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Student Pioneers S’gaw Karen Language Course

Undergraduate student introduces FLang 330, a S’gaw Karen course for returned missionaries.

Laesgaw K'Chawtee.jpeg
Laesgaw K'Chawtee (right) stands with an elephant.
Photo by Laesgaw K'Chawtee

Laesgaw K’Chawtee (International Relations ’25) never thought he would teach S’gaw Karen (a language originating in Southeast Asia) at BYU, much less as an undergraduate student. To his surprise, K’Chawtee started teaching Foreign Language 330: Advanced Language and Culture this semester, a S’gaw Karen class for returned missionaries with a background in the language.

If you haven’t heard of S’gaw Karen, you’re not alone: there are only 4.5 million native speakers, most living in Myanmar (formerly Burma), Thailand, Buffalo, St. Paul, and Omaha. “S’gaw” refers to the dialect while “Karen” refers to the group of people. Sadly, since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the Burmese military propagated genocidal campaigns against the Karen people, leaving a dwindling number of speakers. Today, the Burmese government continues to oppress the Karen by removing the language from school curriculums. The language’s lack of progression in Myanmar makes the BYU course all the more impactful.

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, K’Chawtee learned S’gaw Karen as a child, but he forgot his native tongue once he moved to the US and learned English. He began to revive his language skills on his mission to Kentucky when his mission president asked him to open new Karen teaching areas.

Coming back from his mission, K’Chawtee hoped that he’d be able to use the language at BYU. There was just one problem: BYU didn’t offer any S’gaw Karen courses. Determined to help himself and fellow students learn the language, K’Chawtee approached the Center for Language Studies (CLS) hoping he might be able to teach the class, gain credit for his international relations major, and introduce the language to BYU.

School administration soon approved the class, and K’Chawtee became the official teacher of S’gaw Karen. But starting this class didn’t come without its challenges. Because K’Chawtee is the only native speaker on campus, he has pioneered the course completely on his own. “Everything I’m teaching is from scratch. It’s based on what I observed from my own language and my understanding of the English language and training. There’s not a guidebook like other languages,” he says.

Instead of a guidebook, K’Chawtee reached out to Karen friends for advice on formulating the coursework, explaining the grammar, and translating difficult texts for his lessons. Each week, he assigns his students a chapter of Bible reading from Come, Follow Me in Karen and asks them to record themselves reading five to six verses once a week.

For K’Chawtee, teaching the class is a way of overcoming enemy power. “The regime’s mission is to Burmanize the land. To this end, they have been taking our land, murdering our people, and destroying our culture and ethnic identity,” he says. “Although I am not in the trenches fighting bloody battles to free my people from bondage, this class allows me to help preserve and spread the love of my people and our beautiful language.”

The teaching of S’gaw Karen promotes the BYU core competency of second-language learning. The College of Humanities and CLS spearhead this mission by teaching over 50 languages, several of them as small as S’gaw Karen. CLS provides access to language training for students because “advanced language learning brings advanced cultural insights, increases global understanding, and reveals the limitations of any monolingual view of the world.” As students learn these smaller languages and the skills that go along with them, they are more prepared to “go forth to serve.”

For now, Foreign Language 330 is only open to returned missionaries who spoke S’gaw Karen on their missions, but K’Chawtee hopes that changes in the future. He hopes the offerings grow as awareness of the language increases, whether that be through starting a S’gaw Karen club or adding additional courses. “I think it gives returning missionaries an opportunity to learn more of the culture that they love,” he says. “It is a great milestone for the Karen people because their language has been recognized by a prestigious university in the Western world.”