Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

John M. Clifton


How do Karen immigrants use language within Colorado communities? My thesis answers this question through narrative case studies of six S’gaw Karen women. Many Karen refugees, who flee the decades-long conflict within their homeland in Myanmar (Burma), find themselves navigating life first in Thailand, and eventually in the United States as foreign-language speakers. These refugees encounter numerous linguistic and cultural barriers in their new U.S. homeland, where it is difficult to function in many domains if they do not have the opportunity to learn much English upon arrival.

The six case studies are based on recorded sociolinguistic qualitative open interviews. I apply two principles from Labov (1981) in my methodology, to learn about both the personal experiences and language patterns of the Karen in their communities. I provide an emic perspective through presenting direct quotations from the women.

The main languages discussed in the narratives are S’gaw Karen, Pwo Karen, English, and Burmese; the narrators maintain language use of Karen in the home and church settings, though their language is shifting to English in the work and school settings. They report that young refugees are showing shift away from the primary native Karen language of their parents. Coulmas’ (2013) utility principle and Karan’s (2011) Perceived Benefit Model provide some reasons for language shift. Children find the Karen language difficult and opt to use English instead in many cases, since they say it is easier. However, identifying as Karen ethnically for solidarity purposes is also indicated. Karen is one of the multiple identities the Karen have that accompanies language shift. Other identities for some Karen include American, immigrant, youth, and being a Burmese speaker. At times, these identities are evident through marked and unmarked code-switching. Finally, the narrators indicate that the Karen church is one of the primary institutions for preservation of Karen culture and identity.

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