Hmong language endangered?

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According to an article published by World Language magazine, a Chinese state media reported that “China’s fourth-largest ethnic minority, the Miao (known as the Hmong in the rest of Southeast Asia), people with thousands of years of history, are in danger of losing their language.”

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This could be happening to the Hmong language throughout other parts of the world.

“My Hmong isn’t good because I don’t use it all the time,” says Da Vang, 32, who is recently on vacation from France visiting family members in St. Paul, Minn.

Da explains that he verbally understands Hmong, but has a hard time replying in Hmong back to his parents. “My siblings and I speak French only,” Da explains. “Our parents speak Hmong very well. For all of us to speak Hmong on the same page, impossible.”

The Hmong in the United States is experiencing a decline in use of their native language. An observation I have made of many Hmong students from colleges down to elementary schools is they have a hard time speaking Hmong.

A third grader at Phalen Lake Elementary School in Eastside St. Paul speaks perfect English, but struggles to say words in Hmong.

“My mom and dad only talks English to us,” he replies to a question I asked about how fluent his Hmong was.

Vang Xiong of Spokane, Wash., also expresses a concern that the Hmong language may become distinct.

“Hmong are not only losing the language but identity in many ways,” Vang states. “Younger Hmong are no longer speaking our language.”

Some Hmong college students admit they hardly use the language.

“Economically, we need English, thus we are forced to use English, not Hmong, in our everyday lives,” says Chawntou T. Yang, a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Kou Xiong, of Brown College, rates himself a six on a scale of 0-to-10 with O for not being able to speak Hmong with 10 being fluent. A challenge Kou states, “When I am at home I speak Hmong, but at school I’ll speak English.”

Pache Lee, of Brooklyn Park, claims that she speaks more fluently than her peers, but to understand Hmong completely is too complicated for her.

“I could only speak the basic Hmong,” Pache says, a student at St. Katherine College. “To know what our parents know is hard because I don’t use Hmong that often to understand some of the complicated language used by our parents.”

The Hmong language may be on the verge of disappearing as many other languages have already vanished.

According to a report done by The Independent newspaper in the United Kingdom, “Over the past 500 years, about 4.5 per cent of the total number of described languages have disappeared. Of the 176 living languages spoken by the tribes of North America, 52 have become extinct since 1600.”

In that Chinese state media report, it confirms that “in Danzhai county, part of Guizhou, only 60 percent speak their own (Miao or Hmong) own language, down from 85 percent just seven years ago.”

Yet, the question is when will the Hmong language be classified endangered? The answer may just rest within time.

Some are outright worried that this is a problem.

“I am worried because most Hmong like to use English language,” says Vangtou X. Xiong Toyed, of Washington State.

“The lack of practice will eventually lead to the fading away of the Hmong language,” Pache says. “I am worry that my children might not be able to pick up our language, but I am doing the best to speak and write it myself so I could pass it down to them.”

According to the National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project, “Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth—many of them never yet recorded—will likely disappear…”

Hmong is a dialect that belongs to the Miao-Yao language family. The language is spoken by Hmong in Thailand, Laos, China, Vietnam and in other parts of the world where Hmong reside.

It was not until the mid 1950s that with the help of missionary linguist, William Smalley, a written language was devised for the Hmong in Laos using Romanized Popular Alphabet (RPA).

However, many Hmong also argue that the language will not completely disappear. Vangtou adds that there will be researchers or field studies to preserve the Hmong language.

Linda Vang, who contributed her opinion in a survey, states: “As a Hmong-American myself, I’ve lost a lot of my culture being a free American. I am one of the Hmong girls who have to concentrate on speaking my language sometimes as if it were a second language. [But] I am still Hmong in my heart and that is what is keeping me a strong person.”

According to a Hmong researcher Thua Vang, of Chico, Cal., he is optimistic about his language from not vanishing.

“I sense no fear of Hmong culture and language being lost,” says Thua. “What I see is that it comes from the structure of the family. Those who hold strong family value and strong family support tends to hold onto the culture and language.

“Those who have a weak family system and value tend to slowly losing the language and culture. What I hope to see is the Hmong community need to come together and put together programs that can sustain the cultural system.”

A part of these programs are the Hmong charter schools, particularly in the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

Charter schools are the foundation to maintaining and preserving our Hmong cultures and traditions, states Vang Xang, of the Hmong American Mutual Assistance Association and an advocate for Hmong charter schools in Minneapolis.

“I do not think the Hmong language will eventually disappear in the US,” states Thua. “It will disappear in smaller Hmong community groups who do not have a solid community effort to closely tie the Hmong community together.”

Thua also confirms “once they are done with [the charter schools] and leave home for college, they are prep to know who they are and stand out for themselves being a Hmong man or woman out there with the diverse community.”

According to the mission statement of the Community School of Excellence, a Hmong charter school based in St. Paul, Minn., is to provide “… a community-based approach to education that emphasizes high academic standards, integrates Hmong language and culture into its curriculum, and promotes parent and community ownership of the school.”

Success in maintaining our cultures and values in these institutions will take tremendous efforts, says Pao Lee of St. Paul and a parent with five.

“I hope they will measure up to their missions, because it will be them that will teach our children what makes us Hmong,” acclaims Pao.

For Chawntou, his native Hmong language will never leave the tip of his tongue.

“We will speak less and less of our language,” says Chawntou. “Many of the younger generation are not fluent anymore, but it doesn’t mean that it’ll completely end there. Once [we] hit a point, say college, and find some self-identity, [we] will start speaking it once more or at the very least rediscovering ourselves and our language.”

“Your language belongs to you, no one else can take away from you,” states Fr. Yves Bertais, a missionary to Laos in the mid-1900s, and who also worked with Smalley on the RPA for the Hmong. “No one can destroy it but you (the Hmong) only.”

To preserve it, Bertais continues, which is cited at Hmongrpa.org, “By not speaking it, ignoring it, and not using it, your language will fade and disappear.”

Noah Vang can be reached at noahvang@hotmail.com.