THE DISAPPEARING HMONG LANGUAGE: THE EFFECTS OF ENGLISH ON HMONG CHILDRENâ€™S HERITAGE LANGUAGE AND THEIR RELATIONSHIP
WITH THEIR PARENTS by
KHANG YANG XIONG
B.A., University of Colorado Boulder, 2003 M.A., University of Colorado Boulder, 2006
A thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Colorado in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Education Leadership for Educational Equity 2019
KHANG YANG XIONG
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
This thesis for the Doctor of Education degree by Khang Yang Xiong has been approved for the Leadership for Educational Equity Program by
Ruben Anguiano, Chair Nancy Commins, Advisor Anayeli Lopez
Xiong, Khang Yang (Ed.D., Leadership for Educational Equity)
The Disappearing Hmong Language: The Effects of English on Hmong Childrenâ€™s Heritage Language and Their Relationship with Their Parents Thesis directed by Clinical Professor Nancy L. Commins
Through counter-storytelling which is a method of telling the stories of people whose stories are not often told, this qualitative study sought to examine ways in which Hmong youth and their families experience and interpret the use of English in their lives and the ways it affects their use and maintenance of the Hmong language. It also sought to understand how the use of English affects the identity of Hmong youth and relationships between Hmong students, their parents and families.
In this study 13 Hmong college students and 5 Hmong parents were interviewed in 30-minute sessions using semi-structured, open-ended questions, and some cases, follow-up prompts. The interviews were audio recorded in the language of choice, either in Hmong or English, transcribed into English and categorized into themes.
Five themes major themes emerged from the data: (1) Dominance of English Contributes to Hmong Language and Culture Shift for Hmong Youth, (2) English Language Barriers for Youth and Parents, (3) English Impacts Relationship Between Youth and Parents, (4) Fractured Identities of Hmong American Youths, and (5) Potential Improvements to the Educational System. The data found in this study supported previous studies done on the Hmong.
The results of this study show the marginalization of the Hmong in U.S. society and in order to improve, there should be some changes to the educational system. Implications for positive solutions are discussed in order to improve their educational attainment, income and
quality of life, and more importantly to find solutions to help connect Hmong youth to their culture and maintain their heritage language. In addition, the lessons learned from the Hmong refugee experience can help to improve the experiences of other language minority groups, immigrants, and current or future refugee families in the US.
The form and content of this abstract are approved. I recommend its publication.
Approved: Nancy L. Commins
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Statement of the Problem and Significance......................................10
Purpose of the Study...........................................................12
Critical Social Theory.........................................................14
Critical Race Theory and Counter-Storytelling..................................16
Yossoâ€™s Cultural Wealth Model..................................................17
Assumptions and Limitations....................................................18
Definition of Terms............................................................19
II. REVIEW OF LITERATURE.........................................................20
Language Policy and Practices..................................................20
Educational Experiences of the Hmong...........................................22
Heritage Language Loss and Impact on Identity..................................30
Bilingualism and Bilingual Education...........................................33
Language Ideologies and Planning...............................................38
Hmong Student Demographics.....................................................48
Summaries of Student Participants..............................................49
Themes from Student Interviews.................................................54
Hmong Parent Demographics......................................................67
Summaries of Parent Participants...............................................68
Themes from Parent Interviews..................................................70
A . Hmong Student Questionnaire...............................................105
B. Hmong Parent Questionnaire................................................108
C. Student Codes and Themes..................................................112
D. Parent Codes and Themes...................................................113
In 1975, the Vietnam War ended, American troops pulled out of Laos, and Hmong military leaders who were allies of the Americans were airlifted to safety in neighboring Thailand. The carefree lives of the Hmong living off the land in the hills and jungles of Laos ended abruptly. Hmong families left their villages fleeing from punishment or death for aiding the Americans. My father was a soldier in the war and his connections helped us to flee Laos soon after the war ended. Entire villages deserted their homes. Some Hmong families ran into the jungles and other families started making their way to Thailand. My family also headed toward Thailand with a couple of other families. We hid in deserted hideouts of Hmong leaders, waiting for the next signal to move. I was only three years old as we were hiding, and like other toddlers, I was restless and wanted to move around, but my parents did not allow much movement, so I started to cry. My cries got louder and suddenly my fatherâ€™s hand covered my mouth. He smothered my cry that could give us away. My mother was terrified that I would not be able to breathe and would disappear into the night, forever. She anxiously calmed me down. Everyone lived on the edge, terrified for their lives. Some parents drugged their crying babies, and sadly some of those babies never awoke from their long sleep.
Soon, we continued our journey. We finally reach the last hurdle, the obstacle of crossing the Mekong River. The boat trip had to be prepaid. It was a small boat, only able to fit about three small families, and we only traveled at night. Halfway on our trip, the crew demanded for us to pay them more money. Thoughts of being beaten, raped, thrown off the boat or killed passed my parents â€™ minds. Fearful for our lives, my father made an offering to our ancestors to watch over us and get us through the situation. If they helped us and kept us safe, we would reward them afterwards. The situation eventually resolved itself when the crew saw that we had no more money to give them. Soon after, we reached shore and not long after, we were sent to an area with temporary tent housing. Not much later, my father never awoke from his sleep, like many other Hmong men who experienced the traumatic experiences of war. Then we were moved to a
refugee camp where my family lived in a one-room dirt floor within a long barrack hall, fenced in with rationedfood. Four years later, my uncle with the help of a church brought us to the United States. My first day in school was a very strange and lonely experience, as the only Hmong speaker in a classroom of native English speakers, Ifelt very isolated. The school offered no resources to help a newcomer and I was left to fend for myself. I had to learn English to survive, but I had no idea that English would immensely change my life or that it would impact the survival and existence of the Hmong language, culture, and community...
The Hmong living in the United States are a group of people who fled Laos at the end of the Vietnam War due to the harsh consequences of supporting the Americans in the war and aiding them through the thick jungles of the Laos ("Hmong Timeline," 2018). Like my family, the Hmong people for the most part lived a simple life in mountains and hills of Laos. They were self-sufficient in the rural areas of Laos. They farmed the land and tended their animals. The Hmong people are closely knitted and helped each other in their community especially during the planting and harvesting seasons. However, when the war ended, and the Americans pulled out of Laos, the Hmong were persecuted for siding with and aiding the Americans. To escape death, the Hmong sought refuge in neighboring Thailand where they received refugee status and later fled to many countries around the world. Due to the direct involvement with the United States and assisting Americans in the war, many Hmong were able to immigrate to the United States. They started entering the United States in the late 1970â€™s and 1980â€™s. However, when the Hmong arrived to the United States, their world was turned upside down. The people, culture, and traditions that were familiar to them disappeared. The life skills that were useful in their lives in the mountains suddenly became useless. The contrast between life in Laos and life in the United States was so great that many Hmong had to endure hardships and extensive barriers. Currently, there are 250,000 Hmong individuals living in the United States with the majority concentrated
in California, the Twin cities in Minnesota, and Wisconsin (Center for American Progress, 2015).
