The Abcs Of Hmong

The ABCs of Hmong

A Sacramento school learns the value of Hmong language immersion |

Photo by Andria Lo
Photo by Andria Lo

At Sacramento’s Susan B. Anthony Elementary, Sao Vue’s kindergarteners sit on a brightly colored carpet, looking up at him and repeating alphabet sounds. “Ahhh, aaay, eeeh,” they sing. The sounds are not in English — they are in Hmong. Sacramento is home to the nation’s third-largest Hmong American community, and the school has the only Hmong dual-language immersion program on the West Coast. It’s the second such program in the country after one in St. Paul, MN, which has the largest Hmong American population. In dual-language, or two-way, immersion programs, students learn English and another language. Instructional time includes a minimum of 50 percent in the non-English language. Administrators strive for a class composed of both fluent English speakers and native speakers of the other language so both populations can benefit from one another.

These programs aim to develop a high level of proficiency in both languages in addition to academic achievement in all subjects, and to foster an appreciation for other cultures — or, as the case often is, for the students’ own culture. Early dual-language programs started in the ’80s, but have grown exponentially across the country in recent years. In California in particular, the number of these programs nearly doubled from 119 in 2000 to 233 in 2010, according to the California Department of Education. About 200 of these programs in the state are in Spanish; the rest are in Mandarin, Korean, Cantonese, Armenian, German, Italian and Japanese. In 2011, Hmong was added to the list. The growth is also due in part to the widespread movement toward American students acquiring more language skills to adapt to an increasingly global job market.

Research has also shown concrete benefits to language immersion, according to Julie Sugarman, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington, DC, nonprofit that researches bilingual education. Studies show that in the long run, students of language immersion programs perform as well as or better than their counterparts who were raised learning only in English. Some researchers believe that learning the structures and grammar of a second language improves the understanding of the child’s native language. “It is not just learning to read and write Hmong, but using this method to accelerate the learning of English,” says Principal Lee Yang (pronounced “Ya”), who spearheaded the Sacramento program in 2011. What’s more, research suggests that learning a second language at an early age has a positive effect on intellectual growth and leaves students with more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity to language and improved listening skills.

While languages like Mandarin are witnessing a rapid rise in global prestige with the economic ascent of China, the rewards for students who become fluent in Hmong may be less clear. There are only 260,000 Hmong in the US today, comprising just 1.5 percent of the Asian American population. Yet parents who enroll their children in Hmong immersion programs hope that the hours spent learning in two languages will reverse some disturbing trends in their community. More than one in three Hmong in the US do not have a high school diploma, and 26 percent of Hmong families live below the poverty level. But more is at stake than the future of the language in the United States. Parents also hope that the programs will instill in their children a sense of their community — one that may be small and struggling but is also fiercely proud of its history.

“[The children] know that they are Hmong, but they don’t even know the tradition or culture,” says Melany Lo, a parent of a first grader in the Hmong program. It’s a concern shared by many in the community who fear that in future generations, their culture, language and history will be forgotten.

Preserving the Past

Since the first wave of Lao Hmong refugees arrived in 1975, their culture and history has slowly receded, and with it, their language, community members say. The Hmong have been a nomadic people, fighting off centuries of genocide and war. The Hmong originated in northern China and later migrated south, where about 9 million Hmong (called “Miao” in Mandarin) still reside. Over centuries, they continued to move southward, settling in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and elsewhere. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Hmong in Laos were recruited to fight in the CIA’s “secret wars” against the communists during the Vietnam conflict. When that effort was lost, many fled to neighboring Thailand and ended up in refugee camps there. The first wave of Hmong refugees to the United States arrived in 1975, and the most recent was in 2005.

Although all immigrant communities face the gradual diminishing of culture and language after arriving in the United States, the demographics of the Hmong community poses a unique challenge — and opportunity. The community is overwhelmingly young: 45 percent of Hmong Americans are 17 or younger, according to the Census (24 percent of the general Asian American population are 17 and under). This means that almost half the population is, at the moment, growing up primarily surrounded by English. But they are also still young enough to learn the language of their heritage. Hmong is a language that did not have its own written alphabet until the 1950s, when it was developed by a linguist and missionaries. Sixty years later, there still isn’t much Hmong literature, compared to other languages and cultures. “If the people don’t read, don’t write, then they don’t know how to provide more literature in their language,” Yang says. “Slowly, their language and their culture disappear.

We may still be Hmong, but we may not know anything about Hmong 100 years from now.” Students are already passing their knowledge to another generation — their parents’. Cece Vang’s two daughters entered Susan B. Anthony’s Hmong program last year. Before that, neither knew much of the language. Today, her eldest, in second grade, speaks in complete sentences and reads books in Hmong. “My brothers and sisters don’t know how to read [Hmong],” Vang says. “My daughter is teaching them.”

A Growing Need and Growing Benefits

The first Hmong two-way immersion public school program in the US opened in St. Paul’s Jackson Preparatory in 2006. The program currently spans pre-K through fourth grade and will be adding fifth grade this fall, according to Principal Yue Vang. This growth mirrors the reality of the community. Hmong Americans are not only the youngest Asian American community, but also among the fastest-growing Asian American groups, with the population swelling by 40 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the Census. And the increase isn’t just due to immigration — Hmong households average 5.6 persons. “I think the school districts need to understand that there is a growing need there,” says Lee Pao Xiong, who also co-founded two Hmong charter schools in St. Paul. Although many dual-immersion programs include students from various backgrounds, all the students in the Susan B. Anthony Hmong program are of Hmong heritage.

The majority is second or third generation, born in the United States, and their parents are mostly literate in English if not Hmong. But, as with large numbers of US -born Latino students, most are also designated by the state as English Learners, which means English is not their first language or they are not fluent in English when entering the program. This phenomenon is due in part to the fact that families may still speak a language other than English at home and that many monolingual grandparents care for the children while parents work. For language immersion students, not being fluent in English isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. Classroom instruction in the Sacramento Hmong program starts with 90 percent Hmong in kindergarten, and English is slowly added each year until fourth grade, when the students are taught 50 percent of the time in Hmong and 50 percent in English. That means that subjects such as math and science are also taught in the Hmong language.

In the early grades, English test scores for students in dual-language immersion programs may be lower than their mainstream counterparts, because they are spending much of their time learning in another language and their competency may not show up on tests in English. But, research suggests long-term benefits of fluency in two languages. By late elementary or middle school, most will have caught up to — or surpassed — their peers in English-only classrooms in both English and math, according to studies by Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier of George Mason University, and Kathryn Lindholm-Leary and her colleagues at San Jose State University, among others. Studies also show that literacy in one language facilitates literacy in another. Plus, advocates say dual-language immersion classes are just more rigorous. “They’re a lot more challenging because the students are having to think through two languages,” Lindholm-Leary says. “It’s a lot of cognitive work.”

While the Hmong immersion program in Sacramento is still new, there are already promising outcomes. A school-based assessment for English and math from spring 2012 showed that none of the students were far below basic level, even as some in the regular English classes were. Not all parents have been convinced about the benefits of Hmong language immersion, however. Long Thao is a parent who considered putting his young daughter in the program. I do want her to know how to speak Hmong and keep the culture,” says Thao, who supports the idea of the program. But because his household speaks both English and Hmong, he believes his daughter was behind in English before starting school, and he ultimately chose English-only classes to strengthen her English. Although Thao would like to enroll his daughter in Hmong classes when she’s older, he is enjoying seeing her excel with English now. “I don’t want her to fall behind with English,” he says.

“If she takes the Hmong class, she will be even more lost and even more behind. I have broken English sometimes, and I don’t want her to be like me.”

Lost in Translation

A typical day for the teachers in the program begins before 7am. Most remain long after school has ended and are often there on weekends. Their commitment is the product of both practical necessity — they need to prepare curricula — and personal experience. “Growing up, because I didn’t have this program, there was a period in my life where I was ashamed to be Hmong,” says Makaelie Her, who was born in Laos and spent much of her childhood in Stockton, CA. “I was one of the English learners who struggled with English, and there wasn’t any program to support me. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to become a teacher, so that I could actually reach out to other Hmong students and provide them the support that I never got growing up.” Her admits the program is not without its challenges. One of those is attracting more students, including those from outside the Hmong community — not an easy task with a largely unknown language.

“We want other ethnic groups to participate, so that we can become a more rich program,” Yang says. But at the Hmong International Academy, a Minneapolis public school, about 16 percent of students are African American. Though the school is not an immersion program, it uses the Hmong language as a medium to accelerate achievement and second language learning. “He always comes home telling me Hmong words and singing Hmong songs,” says Victoria Christian, an African American parent of a pre-K student at Hmong International Academy. “He might not have had the same exposure at nearby schools. I think my son is building confidence that he has the ability to learn another language that he wouldn’t have had in our home since we don’t speak another language.” This sort of cross-cultural understanding will ultimately help the students compete in the increasingly global job market, according to Hmong International Academy Principal Andrew Xiong.

“My message to parents is that we are a global community. That means we value multilingual and multicultural perspectives. When they graduate and look for jobs, they can work with others.” Back in the Sacramento classroom, Vue is teaching addition and subtraction in Hmong. He and Principal Yang have staked a great deal on the program. Their kids are enrolled and will be among the first cohort of Hmong-fluent graduates. For Yang, the program would be successful if students can write and read in English and Hmong and become culturally competent. Yet another goal would be for students to be prepared for college: Many of today’s Hmong children would be the first in their families to attend college. Vue notes the ultimate success for students may not be something measured on a test or a diploma. “We want to make sure we maintain the culture and the language so the kids later on will know who they are. It does not matter how successful you are.

If they don’t know who they are, they are kind of lost.”

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