Language as Identity: The Hmong Language

As professor teaching Hmong literacy for more than ten years, I have seen drastic changes in the level of Hmong proficiency amongst Hmong college students who attend California State University, Sacramento. According to my observations and the data I collected from my Hmong literacy course, more and more Hmong students are losing the Hmong language at a rapid pace. To validate my observations, for the past five years I have collected pre and post assessments of students enrolled in the course. In general, my pre-test results for the first three years indicate that 70% of the Hmong students are fluent in Hmong. Currently, this number has shifted in a downward trend to 53%. Ninety two percent are not literate (cannot read or write) in Hmong. The results are understandable since most Hmong students do not have the opportunity to learn how to read and write Hmong in the k – 12 schools. Eight percent of my students can read only simple Hmong and cannot write Hmong.

Given these data, it is evident that we are losing our language and are assimilating quickly into mainstream American culture. Our children are not acquiring our native language; we are slowly changing our culture and forming new identities. Hmong children are no different from other immigrant children whose original, traditional identities are almost completely lost. This does not have to happen with the Hmong culture. Maintenance of the language is an important part of maintaining our culture. Language loss need not occur. Language retention will ensure that new identities, bicultural identities, are positive on many levels. To avoid language loss, we must utilize our strengths in family and community relationships. We can do this by building a solid foundation in educating our children in Hmong literacy. We can do this by the direct teaching of the Hmong language and culture and creating and encouraging dialogue in the Hmong language among our children, their grandparents, parents, and friends. Hmong youth can learn to read and write Hmong, through Hmong stories and traditional practices. Folktales, folklore, oral poetry songs and family history should be learned. The majority of Hmong students that I have in my class have not heard Hmong stories. In most cases, since children do not see the importance of these stories, they are not interested in listening to them. If they are in an environment that fosters and encourages actively participating in learning Hmong, children will see its relevancy and will want to participate. These stories can be practiced, recited, and performed at cultural activities. While studying these oral stories, children can be introduced to Hmong vocabulary and cultural values. Simple Hmong vocabulary such as “noj, ntau, ntshiab” to difficult vocabulary, “txhawb, yeej huam, twm zeej” will be learned. Customs and traditions, as in marriage, funeral ceremonies, kinship patterns, art, and music can be studied as children become literate in Hmong. Hmong marriage and funeral songs and playing traditional Hmong musical instruments (qeej, ncas, raj, and qwv nplooj) can be learned and performed at religious and cultural events. These activities could take place at home, in schools including elementary schools, college and universities, at non-profit social activities, and the local communities. Hmong volunteers such as Hmong parents, grandparents, teachers, and professionals can organize and volunteer to teach in the schools and community at large. More importantly, Hmong parents, grandparents, and children should be encouraged to communicate with each other in Hmong more often. If these educational opportunities are provided, Hmong children will then be more fluent in the language and maintain a closer identity to their elders and their culture. At the same time, identity with the newer culture will inevitably be developed in the schools and the community through direct education and the media.