Statement of the Problem and Significance
It has been four decades since the first Hmong immigrated to the United States. The Hmong were pushed out of their native lands of war-tom Laos and forced to leave for the safety and existence of their families. Like all immigrant groups, after arriving to the United States, the Hmong had to do their best to assimilate in order to survive. They were immersed into a culture where success is determined to a large degree by an individualâ€™s level of English. Even though the Hmong have been in the United States for decades, the academic achievement of Hmong students and the overall well-being of the Hmong community in U.S. society has been slow and difficult.
Research complied by Kwan (2015), using data from the U.S. census bureau shows that the Hmong in California are falling significantly behind other ethnic groups in both income and education. The Hmong have the highest level of poverty at 35.5 percent among other groups. Blacks have a poverty rate of 26 percent, then Whites at 15 percent, and only 12 percent of Asians live in poverty. As these numbers show, the rate of poverty in the Hmong community is double that of the mainstream White community. Besides having the lowest level of income among other groups, the Hmong also have attained the least amount of English and the lowest level of education. Only 13.1 percent of Hmong members have attained a bachelorâ€™s degree or higher, while Whites are at 31.9 percent and Asians overall are at 48.9 percent in completing a bachelorâ€™s degree. According to the Pew Research Center (2015), data was collected from the Hmong across the United States and the figures were quite similar. In 2015, the overall poverty of the Hmong in our nation was at 28.3 percent and Hmong that have obtained a bachelorâ€™s
degree or higher was at 14 percent ("Hmong | Data on Asian Americans," 2019). These alarming figures demonstrate how much the Hmong are marginalized in U.S. society. See figure 2 on page 24.
Not only are the Hmong lagging behind in educational attainment and income, the Hmong community is facing a critical situation with their youth. The Hmong have only been in the U.S. for about four decades (Trueba, Jacobs, & Kirton, 2014) and four decades is not a very long time considering the history of the United States or looking at other immigrants and how long they have been living in the United States. However, in a short forty years, the power of assimilation and the hegemony of English in U.S. society can be seen in the habits and practices of Hmong youth. As a Hmong individual myself, it is very concerning to observe my community members. The crisis the Hmong community is facing is the disappearing of the Hmong language. This phenomenon is difficult to track since there are no entities or institutions monitoring the Hmong language and its use among the Hmong community. But as an insider, as a Hmong individual, I have observed this phenomenon within my own family, as in my children, my siblings, my relatives and their children. In addition, I have observed this loss of language in the children of my friends, acquaintances, and other Hmong community members.
In order for immigrants to do well in their new home it is necessary to adapt, try to assimilate and this means learning the language of the larger society. However, as the years passed, the powerful hegemony of English and mainstream cultural practices have begun to take over the Hmongâ€™s way of life. As English began to dominate in Hmong-speaking families, the children began to lose their mother tongue. Not only have Hmong youth lost access to their heritage language, they have lost connection to their families, culture, and roots (Lee, 2002; Ngo, 2016; & Yang, 2003). When any group loses their native language, they lose parts of their
identity. Language loss has huge implications for identity development, which also affects mental and physical well-being. This is why it is critical to develop the ethnic identity of immigrant or language minority children and youth. There is extensive research that shows that those who have a bicultural or integrated cultural identity are more likely to have better outcomes in: mental health (Greene, Way, & Pahl 2006; Spitzer, 2016), higher academic achievement (Ngai 2002; Spitzer, 2016), better jobs (Savoie, 1995), less likely to join gangs or engage in delinquent behaviors and violence (Le & Stockdale 2008; Yasui & Dishion 2007).
In summary, the Hmong are facing some critical issues in their community. These include the huge educational and income discrepancies between the Hmong and other Americans, as well as how they are falling short in academic attainment which can be a huge vehicle to improving income and quality of life. In addition, the Hmong are experiencing rapid language and cultural loss. What we know is that this is happening, what we donâ€™t know is how these phenomena are happening through the American educational system. In addition, there is little information on what this means for the Hmong parents and youth who are in the middle of it.
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this study was to gain insights into the experiences of Hmong parents and their children regarding the American educational system. It sought to make heard the voices of young Hmong adults and their parents and attempts to gain a better understanding of the impact of the use of English on Hmong studentsâ€™ heritage language. It also sought to understand how the use of English affects the relationships between Hmong students, their parents and families. It is hoped that the findings will raise awareness of the increasing crises and issues in the Hmong community, especially the language and culture loss of the Hmong youth. Ultimately, the goal of
this study is to foster the discussion of positive solutions for the Hmong community in order to improve their educational attainment, income and quality of life, and more importantly to find solutions to help connect Hmong youth to their culture and maintain their heritage language. In addition, the lessons learned from the Hmong refugee experience can help to improve the other language minority groups, immigrants, and current or future refugee families in the U.S.
The Hmong is a cultural group that has been marginalized within U.S. society and schools (Kwan 2015; Ngo, 2016; & Yang, 2003). Their academic attainment, opportunity gaps, and low socioeconomic status, as previously discussed, demonstrate this marginality. The theoretical framework of this study is grounded in three major areas, Critical Social Theory, Critical Race Theory and the Community Cultural Wealth model. These frameworks were useful in guiding this study to explore this marginalization and in selecting the research questions. These frameworks can also help us to understand why the Hmong are quickly losing their heritage language, but more importantly these theoretical frameworks will hopefully help us to understand ways to improve opportunities for Hmong individuals and their communities, as well as other refugee students who continue to arrive in U.S. schools.
Figure 1. [Theoretical Framework of Hmong Language Study] To have a deep understanding of the current realities of cultural groups, we need to recognize that bias is embedded in institutions and policies which privileges a dominant group over cultural groups.
