UCLA International Institute
Asia Institute

Advancing collaborative, interdisciplinary research on Asia worldwide


The Southeast of Asian Languages and Cultures

The Southeast of Asian Languages and Cultures

How Southeast Asian languages joined the East Asian Languages and Cultures Department

Before colonial geography imposed its ordering of continents, and before the US fought a war through the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, earlier conquests, trade and migration already constituted this region as a meeting place of diverse peoples, languages, religions, and ways of life. In other words, Southeast Asia resembles Southern California with its diverse assemblage due to a history of conquest, trade, and migration. But besides this resemblance, the two places are also directly entangled. Americans colonized the Philippines and fought the global Cold War in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. It should not surprise anyone to find Filipinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians here. And the current global economy continues to intensify the straddling of people, languages, goods, money, and stories across the oceanic body of the Pacific. It is then no wonder that UCLA, located on one end of the flight routes between the two places, should become a focal point for the study of Southeast Asian languages and cultures. But what is also interesting is its current home in the department of East Asian Languages and Cultures (EALC).

Southeast Asian language instruction wandered through various departmental homes before settling in the hospitable environment of East Asian Languages and Cultures in 1999 as part of the division of South and Southeast Asian Languages and Cultures (SSEALC). Under the direction of Professor Shoichi Iwasaki, language instruction led the way with Gyanam Mahajan for Hindi, Juliana Wijaya/Mary Zurbuchen for Indonesian, Tania Azores/Boots Pascual/Nenita Domingo for Filipino/Tagalog, Ketkanda Jutrongkachoke/ Supa Angkurawaranon for Thai, and Tin Pham/Cao- Duong Pham/Quyen-Di Bui for Vietnamese. As these pioneers put down roots in EALC, SSEALC also grew in two-way relationships with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, the Interdisciplinary Program (IDP) in Southeast Asian Studies, and the IDP in Asian American Studies at UCLA. Such growth led to the addition of ladder faculty George Dutton and Thu-huong Nguyen-vo, who now offer courses on Vietnamese and Southeast Asian history, religion, and culture including film and literature. Programmatic expansion most recently brings new lecturer KimDzung Pham for Intermediate and Advanced Vietnamese. Courses serve both Southeast Asian heritage students and non-heritage students. Language courses like those in Vietnamese even develop instruction tailored to these two different kinds of needs in language acquisition. In class, heritage and non-heritage students find they must engage with each other and thus broaden and deepen their reflection on their own positions as a function of both history and on-going political, economic, social, and cultural processes of our era. Cultures and languages thus no longer appear discrete, but interconnected in larger continental and global connections.

Originally focusing on East Asia, the host department of East Asian Languages and Cultures incorporated, supported, and grew with SSEALC. Buddhist Studies and Indic Studies broadened the department's geographical claim with new faculty. Soon faculty with expertise ranging from Northeast to South to Southeast Asia found mutual engagement through collaborative work and study tracks like Buddhist Studies and Cultural and Comparative Studies that span nations and regions of Asia. Such broadening of faculty allowed for not only new intellectual common grounds but also called for the reorganization and renaming of the department. The department will soon be known as Asian Languages and Cultures. It is fitting that the study of Southeast Asian languages and cultures now thrives in a reconfigured "gateway" between two continents across the Pacific.

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From the vol. 1, no. 1, Winter 2004 issue of the newsletter of the UCLA Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures.