By Jennifer Tran-Math
Contributing Writer

Abstract: Persecuted and ousted by French and Vietnamese officials, the only remaining records of the South East Asian empire of Champa has been recorded by the French Colonial Records via letters from the French Embassy in Paris. Through outside contact, the Cham have lost their territory in what is now known as modern day Vietnam. Throughout history, this ethnic group has been subjugated but has managed to maintain their cultural identity and customs. This paper will address the strength of the Cham language, which binds these people together into a coherent group.


In the central plateau of Vietnam rests a past unknown to a traveler in the city of My Son. As one wanders around this historic ground, countless monuments of Shiva, the four-armed deity in Hindu culture, seem to be misplaced in the grasslands of this Southeast Asian country. One who is familiar with Vietnamese culture would not believe that such stone structures would exist in a country that is nearly 1000 miles away from India. Written on one of the carved stone compounds is a language not similar to the official Vietnamese language. The curvy, unbroken, almost flowery style of writing appears to be extraterrestrial. These abandoned pillars, possibly sanctuaries used for ceremonial purposes, are remnants of an overrun civilization known to the modern day world as Champa. Although the remains of the civilizations are erect in Vietnam, the people themselves, known as the Cham, still exist today—as well as their language. One would wonder, what happened to the civilization and how are they able to retain their language even though their civilization only existed in the past? Near the Cambodian border in Tay Ninh and Chau Doc provinces and along the Annamite mountain chain in the province of Quang Ngai and Binh Tuy, the modern-day Cham population of 45,000 people survives to this day (Schrock 864).

The People of Champa

A short history of the Champa kingdom recorded by Chinese scholars entails that the kingdom’s borders stretched countless miles from the middle of modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the shores of the South China Sea. It is also said that the kingdom was to have existed as early as 147 A.D. Champa’s society consisted of skilled artisans in crafts, iron working, and embroidery. The kingdom had also incorporated Indic and Arab influences in their trading system to their literary and writing system. With the addition of literacy to their accomplishments of having a city-state, social stratification, skilled artisans, and powerful hegemony, the Champa kingdom was established as a civilization in the second century. However, the Champa kingdom ended after the capital Indrapura was seized by the Kinh in 1470. The invading power evolved into the present-day majority Vietnamese. The Cham people and their future generations were forced into exile, migrating eastward towards the coastal lowland plains and westward towards the arid mountainous regions of Vietnam.

Since then, the Cham and Vietnamese have been on polar ends of each other. Vietnam’s repeated attempts of disintegrating the Cham people include assimilating Cham people into Vietnamese society through Vietnamese-instructed classrooms, isolating the minority group from urban centers, and creating economic disadvantages through employment. It is important to address how the low density of Cham people have been able to escape language death, even after five centuries of the annexation by modern-day Vietnam. They appear to maintain their ancestral language through methods of educating their youth in Chamic scriptures, practicing oral traditions within their villages, and their strong foundation of multilingualism.

Attempts to Eliminate the Language

Vietnamese Educational System
Vietnam’s first attempts to oppress the Cham people is seen through attempts to assimilate them into society through the education system. The Cham have historically been technologically backward, working in low-end jobs in the agrarian and livestock sector of the Vietnamese economy. The Cham reside in isolation away from other groups of people as well as advanced technology that could remove strain from their agrarian based society. Despite what is observed today, the Cham place high esteem in possessing the knowledge of the Chamic scripture on their youths. The young Cham boys are taught Chamic scriptures when they are old enough to tend the water buffalo used in burrowing and sowing the rice paddies for their family’s income (Gregerson 20). Through rewriting the Cham translations of verses from the Quran, Chamic scripture is transmitted from person to person. Since the arrival of Islam in Vietnam, the Cham language was revamped from being Sanskrit based to being Arabic based.

Cham youth would be determined to acquire the knowledge of the Chamic scripture by spending large amounts of their attention and concentration on learning its technicalities. One incorrect stroke could change the definition, meaning, and syllable. On the other hand, young Cham women usually did not learn the scriptures unless they possessed a strong desire, otherwise they were tied to household duties—being the future matriarch of their family. However, women often learned the Cham language through this outlet. This opportunity allowed them to transmit a spoken discourse of the Cham language through communication with younger siblings, elders, and parents.

The Cham language was mostly created through language contact between the people with whom they traded. Originally, Chamic was based in Sanskrit when artisans and traders along the fertile coast of Vietnam in the second century first communicated. The spoken Cham language has Austronesian roots as a Malay-Polynesian language, but with the influence of the Indic people, they were able to immortalize the Cham language through incorporation of the written Sanskrit into the writing system. In the fifth century, a second major contact occurred with Arab traders who transmitted their own language system to the Cham, initializing the permanence of the Arab writing system in Cham. With the incorporation of Islam from Arab influence in their daily lives, the Quran exerted influence over Chamic scripture.

