May is Asian Pacific National Heritage Month in the USA – a time to a celebrate all of the Asians, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who have enriched the US with their vibrant and diverse cultures.

‘Asian Pacific’ is a very broad term that encompasses the Asian continent and the Pacific islands. As such, it covers a wealth of ethnic groups, cultures and languages. Let’s take a look at some of the most famous ones, and learn more about these beautiful languages.



Hawaiian is an Austronesian language spoken by about 8,000 people on the Hawaiian islands. The Hawaiian alphabet has 12 letters – a,e,i,o,u,h,k,l,m,n,p and w. Hawaiian first appeared in writing in the early 19th century when missionaries began visiting the islands. Before this it was just a spoken language, so the missionaries introduced a version of the latin alphabet so it could be written.

After Hawaii was annexed by the USA in 1899, the Hawaiian language was banned from schools and went into rapid decline. By the 1980s, only about 2,000 Hawaiian speakers remained, mostly the elderly. In 1978 Hawaiian was made an official language of Hawaii, along with English, and since then there has been a revival of interest in the language. There are now several schools where most subjects are taught through the medium of Hawaiian, and Hawaiian classes are popular at all levels of education.

Hawai‘i is the only US state that has designated a native language as one of its two official state languages. Due to its isolation, the island of Niihau is the one island where Hawaiian is still spoken in daily life.

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Vietnamese is an Austroasiatic language spoken by about 82 million people, mainly in Vietnam. There are also many overseas Vietnamese speakers, notably in the USA, China, Cambodia, France, Australia, Laos and Canada. Vietnamese has been the official language of Vietnam since the country gained independence from France in 1954. Before being a French Colony, Vietnam was under Chinese rule for multiple periods of time. As a result, Vietnamese has many influences and loan words from Chinese and French.

The Vietnamese Alphabet is closely related to the English Alphabet, but with additional letters such as ă or ơ.  One of the bigger differences from English, however, is that Vietnamese has six different tones. A change in tone can change the entire meaning of the word.

Vietnamese Americans are the fourth-largest Asian American group in the US. Mass Vietnamese immigration to the United States started after 1975, after the end of the Vietnam War. Early immigrants were refugee boat people fleeing persecution or poverty. Forced to flee from their homeland and often thrust into poor urban neighborhoods, these newcomers managed to establish strong communities in a short amount of time. More than fifty percent of Vietnamese Americans reside in the states of California and Texas.

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The Khmer alphabet closely resembles the Thai and Lao alphabets, which developed from it. Khmer is the official language of Cambodia and is used in most social contexts including government administration, education, and in the media. Khmer is spoken by the majority of the population, an estimated 14,494,293 people. It is also spoken by approximately 1.3 million people in southeast Thailand and by more than 1 million people in southern Vietnam.

The Khmer language originates from the Khmer people and has been influenced considerably by Sanskrit and Pali, and through Hinduism and Buddhism. Due to years of French colonial rule, numerous French words have been incorporated into the language as well. Khmer’s main distinction from its neighboring languages is that it is not a tonal language, and it is almost entirely phonetic. There are also some major differences between Khmer and English. For example, the word order is different – (“pretty girl” in English would be said in Khmer just the opposite: “girl pretty”). Another big distinction is the fact that there are no verb conjugations.

Khmer employs a system of registers in which the speaker must always be conscious of the social status of the person spoken to. The different registers are used for common speech, polite speech, speaking to or about royals and speaking to or about monks. Each register uses alternate verbs and pronouns. This results in what appears to foreigners as separate languages. In fact, isolated villagers often are unsure how to speak with royals, and royals raised completely within the court can feel uncomfortable speaking the common register.

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Thai is a language spoken by about 65 million people, mainly in Thailand. There are also Thai speakers in the Midway Islands, Singapore, the UAE and the USA. Thai is closely related to Lao, and northern dialects of Thai are more or less mutually intelligible with Lao, particularly the Lao spoken in northern Thailand. Thai vocabulary includes many words from Pali, Sanskrit and Old Khmer. Thailand’s name in the Thai language is Prathet Thai, translated as “Land of the Free.” It is the only country in Southeast Asia that has not been colonized by a European country.

Thai is a tonal language similar to Lao, Vietnamese and Chinese. There are no genders, plurals, articles or cases in Thai grammar. Another peculiarity is that Thai verbs also do not change tenses, as in English and other languages. A separate time word is simply added to give context and indicate when the action happened.

Thai as a written language was introduced by King Ramkhamhaeng who ruled from 1279-1298. In 1292, he created what is thought to be the first inscription in the Thai language. The inscription, which portrays him as a just and liberal ruler, is considered to be an important source of Sukhothai history as well as a masterpiece of Thai literature. The writing system has undergone very few modifications since this time. As a result, writings from this period can still be read with relative ease.




The official language of Indonesia is Indonesian, and it unifies the world’s fourth most populous country. Indonesia is comprised of 18,000 islands and inhabited by 350 ethnic groups, speaking 750 native languages and dialects.

