Learning the Sgaw dialect of the Karen language over the 2014–15 school year on a Boren Fellowship grant along the Thailand-Myanmar border has been a great experience for many different reasons. I wish to summarize one experience here.

I knew that there would be various challenges to learning a language that is not sponsored by a national state. What I did not expect was how much this non-state aspect of language learning would affect both the way one goes about foreign language acquisition and my own thoughts on the idea of the state itself. As someone undergoing training in an Anglo-American tradition of political science, our academic subject matter, in one way or another, is almost always about the state—that is, government, the people that are ruled by government, and all the multifarious relationships and bases of power that constitute a polity. There are more complicated ways to discuss this thing we call a state, but for here I want to focus on one challenge I stumbled across to all of this. Studying and living in a language community of around two million, which stretches over frontiers of various sorts—national, linguistic, economic, geographic, others—has provided me with more than a few opportunities of epiphanic, if perhaps naïve, clarity that otherwise would have been unavailable if one had remained stateside.

One of the more memorable Zen-like moments came as we were going over the Karen words for different professions.

My vocabulary list, created by some hapless Baptist missionary from the middle of the last century, had… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in The Mandala: Newsletter of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at NIU by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit goes to Beata. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. white-compass-rose-th