Karen (Myanmar)

The Karen Tribe of Thailand and Burma/Myanmar

Brief History

According the Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation, the Karen (or Kayin) are a tribe of people from Southeast Asia.  There are many subgroups of the Karen tribe, which are diverse in culture and language.  The majority of the Karen resides in Eastern Burma/Myanmar (about 7 million) and a lesser number (300,000 recorded) reside in Western Thailand.  According to Ratanakul (2001), the Karen is the largest tribal minority in each of these two countries.  A number of those living in Thailand are refugees from Burma/Myanmar, where they have been fighting a 60-year civil war against the Burmese military for cultural rights and autonomy.  Between 2005-2011, almost 70,000 Karen refugees relocated to the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and Canada.  The Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Portland reported that in 2008, there were approximately 200 Karen immigrants in the Portland area.  They expected roughly 5000 more to immigrate here by 2013. 


Most Karen are either Buddhist, Animist, or Christian, or a mix of these.  Animism is the belief in spirits that exist in nature; measures must be taken and customs followed to ensure not to upset these spirits. 


There are several distinct dialects of Karen. S’gaw and Pwo are the first and second most widely spoken dialects, respectively.  These two dialects do not differ greatly in terms of structure or vocabulary, but speakers of each dialect may have a difficult time understanding the other as they differ in how nasal sounds affect pronunciation.  The following information, gathered from Ratanakul (2001), reflects the S’gaw dialect.  It will be imperative to communicate with your client to identify the specific dialect spoken. 

More detailed information on Karen Dialects


Chin (Hakha & Falam Chin)

There are 40 to 45 dialects of the Chin languages. The most frequently spoken are Tedmin (Northern Chin), Hakha and Falam (Central Chin), and Mindat Cho (Southern Chin). Each Chin dialect is so different that people from different regions may not understand each other. The majority of the Chin who live the United States speak Hakha Chin and are called the Hill People. The Chin, who have fled their country are predominately Christian tribes who were converted by missionaries.  They have been religiously persecuted for and many have fled as refugees to neighboring countries India, Thailand and Malaysia. Chin spent many years either hiding in the forest amd hills or in refugee camps in order to get their family out. The US allows a certain amount of political refugees. Hakha Chin and Falam Chin are phonetically very similar; about 85% of the phonemes and the accent are exactly the same which makes it very easy for the Hakha and Falam Chins to communicate. Hakha and Falam Chin are the most prevalent languages of the Chin living in the United States. Words in the Hakha Chin Language are mostly monosyllabic and full syllables are either open or closed, with a tone. Hakha Chin differentiates between voiced, voiceless, voiceless aspirated obstruents and two sets of sonorants.









































Central affricates















Lateral affricates























































Consonants /p, t, k, m, n, ŋ, l, r, j, w/ are allowed in syllable codas. With exception to Proto-Chin, all other Chin languages do not have a voiced velar plosive but they are present in loanwords. 



















The 5 vowels in Hakha can be long or short and allophones occur for closed syllables. 









ia iu




ui ua



ei eu







ai au




S’gaw Karen has 24 consonants, many of which overlap with the consonants of American English (/p/, /t/, /k/, /ʔ/, /b/, /d/, /j/, /s/, /∫/, /h/, /z/, /w/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, and /l/).  In Karen, aspirated and unaspirated p, t, and k are distinct phonemes, while in English, they are not. 

S’gaw Karen uses 9 distinct vowels, similar to the vowels of Thai, with slight variations in their placement.  The three back vowels are rounded, while the three mid and three front vowels are not.  There are no diphthongs, except in words borrowed from Thai, or in onomatopoeia (words associated with the sound for which they were named). Many of the vowels of Karen overlap with the vowels of Standard American English and have similar placement.  English, however, has more vowels, including diphthongs.

Karen is a tonal language, and relies on tones, as well as phonemes, for meaning.  S’gaw Karen has three tones -- a low, mid, and high level tone.  Traditionally, S’gaw Karen only uses level tones, but a rising contour tone is often used for emotive reasons to express doubt or self-pity.  Other contour tones may be observed due to Thai influences.

Audio sample of spoken S'gaw Karen

Word Structure

While all of Karen’s 24 consonants can be used in word initial position, the glottal stop is the only final consonant.  Karen also has several initial consonant clusters.  Only the Karen phonemes /r/, /l/, /w/, /ɣ/, and /j/ can be in the C2 position in CCV words.  There are no prefixes or suffixes for words.  With a few exceptions, Karen is a monosyllabic language.