Critical Social Theory
To understand the current situation of marginalized cultural groups and the inequities that exist for minority groups such as the Hmong, we need to have a comprehensive view of U.S. society and how power is exercised and how it manifests itself within and across cultural groups. The relation between power and cultural groups can be better understood through the lens of the Critical Social Theory (CST) that proposes that current realities benefit some and marginalize others. CST has a broad perspective and allows us to look at the backbone of U.S. society which includes its social systems and structures. CST teaches us to use careful judgment in observing society and culture, but more importantly, we need to question the mainstream viewpoint, then, rethink and reform oppression. According to Leonardo (2004):
CST is an intellectual form that puts criticism at the center of its knowledge production. Through criticism, CST pushes ideas and frameworks to their limits, usually by highlighting their contradictions. In quality education, criticism functions to cultivate studentsâ€™ ability to question, deconstruct, and then reconstruct knowledge in the interest of emancipation (p. 12).
When looking at minority cultural groups, such as the Hmong community and how they are functioning in a mainstream society, especially in our educational system, it is important to question and note the historical structures and how economic, political, educational, and social systems were created to benefit the mainstream English-speaking culture.
In addition to questioning and examining with a critical lens, we need to look at society
and the historic aspects that have shaped our modern society today. Leonardo suggests that if we
take a look at history, minority students have not had a fair chance at an equitable education.
Through the multidisciplinary framework of CST, â€œquality educationâ€ is proportional to the depth of analysis that students have at their disposal. Deprived of opportunities for historical analysis in its material and discursive forms, students experience their education in its alienated and abstract form; we could hardly call such an experience â€œqualityâ€ (Leonardo, 2004, p. 11).
When structures and systems are set up to value and favor a dominant language and then that language is attached to power, access or opportunity, the balance scale is tipped favoring the dominant group. For example, language minority groups struggle to compete with their native English-speaking peers who have an advantage since most schools in U.S. society teach only in English. English speakers start school in kindergarten understanding directions while some language minorities spend the first few months of school learning basic English vocabulary, thus access to learning is a bit delay for language minority children. In addition to being deprived of their access to their primary language, different educational and cultural systems yield different types of learners, and this can be observed through what could be thought of as a juxtapositional lens between two types of learners e.g. language minority students vs. English native speakers.
Thus, it is important to review the historical aspects of education for minority cultural groups, note those inequalities, and consider them in relation to the current realities of minority groups in our educational system today. It is important to apply this concept of criticism to understand why the Hmong have been marginalized within the American educational system and how the structures have dominated minority groups through compulsory assimilation.
Critical Race Theory and Counter-Storytelling
Critical Race Theory (CRT), a component of the bigger spectrum of Critical Social Theory, looks deeply at the racial inequalities that exist in todayâ€™s systems and structures.
Critical Race Theory views issues through the lens of race, which can help explain the opportunity differences in economic, political, educational, and social aspects of cultural groups.
According to many CRT theorists, much of reality is socially constructed. The reality most often constructed and made known is based on elevating the reality of those in power and the silencing of minoritized cultural groups. From this perspective, the process of giving voice to the reality of minoritized cultural groups interrupts the power of the dominant group to name reality for others (Ladson-Billing & Tate, 1995). One tool that Critical Race Theorists advocate to disrupt the dominant narrative is the notion of counter-storytelling as used by Richard Delgado. Delgado (1989) uses counter-storytelling for two purposes. First, it is a method to tell the stories of marginalized individuals, and it is a tool for analyzing and challenging the stories of those people in power, the majoritarian story. For these reasons, counter-storytelling helps expand the lens and perspectives of many people, especially people of color. In addition, it helps to bring to the table that race plays a huge part in the distribution of power, opportunities and accessâ€”and ultimately is a significant factor in the success of individuals living in American society, including academic attainment and success. This study uses CRT and counter-
storytelling to understand why the academic attainment of the Hmong cultural group is so low. But more importantly, this study uses the frameworks of CRT to explore how race intersects with language, specifically language loss for Hmong children and youths. Lastly, CRT and counterstorytelling can help pave the path to foster positive solutions toward social justice.
Yossoâ€™s Cultural Wealth Model
Instead of the common mainstream deficit view of cultural groups, Yossoâ€™s (2005) Cultural Wealth Model can give light to an individualâ€™s bank of strengths. This model recognizes and acknowledges that individuals have rich skills and abilities to offer their communities and the larger society and they can use these gifts to navigate through different structures and environments. This wealth model can be used to highlight /explain how the Hmong use their skills, backgrounds, and experiences to navigate their social and educational environments.
Yossoâ€™s Cultural Wealth Model uses the notion of cultural capital originally introduced by Bourdieu (1984). Yosso proposes that students have many types of capital that can empower them as individuals. Her model includes six types of capital that educational leaders may use to frame their interactions with their students. They are summarized as follows: 1). Aspirational -which are the hopes and dreams students have, 2). Linguistic - which refers to the language and communication skills they bring to their educational environment, 3). Familial - which is defined as the social and personal human resources students draw from their extended familial and community networks, 4). Social - this is defined as student's peers and social contacts and how students use these contacts to access and navigate social institutions, 5). Navigational -refers to the skills and abilities to navigate social institutions, including educational institutions, and 6). Resistance capital - which are the skills and foundation of the experiences of communities of color in securing equal rights and collective freedom.
Yosso designed this model to capture the talents, strengths, and experiences of students from diverse backgrounds. Often, teachers say their students donâ€™t have any skills if the students are new to the country or new to English. For the many teachers who have a deficit view of their students, Yossoâ€™s model can helps them to view their students in a different light. Educators can then use the studentsâ€™ culture or background as resources and opportunities for learning.
To thoroughly understand a cultural group such as the Hmong and their hardships, barriers, and current realities, the theories of Critical Social Theory, Critical Race Theory and Yossoâ€™s Cultural Wealth Model can give educators a framework to understand their difficulties, as well as ways to improve these conditions, especially in creating optimal programming for learning and academic gains. Moreover, these perspectives can aid in supporting more equitable practices and opportunities for Hmong youths and other minority language groups.
Assumptions and Limitations
This study investigated the perceptions of Hmong college students and their parents about the studentsâ€™ experience through the educational system in Colorado. This study assumed that the students and their parents would answer genuinely and truthfully to the interview questions.
There are several limitations to this study. First, only a small sample of 13 students and five parents were interviewed. Since the sampling is quite small, we cannot generalize the findings to the general Hmong population. In addition, the perspectives of students attending college is already a different experience than those students who did not attend college. So, in order to have a more complete view of the educational experience of Hmong youths, a future sampling should incorporate students who dropped out of school and students who did not attend college. In addition, the study was geared at Hmong students and parents living in Colorado. To
have a more complete understanding of the Hmong in the United States, future studies should include Hmong individuals across the nation, especially from other cities that have higher concentration of Hmong such as the Twin Cities in Minnesota or California and Wisconsin.
