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Language Programs

Southeast Asian Language Instruction

The instruction in Southeast Asian languages at the University of Michigan focuses on four major languages that are taught each term in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. Non-heritage and heritage students, graduate and undergraduate students are all welcome to enroll in these Southeast Asian languages.


Filipino, or Tagalog, is an Austronesian language originally spoken in the vicinity of the capital of the Philippines, Manila, but among the approximately one hundred languages of the country it has the oldest and most extensive literature, dating from the sixteenth century. 

It became the national language of the Philippines in 1937. In the 1990 census, Tagalog was listed as their first language by about a quarter of the population of the Philippines. If one includes second language speakers and speakers outside the Philippines (including substantial populations in the US), the total comes to almost sixty million. In terms of grammar, Tagalog and Filipino are very similar, but the Filipino alphabet has twenty-eight letters compared to Tagalog’s twenty and is better able to integrate loanwords. 

The University of Michigan switched from teaching Tagalog to Filipino in 1998. Tagalog had its own script before the Spanish conquest, but it and Filipino have long been written with the Roman alphabet. Because of their colonial presences, the Spanish and English languages have had a pervasive influence on Tagalog and Filipino, which contain many loanwords from these two languages.


Indonesian, or “Bahasa Indonesia” is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world. The national language of Indonesia, where it is spoken by over 238 million inhabitants, it is over 80% cognate with Malay, spoken by 22 million Malaysians and southern Thais. 

The Malay language has formed the lingua franca of island and coastal Southeast Asia for over a thousand years. It has incorporated many words from other languages, including Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and English, and it is spoken by substantial populations in Netherlands, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the U.S.  

Bahasa Indonesia uses the Roman alphabet (except for some religious texts, which are written in an Arabic script). Indonesia is home both to largest Muslim population in the world and to a vast array of vibrant literary, artistic, and cultural traditions.


Thai is spoken by approximately 63 million people in Thailand and another 20 million in the countries neighboring Thailand, where Thai functions as a lingua franca. There are also about 1.2 million expatriate Thais. Thai is both the official and standard language for Thailand. 

Historically, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country to escape Western colonization. At present, Thailand has the largest economy in continental Southeast Asia. There is a long history of trade as well as military and cultural contacts with the U.S., and a tourist industry that brings hundreds of thousands of Americans to Thailand each year. 

The University of Michigan was the first American university to offer regular instruction in Thai, and groundbreaking linguistic research on Thai was done at the University. The University of Michigan library collections of Thai materials are extensive.


Vietnamese has been strongly influenced by its neighbor, China. A local form of Literary Chinese was the language of learning in Vietnam for a long time, while the general form of Chinese characters was adapted to transcribe native Vietnamese words. 

Vietnamese later abandoned both and adopted a Romanized system originally developed by the French. This makes Vietnamese one of the few Asian languages whose present orthography is based on the Latin alphabet. Even though Chinese characters are no longer central to the language, Chinese words still make up as much as 60% of Vietnamese vocabulary, many of them having entered the language very early. 

Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam, where most of the almost 70 million speakers of the language live. There are substantial Vietnamese speaking populations in the neighboring countries of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. Because of the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese now live in the U.S.

CSEAS administers two academic grants for Southeast Asian studies for undergraduates: the First Year Language Award, offered to students taking 100-level Filipino, Indonesian, Thai, or Vietnamese; and the FLAS for undergraduate and graduate students, a federally-funded grant for language and area studies. To learn more, visit our funding page.