The older generation will have to accept the fact that the native culture and our agrarian way of life in Laos will not all be maintained by the younger Hmong generations. Language, culture, and activities at home and in the community are significantly different in mainstream America than it was in the mountains of Laos or in the camps in Thailand. Hmong language usage in the new life has also changed. The younger generations use vocabulary from English in Hmong sentences and vice versa, a natural phenomenon known by linguists as code-switching. Sometimes this is due to convenience or a choice made by children, who want to be accepted by their peers. This pattern occurs wherever Hmong live. Other times, it is due to the lack of Hmong vocabulary knowledge. Code switching between Hmong and English has become a part of the younger Hmong conversational patterns. For example, the following are sentences involving code switching between Hmong and English: “Peb mus school. Kuv mus bathroom tso. Kuv nyiam saib TV.” Or, “I like koj lub tsev.” Between Hmong and Thai the following expressions can be heard: “Kuv maib aus. Kuv maib daib. Kuv noj laj” and between Hmong and Lao: “Cov mis nyob hauv lub tub yees. Nws caij lub lus thij. Cov me nyuam kawm ua lej.” For some, English is the only language used for communication. The elders have also experienced a metamorphosis in language. They have made language adjustments in terms of morphologically adapted loanwords. They have changed certain English words and made Hmong words out of them. For example, in the following English names, Jenifer becomes “Fawm”, Tom becomes “Thoos”, Richard becomes “Tshawm”, Lisa becomes “Xam”, orange becomes “oran”, etc. In some instances, inflections have dropped from the English pronunciation. This occurs most commonly in words that end in an “s” sound as in the following words: Bus to “npav”, ice to “aij”, apples to “av paum”, etc. These are adjustments being made to accommodate the sounds in Hmong and it has become common patterns that occur with older Hmong. Additionally, these changes are being accepted and become a part of the Hmong language. Therefore, it is true that as Hmong acculturate and assimilate into the mainstream American culture, we will make changes in our language and adjust to the mainstream culture rather than maintaining the old ways “Grandmother’s Path and Grandfather’s Way” (Vang and Lewis, 1990). A change in the Hmong language also involves a change in the Hmong culture.

Creating and providing dialogue settings in the homes, schools and community will help Hmong children become more fluent and proficient in using the Hmong language. In the home setting, grandparents, parents, siblings, and friends can promote dialogue that encourage and foster communication in Hmong and about Hmong cultural customs and traditions. It will help Hmong children acquire new vocabulary as they negotiate meanings and comprehend messages. Grandparents and parents can share oral folktales, folklore, and their real life stories from Laos to America. Most young Hmong people today do not have the opportunity to listen to these important life stories of the elders. Most of my college students and younger Hmong students do not see the relevance and importance of the Hmong language and culture. Many students only enroll in the Hmong literacy course to pass the foreign language requirement examination for graduation. Their interests are not in learning more about Hmong language, history and culture or Hmong literacy. According to course evaluations, after a semester studying Hmong literacy, history, and culture, all students appreciate and feel extremely satisfied about taking the course. Since many grandparents and parents have now passed away and only some are still living, Hmong students need to take advantage of listening, conversing, learning, and documenting their life stories. If these stories are not told, acquired, and recorded by the younger generations, then much will be lost.

In schools, Hmong parents have to be more involved in their children’s education. They need to be encouraged to attend school functions becoming much more familiar with the school system and how it operates. This will help them support the inclusion of Hmong language, history and culture into the school curricula. The more Hmong is promoted, the more Hmong children and other children will understand Hmong. Self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-identity will be elevated to a higher level for Hmong students. This can also contribute to raising academic achievement. Students do better in school when they feel better about themselves.

In the community, if dialogues about Hmong are promoted, valued, and supported, Hmong children will also see the importance of learning the Hmong language. Since there are still family gatherings, celebrating cultural customs and traditions, Hmong children can be involved in these functions on a regular basis. By young adulthood, students will have learned, all, if not most of the important aspects of Hmong language and culture. It has to be a part of their educational process. Without the help from the Hmong community, younger Hmong generations will surely melt their way into mainstream American culture without knowing who they are and where their parents came from.

In conclusion, losing a language is equivalent to losing part of one’s culture and identity. In today’s cultural, educational, social, political, rapidly changing global and technological society, language continues to be of primary importance in maintaining one’s identity. No matter how high Hmong people leap, how far Hmong people wander, and how deeply Hmong people study and understand one another, the importance of language plays a pivotal role in our life. As with most immigrants and refugees, the Hmong way of life changes and transforms when we are immersed in a different language. Minority languages change as they are influenced by the majority language. This is a complex process worthy of further study. With more than 300 languages spoken in the United States, much of our language, as is true of other minority languages, will disappear unless a conscious effort is made to maintain them. The question is whether we can find ways to maintain and preserve part of our ancestor’s life that is so precious to us.