Definition of Terms
Cultural capital - Cultural capital is the accumulation of knowledge, behaviors and skills that one can tap into to demonstrate one's cultural competence, and thus one's social status or standing in society. This accumulation was used to reinforce class differences, as historically and very much still today, different groups of people have access to differing sources and forms of knowledge, depending on other variables like race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and even age (Bourdieu, 1984). Cultural Competence - having the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures and being respectful and responsive to cultural and linguistic needs of diverse groups.
Second generation - U.S.-born children of immigrants (â€œSecond-Generation Americans,â€ 2013)
Language maintenance - the continuing use of a minority language that is in competition against a more dominant language, and the language loss happens when a person stops using a heritage language and begins to forget its structure and vocabulary (Clyne, 1991).
Language loss - when a heritage language ceases to be spoken (cal.org, 2018).
Refugee - A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence (â€œWhat is a Refugee? Definition and Meaning | USA for UNHCR,â€ 2018).
REVIEW OF LITERATURE
The goal of this study was to investigate ways in which Hmong youth and their families experience and interpret the use of English in their lives and how it affects the use and preservation of their heritage language. This section will review not only literature that is pertinent to the Hmong cultural group and their struggles and marginalization, but it will also include research about how to help improve social outcomes and educational attainment for the Hmong and other marginalized groups. First, a historical perspective with a language lens provides a foundational understanding of the school system in U.S. society and how the hegemony of English impacts language minority students. Then it reviews the current educational attainment of the Hmong and barriers they face. The struggles of the Hmong lead then to a review of the consequences of forced assimilation and how heritage language loss impacts self-identity. The last section looks at what research says about increasing opportunities for Hmong children through asset-based language planning, the benefits of bilingual models in school systems, and high levels of parental engagement.
Language Policy and Practices
Legal policy is the backbone of the structures and systems of this country. A component of legal policy are the language policies affecting our schools. To comprehend the current realities of cultural groups such as the Hmong and many others, we need to understand the historical aspects of language in our educational policy. The current framework for public education in the United States was created over two hundred years ago and was designed for and reflective of the majority culture, the dominant Anglo White population (Spring, 2016). Even
though the population in the United States has changed, our educational system remains the same; it is still based on the same foundations. Our educational policies and regulations reflect the dominant cultureâ€”thus, benefiting mainstream students.
Since the beginning of our countryâ€™s establishment, most the history of language in schooling has been a system of English only policies that have transcended generations and political circumstances, especially in light of constant immigration to our shores, as well as subjugation of indigenous populations. The basic structure of our current educational system was created in the early 1800s tailored for a dominant group of English learners. Thus, the educational experience of an English speaker and a non-native English speaker were very different. Hence, children from minority cultures faced many inequities in their educational environment as discussed by Education News (2019). In fact, many great leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and the parents of Ruby Bridges, along with many others, fought for civil rights and for improving the injustices in our educational system. They made instrumental reforms, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discussed by Gandara and Hopkins (2010) as â€œa new era of rights for English learner students based on Title VI of the Act, which forbids discrimination based on national origin, interpreted to include language (p.24).â€ Other monumental reforms specific to multilingual learners such as the court case Lau v. Nichols (1974) improved access and rights to curriculum and learning for language minorities. Because of Lau v. Nichols, public schools were required to attend to non-English speakers and provide supplemental English support until they were proficient in English. This court case helped to level the playing field for language minorities who had limited access to their education due to English. All of these reforms improved the overall educational experience for all children, and legislation looked promising in terms of providing heritage language maintenance. However,
most of these progressive reforms and educational policies were mainly geared towards the goal of improving a childâ€™s English development only. Many historic U.S. English only policies were intolerant and uncompromising of other languages (Crawford, 1989; Macedo, Dendrinos, & Gounari, 2003). An all English instruction policy, ingrained over the centuries or decades for the Hmong, would bring harsh consequences and repercussions to people of minority cultures.
The intolerance of the English-only position can be seen through the historical perspective of post-Vietnam War. After the Vietnam War, when the Hmong were being persecuted, they fled and immigrated to the United States and other countries that would accept war refugees. When the families arrived in the new county, they were usually greeted with an only English instruction in public schools. Assimilation to a new society will impact the lives of immigrants, their language and culture, just as it has impacted other immigrant groups before them.
Educational Experiences of the Hmong
The origin of the Hmong has been heavily debated by scholars, but there is general agreement that for several hundred years the Hmong lived in China. In the 19th century, the Hmong migrated south to Laos and Vietnam escaping from oppression from the Chinese (G.
Lee, 2007). Before the Vietnam War, the Hmong typically lived an agrarian way of life. They were self-sufficient and lived off the land in the hills and mountains of Laos and Vietnam. They worked on their rice fields and tended their animals. The people were closely connected and relied on each other during the planting and harvesting seasons. They governed themselves and looked upon their elders or made offerings to their ancestors for guidance. The Hmongâ€™s simple animist society abruptly ended when the war began as their way of life started to change, and
chaos was rampant. When the war ended, an estimated 100,000 Hmong had been injured or lost their lives fighting for both the Americans and the communist Lao. In 1975, when the communist Lao initiated their new regime, many Hmong escaped to Thailand and would eventually be resettled in the United States and other Western countries (G. Lee, 2007).
The Hmong came to the United States with rich skills from living off the land in their agricultural community. However, when they arrived, the skills that they brought with them were, for the most part, not valued, so they faced many challenges and barriers in mainstream English society. These barriers have made life in the United States difficult for most of the Hmong community. In Laos, the Hmong generally lived secluded in agrarian communities, and as a result most were not educated. Like my parents, many Hmong immigrants spoke only Hmong and were not literate in English. This meant that when the Hmong arrived to the United States, most were unable to navigate educational resources to help their children. Many Hmong children struggled in an educational system that valued English over any other language (S. Lee, 2007).
