The son of a Bible translator, Kenneth Van Bik was introduced to the power of language at an early age.
“My father spent about 16 years translating the Bible into Hakha Lai, so my interest in linguistics really began at the family dinner table,” said the Cal State Fullerton assistant professor of linguistics. “What excites me about this field is finding how people are connected by investigating how languages are related and not related.”
With nearly two decades of linguistics research in the Tibeto-Burman area, Van Bik was recently awarded a National Science Foundation grant to study six endangered languages in his native country of Myanmar.
Only about 600 of the world’s 6,000 languages are stable, according to David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language.
“When a generation of youth in a small community is under pressure to switch to the surrounding dominant language, that language would be considered endangered,” explained Van Bik.
Such is the case for at least six minority languages in the Chin State of Myanmar: Tapong, Vanha, Lamtuk, Sakta, Mkaang and Taungtha. To date, the languages have only been recorded in fragmented wordlists, in part because of limited access to the region.
“The minority areas had been off-limit to westerners after the military took over the country in 1962,” explained Van Bik. “The regime feared that western scholars would document the human rights violations. Only with the implementation of a democratic government after the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010, was the ban lifted.
“There is a window of opportunity for research on these languages, which has not been open for over half a century.”
A “cultural insider,” Van Bik will play a key role in furthering access to the local communities.
“Having grown up there, I know how to navigate the local politics in order to advance our research,” he said. “My knowledge of the cultures and the country’s laws will help us manage the unspoken social norms in the right manner.”
Van Bik holds a doctorate in linguistics from UC Berkeley and will conduct the research alongside associate professor David Peterson of Dartmouth College beginning in September. Under the grant, students from both faculty members’ universities will have opportunities to participate in research and language documentation. Materials collected under the project will be archived with the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures.
For more information about this project, contact Kenneth Van Bik at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about supporting faculty research in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, contact senior director of development Alina Mircea-Trotz at email@example.com.