Hmong is a ‘dying’ language – but it’s being preserved at this Fresno school
This story was originally published by EdSource.
It’s presentation day in a fifth grade classroom at Vang Pao Elementary School in Fresno, and some students are more shy than others. But 11-year-old Irene Her stands in front of the classroom, confidently weaving Hmong words together to talk about the “lub vab,” a basket tool used in the Southeast Asian culture.
Irene is among the inaugural class of students who began kindergarten in Fresno Unified’s Hmong Dual Language Immersion Program in 2018. Billed as the most extensive of its kind in the nation, the program is building up each year, welcoming new students into TK and kindergarten, while the other classes move up.
About a quarter of the school’s 850 students are in the dual immersion program. Next year the school will have Hmong classes in all grades through sixth for the first time.
It’s important for the Hmong community in California to study their language here and keep it alive since they don’t have their own country to return to, says Kao-Ly Yang, a lecturer and coordinator of the Hmong studies program at Fresno State. Hmong people have lived in areas of Laos, Vietnam and China.
“The countries where they came from do not have schools that teach Hmong language. Our Hmong American children cannot forget their roots,” she says. Plus studying in a dual immersion program also will “enhance their English skills, and give them the potential to have better jobs and better lives.”
The Fresno region is home to the second-largest population of Hmong in the United States, at 35,000, according to the Pew Research Center. It’s second only to Minneapolis-St. Paul. During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited Hmong to fight “the Secret War” in Laos. But after the U.S. withdrew, many were forced to flee or be killed as they faced persecution. Many settled in the U.S., including the revered General Vang Pao, who led the Secret Army, and later the Hmong American community. Pao died in the Fresno area in 2011.
At Vang Pao Elementary, students learn not only the Hmong language, which shares similarities with Chinese, but the group’s history too.
Irene, who is Hmong and the granddaughter of immigrants, wasn’t always so confident speaking the language. Like 90% of students entering the program, English was her first language.
But after beginning the program in kindergarten, “I started speaking Hmong to my mom, and after school, she would speak Hmong to me,” she says. Now she feels fluent.
She said the program has helped her understand what her grandfather overcame to get to the United States.
“When I was little, I did not know how I came (to be) here,” she says, “but as I was learning, I understand now how we came here and how long it took, going through wars and stuff like that.”
The program is now running at a second elementary school in Fresno Unified, along with several other Spanish immersion programs that have opened in recent years in the district, according to officials.
The Hmong program was started after community leaders asked the district to help preserve the language and culture, officials say. It also aligns with the state Department of Education’s Global California 2030 initiative, which aims to have half of all K-12 students participate in programs leading to proficiency in two or more languages by 2030.
Fresno Unified’s program is aimed at creating a dual immersion pathway from TK to higher education. Students at Vang Pao and Balderas Elementary will go onto nearby Sequoia Middle School and Roosevelt High School in the coming years, where the classes will continue. Then Fresno State offers a Hmong minor, completing the pathway.
‘Limited to almost non-existent’ vocabulary
At Vang Pao, teacher Sharon Vang’s fourth grade class is learning about branches of government. The worksheets are in both English and Hmong, but since there is no direct translation for some of the terms, such as “legislative,” instead a definition in Hmong is listed below the English word.
“It’s a dying language,” says Vang, who grew up in Fresno in what she described as a traditional Hmong household. She says the language and culture has continually become more Americanized and many of her Hmong students don’t speak the language at home.
She says her students have recently learned the word “extinct,” and that’s what comes to mind thinking about her own ancestry.
“We don’t have a country, you know. We just reside in the mountains of other countries,” she says about Hmong people. “Because of that, I feel like it’s very significant for us to continue (passing the language) on, because if we don’t, we’re gonna be extinct.”
Hmong’s current written language is fairly new, invented in the early 1950s by missionaries to convert Hmong to Christianity. It uses the Roman alphabet, like English.
Hmong is traditionally taught orally, “and there is no traditional schooling in Hmong language,” Yang says.
As a result, there just aren’t many existing educational materials and resources, according to Zer Lee, a Fresno Unified teacher on special assignment who creates curriculum for the program. Lee says 95% of their resources are created from scratch, either by her or other teachers who research and translate texts from English to Hmong.
Social studies and science texts are the most challenging because the Hmong language has “limited to almost non-existent” vocabulary when it comes to certain concepts, Lee says.
“For example, when translating or developing text about a thematic unit on Planets, the Hmong language doesn’t have vocabulary for words such as solar system, inner-planets, outer-planets, asteroids, orbit,” she says.
“There hasn’t been a committee where diverse scholars come together to standardize the Hmong academic language,” she continued. “We’re having to negotiate languages as we develop curriculums.”
Yang says Fresno Unified’s dual language pathway is creating a need to modernize the language and create more advanced curriculum. She hopes to see a Hmong major at Fresno State so scholars and teachers have research and linguistics skills to translate and create curriculum more accurately.
Hmong dual immersion 50-50 model
The 50-50 language model at Vang Pao leaves principal Yua Lee worried at times. Students have to be prepared for statewide testing in English language arts and math while also learning Hmong. So that is a challenge, she says.
She points to her “dynamic” teachers, who balance science and social studies instruction in Hmong, while delivering language arts and math in English. Hmong culture is integrated into all subjects to the extent possible, maintaining Common Core standards, program directors say.
According to statewide test scores, Vang Pao students fare better in math on the statewide tests when compared to the district as a whole. About 32% of students met or exceeded statewide standards in 2021-2022, compared to the 33% average in California and 20% at Fresno Unified.
Students meeting or exceeding English standards were above Fresno Unified as a whole, but still below state averages.
Although research has shown Hmong students are typically academically competitive when applying to colleges, they graduate at disproportionately lower rates than other students, due to challenges such as family duties and limited written English skills. Studies show that their struggles and need for support can be overlooked because people of Hmong ethnicity are sometimes grouped in with other Asian groups with generally higher college-going and success rates, such as Chinese and Japanese Americans.
Lee hopes Vang Pao will eventually become a full dual immersion school, where all students are enrolled in the dual language program. However, she thinks finding enough teachers proficient in Hmong would be difficult.
But they are “growing” a few of their own from Fresno, she says, and “right now, we’re OK, thank goodness.”
And the school can count on at least one more homegrown future teacher.
Irene wants to return to Vang Pao to teach Hmong as a 6th grade, or even high school teacher, one day.
She remembers bullying from non dual immersion students last year, and thinks educating others could change that.
“These other fourth graders made fun of us and our language and how we looked and stuff like that. And we didn’t like that,” she says.
“When I do grow up, I wanna encourage people to know the Hmong culture.”