During the 90â€™s and early 2000s, English only and other policies greatly reduced the emphasis on home language instruction that had begun to increase following Lau V. Nichols and the passage of the Federal Bilingual Education Act. These included Californiaâ€™s Proposition 227 which mandated English immersion classes and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policies instituted under the administration of George W. Bush. Menken (2013) summarized these programs. California Proposition 227 was an education policy that voters passed in 1998 that sought to bar home language altogether for emergent bilinguals. Proposition 227 effectively dismantled a third of all the bilingual programs in the U.S. and they replaced these programs
with â€œStructured English Immersionâ€ which are English-only instruction intended to teach English more rapidly.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a U.S. federal education policy implemented from
2002-2015. Although NCLB was an education for all K-12 students, it encouraged English-only
instruction, which highly impacted emergent bilinguals and the dismantling of many bilingual
programs through its emphasis on high-stakes testing and accountability. These policies
conveyed that English was superior and non-English languages were inferior which discouraged
many language minority students from developing and using their heritage language. In Kwanâ€™s
2015 study on 19 Hmong colleges students in California found that they had experienced
microaggressions related to their language and culture. In her study, Hmong students
encountered negative experiences between themselves and their non-Hmong teachers which led
them to favor English development over Hmong language maintenance. DePouw (2012) also
saw similar themes in her study when she interviewed Hmong students in Wisconsin about their
experiences in college. She found that Hmong students experienced inequities and racism due
their background, language and culture. She describes the experience of the Hmong students:
The predominantly negative nature of the Hmong American studentsâ€™ educational experiences creates real challenges for studentsâ€™ educational persistence and academic achievement at the postsecondary level. Their responses demonstrate their alienation and isolation in school, the pervasiveness of school cultureâ€™s assumptions of Whiteness as normal and universal, and the implied and overt characterizations of Hmong communities as deficient. (2012, p. 234)
Challenges and barriers in the educational setting is reflected in the Hmongâ€™s educational attainment reported by Kwan (2015), shown in the figure below. In comparison with other Asian, White, and Black communities in California, Kwan found that only 13.1 percent of the Hmong community has attained of a bachelorâ€™s degree or higher, which is the lowest among the groups. The Hmongâ€™s Asian counterpart is considerably ahead with 48.9 percent attaining a bachelorâ€™s
degree or higher and the mainstream white community following behind with attainment of 31.9
percent. In addition to having the lowest level of college education, the Hmong also had the
lowest level of English.
2013 American Community Survey l-Year Estimates for Hmong, Asian, White, and Black Populations in California
Hmong Asian White Black
Total population 96,207 5,210,236 23,741,019 2,269,021
Median age 21.8 38.8 38.2 35.5
Bachelor's degree or higher (%) 13.1 48.9 31.9 22.0
Speak only English in the home (%) 10.5 24.5 66.6 91.0
Speak English less than very well (%) 45.4 36.0 13.8 2.3
Per capita income ($) 10,418 33,336 33,346 23,008
Poverty (all people) (%) 35.5 12.0 15.2 26.0
Source: U.S. Census Bureau (2013).
Figure 2. Estimates for Hmong, Asian, White, and Black Populations in CA (Kwan, 2015, p.25).
One may make the connection that studentsâ€™ level of English proficiency will relate to their academic attainment. According to the Pew Research Center, similar education attainment results were found for the Hmong community at a national level across U.S. societies ("Hmong | Data on Asian Americans," 2019). Just a couple of decades ago, research studies on the Hmong were quite limited and the studies that were done, were completed by non-Hmong individuals. Now, four decades later after the arrival of the first Hmong, research on the Hmong is changing. The young Hmong children who had arrived to the U.S at a very young age have grown up and gone to school. Some of them have even finished college with advanced degrees. More recently, research on the Hmong is being completed by Hmong individuals with an insiderâ€™s perspective and lens. In searching through hundreds of studies only a limited number were done on Hmong student achievement, both positive and negative aspects of educational achievement. Those
studies presented here that were completed by Hmong individuals and also non-Hmong individuals echo a common theme; academically, Hmong students are falling behind their peers, both monolingual English peers and other language minority peers (Lee & Madyun, 2008; Lee, Lam & Madyun, 2017; Lee, 2007; Lee, 2014; Mahowald & Loughnane, 2016; Vang, 2005; & Sao Xiong, 2012).
The typical American school experience of all English instruction seems to not be working for Hmong students. Where there are concentrated populations of Hmong students, the Hmong community is trying different alternatives to improve academic outcomes. Due to the growing population of Hmong youths, Hmong schools are beginning to emerge in highly populated Hmong communities, such as California, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
Currently, as found through a simple google search, twelve Hmong schools have been established across the United States. Two schools are located in Wisconsin, another two schools in California and eight schools in Minnesota. Seven out of the twelve schools were charter schools. Four schools had dual language programming in English and Hmong, five schools had some Hmong language and culture classes and three schools had limited or no Hmong language and culture classes. A summary description of the schools can be found in Table 1.
All of the websites of these Hmong schools reported achievement data for their students, and, the results were troubling. Ten out of twelve schools fell below their district standards, as documented in the school improvement plans on their school website or from district performance report cards. Only two of twelve schools met district academic standards. Some of the schools that did not meet district standards had alarmingly low scores, with overall scores falling below 20 percent of students meeting standards in reading and math. This means that less than 20 percent of the students were reading or doing math at grade level expectations. This is
quite shocking, but these scores strongly support the view that the Hmong are marginalized as reflected in the data on educational attainment and income that were previously discussed.
One of the two schools that surpassed state and district averages was the Hmong American Peace Academy located in Wisconsin. The school was established in 2004 by a Hmong woman named Chris Her-Xiong who wanted Hmong students to have a strong sense of their cultural identity, in an interview she stated, â€œI strongly believe that without heritage we are nothing. Hence, it's very important for our children to know who they are and where they come from so that they can be healthy and productive citizens (Guillermo, 2019). Even though the language of instruction at this school seemed to be mostly in English, the environment fostered and valued the Hmong childrenâ€™s cultural identity. The other school that met district standards is Nobel Academy in Minnesota. This school does offer some Hmong language and culture classes. In addition, the school values multiculturalism and includes a social curriculum. These few examples of successful schools demonstrate that there are ways to improve educational opportunities for Hmong youth. It will take some time to resolve inefficiencies and improve in creating competent models to deliver programming in both languages, English and Hmong.
Table 1. Hmong Schools in the United States and their programming details.
