Academic journal article Asian Social Science

Losing Chinese as the First Language in Thailand

Academic journal article Asian Social Science

Losing Chinese as the First Language in Thailand

Article excerpt


Much of the classical sociolinguistic literature on the issue of language maintenance amongst Sino-Siamese communities rely on language-use data on a sample of third-fifth generation Thais with Chinese ethnic roots, the majority of whose great grandparents immigrated to Thailand during the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century. As such, in this literature, are excluded the large sample of first-generation overseas Chinese and second-fifth generation ethnic Chinese immigrated to Thailand more roughly between 1970 and 2000. Thus, the linkage between factors governing language maintenance are to be interpreted with due caution in view of limitations in the samples discussed in the extant literature. The current study includes an assessment of the language-usage patterns and present perceptions of the vitality and sustainability of Chinese variants amongst not only the older generations, but also amongst those who have more recently immigrated, thereby rounding out a much fuller picture of the current sociolinguistic situation of those of Chinese descent domiciled in Thailand. Additionally, this study aims to examine the full range of sociological factors that contribute to the maintenance and extensive shift away from Chinese variants toward Thai and Mandarin. It accordingly complements the earlier research of Morita, but not lending support to the Skinnerian paradigm of assimilation. The sample gathered consisted of eight dialect groups. Three types of instruments of research-a questionnaire, observations, and semi-structured interviews-were utilized in collecting data. The data suggest that language-usage patterns, perceptions of vitality and sustainability of ethnic languages are strongly linked to generational changes in ethnic-linguistic identities and discursive practices governing social inclusion/exclusion, amongst other factors.

Keywords: ethnic Chinese, Sino-Siamese, Chinese Thai, language maintenance, language shift

1. Introduction

1.1 Introduce the Problem

This contribution to language-use, language-vitality and language-shift research was carried out in the Bangkok Metropolis area of Thailand. In today's increasingly monolingual Standard Thai-speaking population in the Sino-Siamese communities discussed, the increasingly weakening vitality of Chinese variants spoken as first languages (henceforth L1s) and/or ancestral/ethnic/heritage languages (henceforth HLs) spoken by members of the communities under consideration and the shift away from Chinese variants toward the habitual use of the official state language-Standard Thai-and Mandarin are two notable sociological phenomena.

As a complement to previous sociolinguistic data, this article examines three interrelated social phenomena-language use, vitality and shift-which underline the dynamic interaction between these phenomena. In a summary of previous studies, three particular issues are identified:

Previous sociolinguistic research investigations of ethnic Chinese communities in Thailand are not current (Skinner, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1973; Boonsanong, 1971; Chan & Tong, 1993; Hill, 1998; Morita, 2003, 2007). As such, these investigations were largely restricted to the sociolinguistic experiences of third-fifth generation ethnic Chinese (their great grandparents migrated to Thailand during the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth). There has therefore been an extreme paucity of studies investigating first-third generation overseas Chinese and later generations of ethnic Chinese who have more recently immigrated in the three decade 1970-2000 period. Furthermore, the disparity with regard to language-usage patterns (influenced by intra-and inter-ethnic interactions across communicative domains) amongst the old and the new Chinese diaspora also warrants further investigation.

Additionally, previous studies (e.g., Skinner, 1957; Morita, 2003, 2007) overlooked the disparity shown by different Chinese immigrant subgroups-dialect groups-in the degree of ethnic language maintenance (henceforth LM) and language shift (henceforth LS). …

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