Bahasa Indonesia is a standardized dialect of Malay which achieved the status of an official language in 1945. It’s now is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, after Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic. Most Indonesians, aside from speaking the national language, are often fluent in their regional language. The regional language is most commonly used at home and within the local community. The national language is the common language used in education, government, business, and communication.

While only a small percentage of Indonesia’s population speaks Indonesian as their native language, almost 100 percent of the population speaks it as a second or third language. Although estimates vary, Indonesian ranks as between the 41st and 56th most widely-spoken native language in the world. However, when all fluent speakers are counted (including second- and third-language speakers), Indonesian ranks ninth in the world. Since Indonesia is currently the fourth most populous nation in the world, Indonesian’s importance as a world language is bound to grow. Every Indonesian learns Bahasa Indonesia, and recent studies show a greater number of people being raised with Indonesian as their mother tongue.

In Balinese culture (Bali is a small island off the coast of Java and home to the country’s Hindu minority), the dance of Barong, the lion-like king of spirits, and Rangda, his nemesis the demon queen, symbolizes the eternal battle between good and evil.

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Before the 4th century AD, Japanese had no writing system of its own. During the 5th century the Japanese began to import and adapt the Chinese script when it was introduced through Buddhism.

The Japanese grammatical structure is very different to many European languages. In Japanese, the word order of a sentence is subject object verb. This means that the action word always comes at the end of the sentence, such as “I car drive”. Another distinctive characteristic of Japanese is the notion of politeness. Japanese uses a broad array of honorifics to address or refer to people, according to their position in society. This position is determined by such factors as social position, age, job, etc.

Japanese uses 3 distinct systems of writing: Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana. Hiragana is syllabic and the most original writing system in Japan. It is used for native Japanese words, and words without Kanji representation. Kanji is based on the Chinese writing system and consists of about 2000 signs. Katakana is used to write foreign words in Japanese.

Japanese is not directly related to any other language family. It is the 9th most spoken language in the world but is not one of the 6 official UN languages. Almost 10% all Internet users are estimated to be Japanese, and Japan boasts one of the highest adult literacy rates in the world (over 99%).

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Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. It has 4 basic tones: flat, rising, falling then rising, and falling. The meaning of a word can dramatically change depending on the tone. For example, by saying “ma” in different ways, you can ask “Did mother scold the horse?” (mā mà mă ma?) So getting the right tone is very important, it’s not just about the accent but the actual meaning of the word.

Chinese is spoken by about 1.2 billion people – nearly 16% of the world’s population. It is primarily spoken in the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia, however there are also communities of Chinese speakers in many other parts of the world.

The main written form of Chinese is based mainly on the Mandarin spoken by educated people in Beijing. Chinese is written with characters (汉字 [漢字] hànzì) which represent both sound and meaning. Traditional and Simplified versions of characters exist, and different regions have their own preference on which to use. Words in Chinese can be made up of one of more syllables, and each syllable is represented by a single character. There are relatively few different types of syllable in spoken Chinese – about 1,700 in Mandarin, compared to languages like English with over 8,000 – yet there are tens of thousands of characters.

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The Chamorro language is spoken by about 50,000 people in Guam, and also in the Northern Mariana Islands and the USA. Chamorro contains a huge number of words of Spanish origin, leading some to mistakenly believe that it is a Spanish-based Creole.

The Chamorro language is currently threatened, with a drop in fluency over the past century. 75% of Guam’s population was literate in Chamorro when the US captured the island during the Spanish–American War. A century later, fewer than 20% of Chamorros living in Guam speak their native language fluently. A number of reasons contributed to this steep decline. In Guam, the language suffered when the U.S. Government banned Chamorro in schools and destroyed Chamorro dictionaries. The Japanese Government had similar policies when they controlled the region during WWII. Post WWII, US administrators of the island maintained “no Chamorro” restrictions in local schools, teaching only English and disciplining students for speaking their indigenous tongue. Even though these oppressive policies were eventually lifted, the damage was already done. Subsequent generations grew up in households where only the oldest family members were fluent.

In many ways, Guam and Chamorro culture is wonderfully unique. It’s a remote island, and an international melting pot. It’s an American territory, but the gateway to Asia. It’s home to a proud local culture, but it’s filled with outsiders. Guam is located about 3-4 hours from Japan, 5 hours from Cairns, Australia and 8 hours from Hawaii. Due to its geographic location and being the westernmost US territory, it has adopted the slogan of “Where America’s Day Begins”. As a US Territory and with a population of over 180,000, Guam residents are US citizens. However, despite being their citizenship, the residents cannot vote for the President.

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Lao is a Tai-Kadai language spoken by approximately 15 million people in Laos and Thailand. There are actually more Lao language speakers in Thailand than in Laos! This is a result of the Issan province on Thailand formerly being part of Laos and many people there being ethnically Lao. Lao is closely related to Thai, and speakers of Lao are able to understand spoken Thai without too many difficulties. Thai speakers find it more difficult to understand Lao due to lack of exposure to the language. Lao verbs are not inflected for person, number, tense, aspect, or mood.