Name of School Location Grade Levels & Number of Students Nature of Program General Achievement Performance
Hmong College Prep Academy Saint Paul, MN K-12th 1397 students 502 LEP students Charter School Title 1 Program Title 3 Program Pull-out & Push-in ELL program Number of students meeting standards 2018 Scores Reading 36.3% Math 43.8% Science 22.6%
MN Dept of Ed (2019)
Community School of Excellence Saint Paul, MN K-8th 1300 students 62% ELL Charter Title 1 ELL Program Hmong language and cultural literacy Reading 30.4% Math 38.8% 2017 School Annual Report School website (2019)
Table 1. contâ€™d
Phalen Lake Elementary School Saint Paul, MN PK-6th 707 students Hmong Studies Magnet School Title 1 Dual Immersion Program Hmong and English Reading 31.9% Math 40.9% Science 22.9% MN Dept of Ed (2019)
Jackson Preparatory Magnet School Saint Paul, MN PK-5th 301 students Magnet Title 1 ELL Program Pk-5 Hmong Dual Language Program Reading 22.8% Math 17.7% Science 26% MN Dept of Ed (2019)
Hope Community Academy Saint Paul, MN K-8th 517 students Charter ELL Program Instruction in English Few classes in Hmong language and culture Reading 32.5% Math 35.3% 2017 Annual School Report School Website (2019)
New Millennium Academy Brooklyn Center, MN K-8th 750 students Charter ELL Program Instruction in English Few classes in Hmong language and culture Math 21.8% Reading 23.3% 2017 Annual School Report School Website (2019)
Nobel Academy Brooklyn Park, MN PK-8th 993 students 53% ELL Charter Instruction in English Classes in Hmong language and culture Math 64.3% Reading 60.5% Science 40.1% 2018 Annual School Report School Website (2019)
Hmong International Academy Minneapolis, MN PK-8th 525 students Magnet PK Full-day PK Title 1 ELL Services Kindergarten only: 50% One-Way Dual Language Program Reading 17.8% Math 16% Science 6.7% MN Dept of Ed (2019)
Susan B. Anthony Elementary School Sacramento, CA K-6th 260 students ELL Program Hmong Dual Language Immersion Program ELA 17.5% Math 8.9% Science 36.1% 2016 School Accountability Report School Website (2019)
Yav Pern Suab Academy Sacramento, CA K-6th 423 students Charter ELL Program Few Hmong Literacy classes Reading 34% Math 59% 2010 AYP scores School Website (2019)
Hmong American Peace Academy Milwaukee, WI K-12th 1594 students Charter English classes Values Hmong heritage ELA 44.6% Math 34.2% 81.2 score, Exceeds Expectations Wis. Dept of Ed. Report Card 2017-18 School Website (2019)
Lakeview Elementary School Madison, WI K-5th 260 students Title 1 Hmong-English Bilingual Program ELA 16.7% Math 15.7% 61.4 score,
Meets Few Expectations Wis. Dept of Ed. Report Card 2017-18 School Website (2019)
The current educational environment for Hmong children, especially the experience of all
English instruction looks grim; full of challenges and endless barriers. The lack of academic achievement of the Hmong schools clearly demonstrate that academic attainment for Hmong youth and children is in crisis. In order to find solutions, we need to understand the issues and problems, comprehensively. When this happens, recommendations can help to support improvements. This is why there is a dire need to conduct a study such as this one. It is hoped that the findings from this study will inform ways to increase academic opportunities and help Hmong youth to learn about their heritage, roots, culture, traditions, and to maintain their native language.
Heritage Language Loss and Impact on Identity
Language expresses identity. Identity concerns the shared characteristics of members of a group, community, or region. Identity helps provide the security and status of a shared existence. Sometimes identity is via dress, religious beliefs, but language is almost always present in identity formation and identity display. Language is an index, symbol and marker of identity. (Baker, 2006, p. 46)
In the field of language in general, people from a variety of disciplines have examined the connections between language and discipline. The literature shows that when immigrants settle in a new location and they need to socialize and interact with the dominant language and culture, they often lose the first language when learning a second language. When heritage language diminishes, there is impact to their cultural identity (McCarty, Romero & Zepeda 2006; Pacini-
Ketchabaw, Bernhard & Freire, 2001; Kouritzin, 1999; & Fillmore, 1991). For the purposes of this literature review, some representative studies have been chosen related to the experience of Native Americans, Latinos and Hmong to demonstrate how language loss impacts an individualâ€™s identity.
Language loss and the negative effects on identity can be seen in the indigenous groups of the U.S. Federal, state and local governmental policies resulted in the establishment of boarding schools for indigenous children who were often kidnapped or dragged away from their homes and sent to schools where they were stripped of their cultures, traditions, language, and identity. A publication from the Native American Rights Fund located in Boulder, Colorado describes the policies in this way.
A federal policy designed to â€œcivilizeâ€ Indians and to stamp out Native cultures; a deliberate policy of ethnocide and cultural genocide. Cut off from their families and culture, the children were punished for speaking their Native languages, banned from conducting traditional or cultural practices, shorn of traditional clothing and identity of their Native cultures, taught that their cultures and traditions were evil and sinful, and that they should be ashamed of being Native American. Placed often far from home, they were frequently neglected or abused physically, sexually, and psychologically (Native American Rights Fund, 2013, p. 2).
According to the same report, NARF suggests that when a group is severely oppressed and told that their people are evil and sinful, the only escape for some individuals is suicide. The ones that do survive, barely can hang on, losing their self-identity due to high self-hatred struggling to live on, only with the help of drugs and alcohol (p. 2). Even generations later, we can still feel the impact of those actions.
Patricia MacGregor-Mendozaâ€™s (2000) study of 100 Spanish heritage speakers echoed similar themes. Individuals were interviewed about their â€œexperiences in schools as Spanish speakers and recount the events, if any, they experienced or witnessed what exemplified their
schoolâ€™s language policy and to relate how their school experiences affected them then and nowâ€ (p. 357). The author reported that the majority of the individuals experienced some form of punishment. The adults reflecting on their experiences, were punished for speaking their mother tongue in the school setting. The themes that surfaced again and again were feelings of shame due to the harsh punishments, physically and/or emotionally. The Spanish speakers were also withdrawn and refrained from speaking Spanish, which eventually led to a disconnect with the language, culture, and even family members. When those individuals lose their culture, they lose a part of their identity.
Two studies conducted in the last decade focused specifically on Hmong students. These studies were representative of the larger literature. In Ngoâ€™s (2016) study, she interviewed Hmong community leaders and researched how subtractive schooling impacted Hmong families and their community. Other research on the Hmong was conducted by Kwan (2015) looking at the microaggressions 19 Hmong students encountered in the educational setting. In both studies, Hmong students responded similarly to the Spanish speakers that were previously discussed, the exception being that the Hmong students did not report having been subjected to corporal punishment. The Hmong students also felt ashamed of their culture and their people due to the racism and discrimination. They also experienced a loss of self-identity. When they lost their language, they did not fit in with their own cultural group. But since their physical features were different than the dominant white culture, they did not fit in with the mainstream culture as well. They were lost somewhere in between two cultures.
