California educator teaches kids their native language. ‘You cannot find an app for Hmong’

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When Bouasvanh Lor would come home to Merced from college at CSU Stanislaus, her parents would pretend they forgot English to force her to practice Hmong, the family’s mother tongue. Back then, she hated it – and didn’t see why it was important to maintain the language.

Then, a trip to Thailand for a teaching job changed her perspective.

The country served as one of the adoptive homes for the Hmong people prior to the Vietnam War. Lor was expecting Hmong people who remained in Thailand to have had a better chance of “safe-keeping” their language.

“I noticed that they weren’t speaking Hmong anymore either,” she said.

“That was something that kind of scared me,” Lor said. “And then, it helped me to bring my passion back.”

Upon her return to the United States, she re-taught herself how to read, write, and speak Hmong.

Many Hmong immigrants living in the U.S. have a similar story to share – of losing their language amid pressures to focus only on mastering English.

But there are also many Hmong Americans who are fighting to disrupt the cycle of language loss, and that includes Lor herself.

In 2018, she hosted the first Hmong Culture Camp in Merced, home to one of the biggest populations of Hmong people in the U.S. The semester-long camp featured a series of classes in the Hmong language and cultural traditions for children under five, with the goal of making sure the next generation of Hmong Americans learns its mother tongue.

Two years later, Hmong Culture Camp became its own nonprofit organization.

Nowadays, Lor’s focused on taking what she’s learned and packaging it for others. That work is taking the form of an online curriculum called Hmong Made Simple, set to launch in August.

It will provide adaptable lessons for teachers to build up their own Hmong lesson plans. She’s tackling a gap that exists across the U.S., where the language isn’t commonly taught and there’s a shortage of resources for Hmong instruction.

But the struggle to preserve Hmong is about more than just passing down the words and the grammar. It’s about preserving Hmong culture, an “invisible” dimension of which is contained in their language, said Kao-Ly Yang, coordinator of Fresno State’s Hmong Studies Program.

“This is my perspective: if the Hmong people lose the language,” she said, “they will lose the culture.”

Why preserving the Hmong language is a race against time

Hmong Culture Camp was supposed to be a one-time thing, Lor said.

Before it became the camp, it was a small, “learn and play” group for children under the age of five. It took the form of weekly lessons at the Vault Works building in Merced for a two-month session. In addition to the language, students learned about traditional Hmong toys, clothing, food and songs.

After it ended, “the community was like, ‘When are you going to do this again?’” Lor said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, you guys like this?’”

Part of the unique draw of her program, Lor said, is its focus on early learners.

“I wanted to be able to reach preschool and elementary school when their minds and their brains are growing so rapidly,” she said.

Beyond California, the Hmong community in the U.S. is in a race against time when it comes to passing on their language and traditions. A 2021 analysis of U.S. Census data from the Pew Research Center shows that over 61%, or nearly two-thirds of Hmong residents, are under the age of 30. Of those residents, 34% are younger than 18.

Meanwhile, a sliver of the population – or 3% – of Hmong residents are elders over the age of 65.

In comparison, 42% of all Asian residents of the U.S. are under 30, and 11% are over 65.

“Right now in the Hmong community, we are panicking,” Yang of Fresno State said. “We have a population that is so young.”

“When I saw this kind of language camp during the summertime,” she said, referring to Lor’s efforts, “I’m so pleased.

“They will make these little kids look at the Hmong language as something positive, as something that will benefit them.”

Teaching students Hmong in Merced and beyond

Lor watched her Hmong students develop that pride in their language and culture in real time.

“It was one of the first times that they were the majority, instead of the minority,” she said, in “a place where they can go and be Hmong with other Hmong kids.”

At the same time, some of the initial participants weren’t Hmong, like in the case of the Stee family.

Priscilla Stee enrolled her three children, who were between the ages five and seven at the time, after seeing the camp advertised at the Vault Works building. At the time, the family didn’t know the Hmong language, nor did they know many Hmong people personally.

“They didn’t just meet a person,” at the camp, Stee said, “they met a culture.”

She remembers her children coming home and excitedly telling her all about what they learned. They even taught Stee how to count to ten in Hmong, which she still remembers years later.

But more than knowing new words and traditions, Stee said, they learned how to communicate across the lines of cultural difference.

“I really appreciate those seeds being planted in my children,” she said, “because they gave them the opportunity to know that there are other cultures out there, and they’re different, and there’s nothing wrong with being different.”

Hmong Culture Camp had to find different ways to teach those lessons when the pandemic hit. For example, Lor decided to shorten the sessions to combat the “Zoom fatigue” students were feeling.

Despite that, Lor said moving the camp online opened the door for the impact to grow.

“We were like, ‘Now we can teach kids in Wisconsin, kids in Colorado,’” she said. Kids in Minnesota, too, in the case of the Kue family.

Related to Lor on their father’s side, twins Carter and Caidance participated in Hmong Culture Camp online, according to their mother, Nam.

Even though there are Hmong language programs in Minnesota, they aren’t offered at the twins’ school, Kue said. Her children also needed something more flexible to accommodate their busy schedules, as they’re heavily involved in theater.

“I mean, you can’t even find an app for it. You can find an app for any language,” Kue said, “but you cannot find an app for Hmong.”

When Hmong Culture Camp launched online, they were able to tune into class between their ballroom dance lessons. Kue said she would watch.

“I’m that mom that records everything and takes pictures of everything,” she said. “I wanted to know if they were going to actually learn (Hmong) and enjoy it, which they did.”

What’s next after Hmong Culture Camp?

The goal with Hmong Made Simple, Lor’s online curriculum that will be available for educators and schools to purchase, is to expand this reach even further.

She’s currently processing feedback from community members on the board of Hmong Culture Camp. That includes Merced community members, elders in the Hmong community, and early education experts, Lor said.

But in the meantime, she’s not sure when the next Hmong Culture Camp will be.

She’s been finding other ways to stay connected with students, including through TikTok. She’s posted a few videos with brief lessons in Hmong basics.

Pahoua Lor and her son, Jun, one of Bouasvanh’s nephews, said they watch his “auntie’s TikTok channel” to keep up their practice after moving from California to North Carolina, where they no longer have access to Hmong instruction.

Bouasvanh Lor is hopeful she can one day bring Hmong Culture Camp back in person, in her new hometown of Sacramento this time.

“You see a Hmong family at every corner … there’s so many kids here. I could be teaching all these kids,” she said.

She would have to find a venue, and make sure it’s safe with COVID still posing a threat, but she’s hopeful she can continue the work she started in Merced: helping young Hmong Americans preserve the language Lor once feared she’d lost, and the culture that goes hand in hand with it.

“Our story is so special,” she said.

“If the kids knew that, if they knew their history, and they knew (the Hmong people’s) journey here, they would be like: ‘Oh my God, I’m so special. I’m Hmong.’”

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