In the present day, after Cham boys understand the scriptures, they are sent into cities next to their rural villages to learn Vietnamese for higher education. However in the city centers, there exists a cultural rift between Cham and the Vietnamese majority.

In the Vietnamese instructed classrooms, schoolteachers create a substandard atmosphere for the Cham by not allowing them to speak in their language. With these strict rules comes punishment. As an ethnic Cham minority, my father came to Ho Chi Minh city, the capital of South Vietnam, in the mid 1960s to learn Vietnamese as a second language. His accounts of the brutality of the Vietnamese on the ethnic minority are as recalled: “Chams were the targets of ridicule in the classroom. The other children would mock others when we spoke in Cham. Coming to the city, I had little knowledge of the written Vietnamese language…The teacher would not allow us to speak in our language… I didn’t hate myself for being a Cham, but I had grown hate on the people who disliked us for being different.” This personal account shows severity of punishment for speaking Cham in the Vietnamese educational system. This social inequality reveals the lack human rights amongst the ethnic minority as a whole. Thus, the superiority of Vietnamese over Cham is enhanced in Vietnamese-instruction schools.

In recent years, resurgence of a desire to learn Chamic scripts among the youth has created increased literacy of Chamic scriptures (Gregerson 42). Because of this, the Cham are able to create a linguistic identity from which they are connected to their culture. Not only does the strength of identity emerge, but also the kinship between the individuals and among their community arises from the linguistic relationship that binds them. With the acquisition of the written Cham language at a young age, a person will not find it difficult to relearn or forget the language whether it be written or spoken. The Vietnamese instruction schools failed to assimilate Cham youth into their society, in part because “the shift in language often brings about a shift in identity and there may be resistance of adopting a new language because the new identity is unwelcome“ (Wardhaugh 5). With their strong internal development of a cultural identity, they are able to overcome the discrimination in the Vietnamese classrooms and thus prevent the death of their native language.

Geographic Isolation
Vietnam’s second attempt in eradicating the Cham identity is by geographically isolating them from urban centers into unfertile lands. Since the economic migration due to conflict between the Vietnamese and the Cham after the conquest of the Champa kingdom, the Cham people have resided far from the fertile lowlands and in the coastal regions to the east and near Vietnam’s neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos to the west. The Cham people were able to overcome language death by the strengthening of their community through the opportunity to practice oral and cultural traditions as well as their religion in their isolation. The isolation allowed the Cham people to communicate exclusively amongst each other in their own language and scripture. In the modern village, oral tradition and repetition of poetry and continual communication amongst the elderly allows transmittance of the language to younger generations of the group.

Living in a Cham community away from the influences of the Kinh majority allows the village to converse exclusively in Cham. Both young and old alike participate in cultural activities such as the Kate festival held each year in the seventh month of the Cham calendar. The community congregates and celebrates their cultural ties by dancing and the singing of hymns and songs retelling their extravagant past (Nguyen 25). This opportunity of linguistic development and personal relationship to their culture among the youth safeguards the language of the Cham.

Additionally, the “global migration to urban centers spells more trouble for small languages“ (Harrison 14). In the city, the mosques that are used as religion centers for the Cham are sparse. Assimilation into the Vietnamese culture would be easy and the cultural and linguistic identity of the individual Cham would be lost. In the city, Islam is not the dominant religion practiced by the Vietnamese, nor is the spoken Cham language. In the city, identification with themselves, their community, and their way of life would easily be forgotten. Living in a pariah community away from technology and other facets of the modern world allow the Cham to focus on familial ties and thus strengthen their understanding of the Cham language. Another point of being exiled from urbanized centers is having the freedom to practice their creed of Islam.

As seen in the village of Phum Soai, the Cham congregate a total of five times daily in an enormous mosque to observe their religious rituals. In the mosque, men take off their shoes, wash their hands and feet, and gather together on their individual rugs to recite verses from the Quran. The “mosques are the geographical heart of Cham settlements. Prayers and Islamic festivals calibrate the rhythms of communal time (…) connecting them to a global human community, the umma” (Taylor 8). The mosque plays a central role in the lives of the Cham as it brings the community together. Through religion, the Cham communicate and embed Cham in their minds from its repetition through oral prayer. The transliteration of the Quran into Cham also allows the Cham to unconsciously incorporate a personal relationship to their culture and community as it is practiced each day. In an isolated village, “it is distant from the confusion of contact with the majority culture (of the Kinh), (…) a place that is somehow isolated and hence culturally pristine.” (Taylor 43) Away from the contact of others, the Cham are allowed to practice their oral traditions, religion, and ceremonies away from the disparaging remarks and discrimination of the Vietnamese.

The social-economic level of the Cham is low, as seen with most indigenous groups around the world. Indigenous groups are subject to poverty, mistreatment and prejudice. Specifically, the Chamic language is ignored by the Vietnamese government and asymmetrical bilingualism exists amongst the population of the Cham; as Vietnamese do not see Cham as a lingua franca, they do not learn it. The failure of the Vietnamese government in implementing Cham in Vietnamese society forces the Cham to learn Vietnamese for jobs.

