlights: In summer 2018, as a first step towards the eventual development of speech technology, we began building a Laiholh corpus using the Mozilla Common Voice platform. We discussed this work at the 3rd Workshop on Computational Methods for Endangered Languages in February 2019. Laiholh fieldwork is ongoing. Topics under investigation include the articulation/acoustics of typologically rare coronal contrasts (Stefon Flego) and demonstratives/ multiple determination (James C. Wamsley).

Language snapshot: We’ve also begun working with Zophei and Lutuv, both of which are undocumented apart from our work here at IU. PhD candidate Samson Lotven is writing a dissertation on the sound system of Zophei. UG researchers-in- training involved in Zophei work are Zai Sung, Thomas Thawngza, and Kimberly Sakhong. The newest member of our team, first year graduate student Amanda Bohnert, is working with UG researcher-in-training Sui Hnem Par on Lutuv.

Summer 2019 UG Research Internship: Support from the IU Office of Undergraduate Research and the IU Social Science Research Commons funded three UG research internships this summer which culminated in poster presentations at an IU-wide event (pictured on the previous page). Thomas Thawngza (mentor: James C. Wamsley) presented “A Survey on Hakha Lai Acquisition and Attitudes”; Zai Sung (mentor: Samson Lotven) presented “The Zophei Verbal Complex”; Sui Hnem Par (mentors Berkson, Lotven) presented “Literacy Efforts in Lutuv”.

New journal: You can find more of our work at our new journal, Indiana Working Papers in South Asian Languages and Cultures, which we’ll use to ensure regular dissemination of our research findings. The inaugural volume (July 2019) contains papers that emerged from the Laiholh field methods class, as well as Swadesh lists for Zophei and Lutuv.

Want to support our work?

Tax deductible gifts can be made at https://www.myiu.org/one-time-gift. Use the “search all funds” box to find Chin Languages Resource Fund.
$1800 supports one UG student for one semester.
$5200 supports a graduate student summer research position.
$70,000 supports a post-doctoral researcher for one year.