This review presented a limited amount of research from three cultural groups; however, these findings and examples reflected the findings in the larger literature. The effects of heritage language loss impact an individualâ€™s self-identity negatively. The consequences of losing an
individualâ€™s heritage language brought shame, loss of identity, and loss of connection to their family and culture.
Bilingualism and Bilingual Education
The topics of bilingualism and bilingual education are included in this literature review because of their significance in helping to foster a positive self-image and identity, and also how an individual is able to maintain and preserve their culture and heritage language, but most importantly how a child can achieve academically through bilingual education.
In the 1950â€™s, it was commonly thought that being bilingual was harmful and that it would delay a childâ€™s learning, however, that theory has been invalidated through decades of research studies done on the effects and benefits of bilingualism and multiculturalism. Researchers such as Bialystok (2011), Christoffels, de Haan, Steenbergen, van den Wildenberg & Colzato (2014), Diamond (2010), and Spitzer (2016) describe the benefits of bilingualism. Some of the benefits of having a bilingual mind are discussed below.
There are benefits that seem obviousâ€”being able to communicate more easily with people and being able to travel, but the documented benefits include that bilinguals have benefits of cognitive control in promoting a flexible mind (Christoffels, de Haan, Steenbergen, van den Wildenberg & Colzato, 2014). When bilinguals become accustomed to switching between two different languages, they build skills in mental flexibility, more than monolinguals. This is the ability to think about something in more than one way. An individual might use this skill to answer a math problem in two ways or find relationships between different concepts.
Bialystok (2011) research the executive function of bilingual children. What she found was that as a result of being exposed from an early age to two language systems that bilinguals
use specific cognitive skills that monolinguals at that age do not use. When the children are constantly contrasting between the two language systems, they begin to develop higher attention skills and possibly intense processing abilities. This training in attention and processing skills can transfer to other topics and activities as well, giving bilinguals an advantage in executive functions.
With the internet and the rapid advancement of technology, brain research is on the rise and new discoveries are made constantly. Spitzer (2016) studied the phenomenon of bilingualism and an individualâ€™s health. After reviewing many studies, Spitzer found that bilingual individuals had an advantage over monolinguals in the onset of developing Alzheimerâ€™s Dementia and the difference was approximately a five-year delay for bilinguals, even when researchers controlled for confounding factors such as immigration, occupation, and education. It seems that due to the activity of constantly processing two different languages, â€œbilingualism may result in the establishment of a well-integrated neural network that not only may slow age-related effects on specific cognitive functions but also may protect the brain from neurodegenerative disordersâ€ (Spitzer, 2016, p. 74).
Bilingual education which is distinct from bilingualism itself is a way to foster the development and maintenance of home languages. According to Ngai (2002), there are significant advantages for bilingualism, she reports, â€œfor society, inclusive bilingual education strengthens the country externally and locally. For individuals, bilingual education enhances intellectual growth and interpersonal and intercultural-communication competence (p. 271). When an individual is immersed between two languages and cultures, they have an opportunity to learn different ways of interacting and can view multiple perspectives. These experiences can
enrich an individual and help to foster cultural competency not only for native language speakers, but also for English speakers as well.
Given the benefits and importance of bilingualism and the fact that its development can be supported through bilingual programming and support for studentsâ€™ native language, it is important to understand the educational experience of Hmong students in relation to both their educational opportunities to develop and maintain the Hmong language, as well as the outcomes of their actual schooling experiences.
Parent engagement. As previously discussed in the statement of the problem section, Hmong youths are losing their Hmong language skills and as a result they are losing connection to their non-English speaking parents or family members. This loss of heritage language impacts their communication and relationship. There is not much research that has been done solely on the Hmong and how language loss impacts parent-child engagement, however, this phenomenon is apparent in other language minority groups also, especially in marginalized groups, nationally and globally. A few studies were selected to support this notion that when learning a second language means losing the first.
Loss of engagement. The first study was completed by Wong Fillmore (1991) and the help of many others. The study was conducted at a National Association for Bilingual Education conference. Many well-known researchers on language along with Wong Fillmore called for a national survey of language-minority families whose children participated in part or full English preschool programs. The researchers wanted to know how learning English impacted the childrenâ€™s language patterns. The researchers interviewed 1100 families from different cultures such as American Indians, Arabs, Latinos, east and southeast Asians. Out of the 1100 families,
311 Spanish speaking families were selected to be the control group since those Spanish
speaking families had children who participated in schools that taught in their primary language.
The expectation was that there would be no impact of English to this group. After the interviews,
the quantitative data was analyzed by researchers at University of California at Santa Cruz and
the qualitative data was analyzed by researchers at University of California at Berkeley. Then 35
individuals from around the nation came together to analyze the data set. What they found was
that, â€œthe data we have collected from families across the country suggests that as immigrant
children learn English, the patterns of language use change in their homes, and the younger they
are when they learn English, the greater the effect (Wong Fillmore, 1991, p. 341)â€. Fillmore also
stated that, when parents are unable to talk to their children, they could not talk to their children
about their values, beliefs, understandings or give them advice or wisdom about how to cope
with difficulties. In addition, Wong Fillmore discusses that,
Talk is a crucial link between parents and children: It is how parents impart their cultures to their children and enable them to become the kind of men and women they want them to be. When parents lose the means for socializing and influencing their children, rifts develop and families lose the intimacy that comes from shared beliefs and understandings (p. 343).
Studies such as this one shows us the consequences of learning a second language to the exclusion of the first and the negative impacts it has on the child, parents and family. More importantly, these lessons teach us the power of a dominant language and how much it can influence a familyâ€™s life or an entire cultural group such as the Hmong. In addition, these findings suggest that educational institutions need to provide instruction in the native language as it fosters healthy relationships between parents and children.
Engagement with children. The above findings are especially troubling in light of all the research that shows the benefits of positive parent engagement in schools (LaRocque,
Kleiman & Darling 2011; Hill & Taylor 2004; & Cotton & Wikelund, 1989). Of particular interest to the current study is the research related to the involvement of immigrant parents.
