A woman wearing a traditional Hmong hat and folk costume. [Image: CYB3RUSS / Pixabay]

One Woman’s Journey to Preserve Hmong Language

The Mekong Asia China

The Hmong ethnic group have been in the spotlight after Susina Lee, an American gymnast, won the 2020 Tokyo Olympic all-around championship. In the US, Hmong are one of the most marginalized and the youngest group of Asian Americans. There are significant populations of Hmong in Minnesota and California. In Asia, the Hmong ethnic group live mainly in Southeast Asia and southern China.

Hmong immigration to the United States dates to the 1970s, after the Vietnam War. Hmong people fled their homeland after being labeled as traitors because of their involvement with the United States. During the Vietnam War, Hmong were recruited into the CIA-sponsored operation known as the “secret war.” However, after the war ended and the US troops withdrew from Vietnam, more than 120,000 Hmong became refugees in their homeland. Many fled to Thailand and later emigrated to the United States.

Annie Vang and her parents are part of the early Hmong immigrant community who settled in Iowa in the late 1970s. Like other Asian immigrants, Vang remembers growing up feeling out of place. Vang wanted to forget her Hmong roots and assimilate into American culture. Vang taught English to her family after teaching herself by watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS. Not until she became an adult did she realize she wanted to preserve Hmong language and embrace her culture.

The Hmong language is an oral language with limited written documents apart from tapestries called “paj ntaub.” In the 1600s, the Qing Dynasty made it illegal to write Hmong language, forcing it to be practiced orally. It was not until the 1950s when William Smalley, an American linguist, anthropologist and missionary, together with Hmong people in Laos, created a permanent writing system for Hmong language based on the Roman alphabet.

Because of high illiteracy, many early Hmong immigrants did not learn to read or write Hmong language before coming to the United States. Furthermore, the younger generation of Hmong often would not speak the language because they wanted to assimilate into American culture. Realizing the danger of losing the language, in 2011 Vang started to document Hmong phrases digitally and recorded the audio by creating an app called “Hmong Phrases.” The app allows users to search words in Hmong, listen to audio pronouncing the phrase, and practice saying it aloud. In January 2021, Vang started to update the app by adding new audio, new words, and features such as flashcards to help users memorize Hmong phrases. and features such as flashcards to help users memorize Hmong phrases.

Vang is not alone in her work to preserve endangered Asian languages. Organizations such as The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and The Endangered Language Project have been using technology to preserve and document indigenous languages digitally. According to UNESCO, there are around 7,000 languages spoken worldwide and 90% of those could be extinct by the end of this century. Asia has about 2,301 living languages, the highest number compared to other continents, with many of them in danger of disappearing. While technology can serve as digital repositories for endangered languages, it is also important for the remaining speakers to continue to pass those languages onto the next generations.

Natasia Engeline is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Her research interests include monetary and fiscal policy as well as ASEAN–US relations.