Sentence Structure 

According to the Summer Institute for Linguistics, S’gaw Karen typically follows a Subject Verb Object word order.  Unlike English, in noun phrases, the adjective follows the noun (ie -- the house blue).

In S’gaw Karen, whenever a noun is used and its quantity is specified, it must also have a numerical classifier (CL).  This concept does not exist in English.  The numerical classifier is a morpheme that identifies units, usually by referring to the noun’s general shape (for example: if referring to a snake, the modifier would be “coiled thing;” for a necklace the modifier would be “long thin object”).  Due to the fact that numerical classifiers do not exist in English, they can be a difficult concept to understand.  Sentences with numerical classifiers follow the following word order: Noun + Adjective + Numeral + Classifier + Demonstrative

Social Rules/Pragmatics

The following “rules” are generalizations and may not apply to all Karen individuals.  

  • Smiling:  It is customary for the Karen to smile during interactions.
  • Greetings: It is customary to shake hands when greeting someone. 
  • Shoes in the house: It is customary to remove your shoes before entering a Karen family’s home.  It is also customary to ask permission before entering a bedroom or the kitchen. 
  • Birthdays: Birthdays may not be celebrated, known, or recorded.  Families may not be certain of the exact ages of children.
  • Education: The Karen tend to place a high value on education.  It is considered inappropriate to address a teacher by their given (first) name. However, depending on their prior living situations, not all Karen individuals may have had access to educational opportunities.  They may feel "left behind" as a result.
  • Animism: There are a number of acts that are taboo for those that practice Animism.  For example, women may not cross a broom or put their hand in the rice pot.  
  • Names: According the Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation, members of the Karen tribe do not usually use family names.  They have given names that, when translated to English, may have more than one part.  The last part should not be confused with a family (or last) name.  Names may indicate place in the family (youngest son, oldest daughter). 
  • It is common to use honorifics when speaking of family members in third person, but not when addressing them directly.  Honorifics will vary depending on the ethnic group or dialect.  Examples are Saw, Naw, Mahn, Sa, and Nant.  When speaking directly to family members, it is impolite to use the honorific or given name alone.  Members can be addressed using a familial term in addition to the given name.  For example, the familial term for father is Par and mother is Mor.  When working with families from the Karen tribe, it may be best to ask them how they would like to be addressed. 

Clinical Implications for the SLP

Based on the research, the following are some cross-linguistic effects that may be present in the English of native Karen speakers:

  • Confusion or misuse of adjectives and adverbs in English.  Distinction between these classes of words in Karen is not always clear.
  • Final consonant deletion in English may be frequent due to the fact that Karen has no final consonants with the exception of the glottal stop.  
  • Almost all words in Karen are monosyllabic, which may lead to difficulties with producing multi-syllabic words.
  • The Karen language does not include diphthongs and has fewer vowels than English.  Although the vowels are similar to those of American English, there are subtle differences in placement.  It will be important consider these differences when assessing vowel production in Karen speakers.  
  • There are fewer consonant clusters in Karen, and several phonemes in English do not exist in Karen (including English "r").  These differences need to be taken into consideration before assuming aspeech sound disorder exists.
  • Due to cultural and religious differences, clients from a Karen tribe may have ideas of what caused their illness/communication difficulties that differ from Western medical explanations.  It is important to be respectful of these differences and take family explanations into consideration.
  • Due to the numerous linguistic differences between English and Karen, clinicians who are unfamiliar with the language need a basic understanding of the rules of the language to accurately differentiate between difference and disorder. 

Some Karen, Chin and Mon people will understand and speak Burmese, but it is not necessarily their first language. They have also been oppressed by the majority Burmese culture and may not wish to speak the language. It is also not an assumption that all Burmese people speak English.  It may be problematic to use members of one ethnic group as interpreters for members of another ethnic group, particularly using a Burmese interpreter for someone from a minority group. SLPs need to be aware of the challenges the refugees may face including: 

  • Possible adjustment from rural to urban life
  • Cultural and language barriers
  • Many refugees have experienced violence and oppression
  • Mental health issues
  • Fear of police and law force
  • Some refugees may be reluctant to ask for what they need

Clinical and Educational Resources

Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation

Refugees from Burma: Their Backgrounds and Refugee Experiences

The Virtual Hilltribe Museum

Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (Portland, OR)

 ** For more info please see Thailand


Original Contributors: Jordan Lusk and Lisa Doane, Winter 2013