Lao is the official language of Laos. It is the primary language of the Lao people, and is also spoken in the northeast of Thailand. The Lao language has many regional varieties in both Laos and Northeastern Thailand. The main difference between these varieties is tonal, but there are also some differences in vocabulary from region to region.

Laos has many ethnic groups. Some of them belong to the Tai family and speak languages related to Lao and Thai, but many others speak unrelated languages. The number of individual languages listed for Laos is 85. All are living languages. Of these, 1 is institutional, 10 are developing, 49 are vigorous, 23 are in trouble, and 2 are dying. The policy in the country is for these ethnic groups to learn to speak and read Lao as a second language in addition to their native ethnic language.

Most of the basic words of Lao have only one syllable. Multi-syllable words are generally higher level and used in religion, academics, and government. They were taken mainly from Sanskrit, the classical language of India, and are often the same as or similar to high-level vocabulary in Thai. The Lao alphabet has been reformed several times over the past 50 years. The number of consonant letters was reduced so that words can be read phonetically. This was done so that non-Lao ethnic groups could read the language more easily. Written Lao is based on the dialect of the Lao capital, Vientiane. There are no spaces between words, instead spaces in a Lao text indicate the end of a clause or sentence. To indicate the end of a word, word stops are used in conjunction with specific vowels. These tell a reader when the word has stopped.

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Korean is the official language of South Korea and North Korea, and about 78 million people speak Korean worldwide. For over a millennium, Korean was written with adapted Chinese characters called Hanja. During his reign, King Sejong was unhappy that the common people were not able to read and write, as only the educated were literate in the complicated Chinese characters. He understood the frustration of being unable to communicate thoughts and feelings in written words. So, in 1446, King Sejong employed a group of scholars to create a writing system that was simpler and more suited to Korean. The result was Hangul (the Korean alphabet that we see today), and it is considered to be one of the most efficient alphabets in the world.  In South Korea, Hangul is still occasionally augmented by Hanja; whereas in North Korea, Hanja are virtually nonexistent.

Until the 1980s Korean was usually written in vertical columns. Since then, writing from left to right in horizontal lines has become popular, and today the majority of texts are written horizontally.

Grammatically Korean is very similar to Japanese, and about 70% of its vocabulary comes from Chinese. Unlike Chinese, Korean does not have mutually unintelligible dialects (with the notable exception of the variant spoken on Jeju Island). However, more than forty years of division has meant that some language divergences have developed north and south of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The “Standard Language” of South Korea is derived from the language spoken in and around Seoul. The North Korean regime has a policy that has attempted to eliminate as many foreign loanwords as possible, as well as older terms of Chinese origin; Western loanwords are also being dropped.

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Samoa, an island in the Pacific Ocean, contains one of the oldest forms of Polynesian language still in existence today. Samoan is the most widely spoken Polynesian language with almost 370,000 speakers, most of them living in either Samoa or American Samoa. There are also speakers of Samoan in Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia and the USA. In both island of Samoa, American and Western, Samoan and English are the official languages of Samoa, and many modern Samoans are fully bilingual.

While Samoan is related to other Polynesian languages such as Hawaiian, Fijian, Tahitian and Maori, they are not mutually intelligible. This is a result of them having been separated by vast stretches of the Pacific ocean for thousands of years. However, Samoan does share a lot of vocabulary with Tongan. The Samoan language, along with other Polynesian languages, is known for the lack of consonants and use of many vowels within their vocabulary.

There are no significant dialect differences in Samoan. However, the language is notable for having significant differences between formal and informal speech. There is also a special ceremonial form used in Samoan oratory.

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The name Tagalog derives from tagá-ílog, which means “resident beside the river”. Tagalog is one of the major languages of the Republic of the Philippines, a country with 181 documented languages. It functions as its lingua franca and is used as the basis for Filipino, the national language of the Philippines.

It’s understandable that Tagalog is frequently confused with Filipino, as they are essentially identical. Filipino and Tagalog share the same vocabulary and grammatical system, and are mutually intelligible. However, there are important political and sociohistorical reasons for differentiating between Tagalog and Filipino.

Tagalog is the native language of the ethnic Tagalog peoples. In the 1930s, it was decided that Tagalog would serve as the basis for the national language of the Philippines. There are many ethnic groups in the Philippines, so basing the national language on Tagalog was a problem. Non-Tagalog peoples saw this act as establishing not only the linguistic dominance of Tagalog, but its cultural dominance too. The government was left with the problem of handling non-Tagalog Filipinos’ discontent with the state of the national language. To give the language a more neutral and nationalistic connotation, the government declared ‘Filipino’ the official national language of the Philippines. Filipino remains the country’s national language as well as one of its official languages, alongside English. Today, Filipino is considered the proper term for the language of the Philippines, especially by Filipino-speakers who are not of Tagalog origin.

English has borrowed a few words from Tagalog, among them ‘boondocks’ from Tagalog ‘bundok’ (mountain). This word was adopted by American soldiers in the Philippines, to mean ‘remote and wild place.’

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