The primary source of income for the Cham comes from food-related occupations that lay within the borders of their village. These include jobs that force the people to rely on the natural environment to gather fish and produce staple crops. Relying on the dynamic ecology creates problems in gathering crops and livestock to sell in local markets. The rural lowlands in which the Cham reside are often subjected to flooding during monsoon season, creating a problem to simply provide the basic needs of a Cham family. Also, the ability of the Vietnamese government to intervene in business affairs makes it more difficult for the Cham to succeed in business as the government discriminates against them in this atmosphere.

Their way of life as farmers and fishermen make living difficult. Thus, the Cham often venture outside of their village in attempts to find job opportunities. However, work outside of the village is difficult to find as Vietnamese is seen as a lingua franca for social and economical advancement. Learning Vietnamese as a second language is necessary to conduct business between the Vietnamese and the Cham. However, most Cham find it a necessary duty to stay within their village because of the strong kinship that they possess with each-other.

From the past to the present, the Cham still possess a high degree of craftsmanship with the production of handicrafts and intricate woven fabrics. With the production of such goods, they are able to trade with other countries as a secondary source of income to their family. Thus, in order to trade with other countries, the Cham must be multilingual in the other country’s language. To the Cham’s advantage, their language is closely related to the Malay, Indonesian, and Cambodian languages, making it easy for them to be multilingual in these languages. Historically, the Cham were able to incorporate other languages into their language from their specialties of trade, as demonstrated by their past with the Indic and Arabic influences. “Languages undergo rapid change to reflect adaptation to a new range of uses that a language is being able to perform”(Thurgood 256). With the Indic and Arabic influences on their language, it is speculated that these societies traded with ease.


In modern times, the Cham are able to overcome low social standing through trading with countries overseas, aided by their multilingualism. “Multilingualism provides levels of cognitive growth, divergent thinking, scholastic thinking, achievement, and levels of social tolerance”(Agnihotri 198). Language has the ability to transcend across time to reveal the history, culture, and endeavors of a people. Without the perseverance of such an overlooked link in an individual’s identity, a part of the world’s history and cultural uniqueness is lost.

In examining the Cham language, it reveals its multicultural heritage and its influence on other civilizations. Additionally, it reveals the strength of the Cham people and their ability to maintain their identity. Civilization can learn from this minority in maintaining our personal cultural uniqueness through teaching our youth ethnic languages, implementing our native tongues through storytelling or conversations with our brethren, and through learning our own languages and others. This will not only prevent the death of our sacred languages, but it will also prevent our history from being erased.

Photo by Flickr user Davidlohr Bueso, used under a Creative Commons license.

Works Cited

Agnihorti, R.K.. Identity and Multilinguality: The Case of India. Ed. Amy B.M. Tsui, James W. Tollefson. New Jersey: Erlbaum, 2006. 198.

Gregerson, Marilyn, Dorothy Thomas. Notes from Indochina on the Ethnic Minority Cultures. Dallas: SIL, 1980. 20-42.

Harrison, K. David. When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. 8.

Mus, Paul. Indian Seen from the East: Indian and Indigenous Cults in Champa. Victoria, Australia: Monash U,1975.

Nguyen, Van Huy. The Cultural Mosaic of Ethnic Groups in Vietnam. Hanoi, Vietnam: Education, 2001. 25. Schrock, Joann L. Minority Groups in the Republic of Vietnam. Washington D.C.: Army, 1996.864, 864, 885.

Taylor, Phillip. Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta: Place and Mobility in the Cosmopolitan Periphery. Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 2007.8,43.

Thurgood, Graham. From the Ancient Cham to Modern Dialects. Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1999. 256. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Other Writings. New York: Bantam. 1854. 187

Wardhaugh, Ronald. Languages in Competition: Dominance, Diversity, and Decline. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987. 5. “Vietnam Cham or

Kate Festivals Video”. Footprint. 8 July 2008.


  1. very well-written and informative paper. shows us the often neglected histories of the Chams in Vietnam


  2. very well-written and informative paper. shows us the often neglected histories of the Chams in Vietnam


  3. This brings a larger issue, of the relationship between archive and the idea of voice in history. Recalling Carl Jung, rituals can only sustain themselves through temporality, i.e. a certain genealogy of knowledge has to been transmitted.


  4. This brings a larger issue, of the relationship between archive and the idea of voice in history. Recalling Carl Jung, rituals can only sustain themselves through temporality, i.e. a certain genealogy of knowledge has to been transmitted.


  5. My relatives always say that I am killing my time here at web, but I know I am getting know-how every day by reading thes pleasant articles.|


  6. It’s interesting that I came across this article just when I recently graduated from ucsd. And I am Cham as well so I completely know what you are talking about 🙂


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