Preserving Local Languages to Protect Cultural and Environmental Rights in Laos


In September-October 2021, SSEAC Stories will be hosting a mini-series of podcasts exploring the role that research plays in understanding and advocating for human rights in Southeast Asia. In the second episode, Dr Thushara Dibley talks with Professor Nick Enfield about how the field of linguistics intersects with human rights. They discuss some of the impacts that major hydro-electric dam projects in Laos have had on local communities, not just in changing day-to-day life, but in decreasing interethnic interactions, thereby eroding multiculturalism and multilingualism. In disrupting local indigenous exchanges, Professor Enfield argues that large development projects risk impeding the transmission of significant cultural knowledge, including traditional knowledge of biodiversity and environmental sustainability. The study of languages thus becomes a tool for understanding a broader set of human rights, from cultural to environmental rights.

About Nick Enfield:

Nick Enfield is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney and director of the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre, and the Sydney Centre for Language Research. He is head of a Research Excellence Initiative on The Crisis of Post-Truth Discourse. His research on language, culture, cognition and social life is based on long term field work in mainland Southeast Asia, especially Laos. His recent books include The Languages of Mainland Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2021) and Mainland Southeast Asian Languages: A Concise Typological Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Nick has published widely in linguistics, anthropology, and cognitive science venues, and has written for The Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, the Wall Street Journal, and Science. He is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, the Royal Society of New South Wales, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

For more information or to browse additional resources, visit the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre’s website:

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