A study done by Plunkett, Behnke, Sands & Choi (2009) supported the idea that parental engagement increases a studentâ€™s academic achievement. This study focused on perceived parental engagement on adolescentsâ€™ academic achievement in immigrant families. Self-report data were collected from 1,245 adolescents in immigrant families from four high schools in Los Angeles County. After controlling for parental educational attainment, parental engagement variables were indirectly related to grades through youthsâ€™ academic engagement. When youths see that their parents are monitoring their academic activity, they will be more focused and engaged, hence, improving their academic attainment.
Engagement with schools. Little to no research was found on Hmong parents and partnerships with the schools, especially at the elementary grade levels. However, there are many experts doing work in the field of parental engagement and schools. In their book, Funds of Knowledge, authors Gonzalez, Moll & Amanti (2006) discuss their ethnographic research with families in the southwest and how educators can use this type of tool to get to know families.
The authors suggest that teachers should take the time to find out about their language minority families through home visits and interviewing strategies. This is an opportunity for teachers and administrators to find out what funds of knowledge exist among their students (p. 178). Other authors have similar suggestions. Miramontes, Nadeau, & Commins (2011) recommend that educators should build strong relationships with parents and value their heritage background and experiences.
Parents must be viewed as partners who are to be included in the educational process.
This can happen only when their native language skills and life experiences are viewed as an asset and are taken into account in school learning. The funds of knowledge that parents possess can be incorporated into the curriculum in ways that validate what they
know as being important to the educational achievement of their children. From this asset perspective, parents are seen as allies in the educational process, possessing wisdom and strengths (p. 35).
When educators can foster strong ties with the studentsâ€™ families and acknowledge their worth, they can begin to help each other and to help the children achieve learning gains and success.
Parents can actively engage in their childrenâ€™s education if the language of instruction is a parentâ€™s native language or if the parents have learned the mainstream language used in schools. However, when immigrant families relocate to the United States and they are not fluent in English, they have barriers in understanding the American educational system. When the Hmong immigrated to the United States mostly from rural agricultural communities, the barriers were multiplied due to the huge contrast between cultures, lifestyles, and language (Trueba, Jacobs, & Kirton, 2014). When immigrant children go to school and learn the mainstream language and parents do not have the same opportunities to learn the mainstream language, then there can be conflict. As previously discussed, there are huge consequences of losing a mother tongue. Losing a mother tongue fractures the relationship between parents and children. This indicates a need to change the education for the children to include their culture, heritage and native language. Gandara & Contreras (2009) state that the most often cited, and best researched, of all factors affecting achievement relates to the studentsâ€™ experience within the family and community (p. 28). If educators want their students to be successful, they need to understand that parents play a huge part in this success. Therefore, educators have a significant role and partnership with parents to ensure that immigrant children have the tools and opportunities that will prepare them for educational achievement and success.
Language Ideologies and Planning
In order to create meaningful curriculum for language minority children, educators need to understand the role of language and its power in the educational setting. When children enter educational institutions, they bring their language and experiences. When educators can make use of their backgrounds, language and culture; and promote them as assets in the school setting, overall academic achievement will increase (Shah, Dwyer, & Modood 2010; Clothey, 2016; & Erel, 2010).
People of diverse backgrounds have fought for more equity in our educational system. One area of focus has been language policy and planning. Ruizâ€™s (1984) discusses three orientations in language planning: language-as-problem, language-as-right, and language-as-resource. In his arguments, he brings to light the prevailing focus in the United States on the deficit nature of the language-as-problem orientation and describes the "solution" to the problem as: transition that steers students away from their native language to adopt English has been the prevalent theme historically in the United States. He also discusses how the â€˜language-as-rightâ€™ orientation is limited and potentially problematic because it is based on legal arguments and although they lead to federal regulations, they may be ignored by school districts through non-compliance. The third and final Tanguage-as-resourceâ€™ orientation highlights the irony of the situation: schools focus on teaching immigrants English at the expense of their native tongue, then show "overwhelming support for offering foreign language courses in schools and universities" (p. 27). Even though legislation mandates equality and rights in school environments, realities differ from policy. There are many inequities for Hmong children and other immigrant children when it involves language. The hegemony of English seems to have deprived immigrant students of their choice to maintain their native language.
This research study is grounded in a view of language as a resource. When schools view language as a resource, they can look past immigrant children with â€œno Englishâ€ skills. They can see that the children do bring a wealth of knowledge from their experiences, skills, background, language and culture. Educators can use a childâ€™s experiences to aid in increasing academic achievement. When educators see the childrenâ€™s language and culture as a resource, the children can also begin to see their heritage language as an asset. Parents and children can understand that developing skills in the heritage language is important and worthwhile.
CHAPTER III METHODOLOGY
The purpose of this study was to examine ways in which Hmong youth and their families experience and interpret the use of English in their lives and the ways it affects their use and maintenance of the Hmong language. It is hoped that the findings will raise awareness of increasing crises and issues in the Hmong community. This study attempted to voice Hmong youthâ€™s perspectives and their native language experience in an English dominant society, especially in their educational setting. Additionally, through counter-storytelling, this study sought to obtain the experiences of Hmong parents and their views about their children and the impact of English on their heritage language and culture, but most importantly, on the relationships among Hmong children, their parents and families. It is hoped that the study will aid those who advocate that the Hmong be able to maintain and preserve their heritage language and cultural values. This study offered implications for other refugee groups whose languages may also be endangered.
This qualitative study was guided by four overarching research questions:
1. What are the educational experiences of Hmong young adults living in Colorado, and how has schooling all in English impacted their identity, self-esteem, and academic gains?
2. How has the use of English impacted the families ofHmong youth living in Colorado, their culture and language?
3. How has the predominant use of English in schooling impacted Hmong young adults â€™ native language skills and their relationships with their parents?
4. How can educators enhance Hmong childrenâ€™s opportunities to maintain their heritage language and respond to their educational needs?
To gain insights into Hmong parents and their childrenâ€™s experience in the American educational system, the researcher used a phenomenology qualitative research approach. Court (2018) explains that qualitative studies such as this one seek out human stories and not isolated variables. In this kind of research, the researcher typically has a more personal interaction with the participants. Court also discusses qualitative research as illuminating the lived experiences of people which can contribute to intercultural and multicultural understanding.
The data for this study were gathered through interviews with young adult Hmong college students and their parents with a focus on understanding the effect of the dominance of English on heritage language, navigating the schools, barriers, climate of the school towards immigrant families, and opportunities for improving the overall educational experience for Hmong families.
The researcher used a purposive phenomenology qualitative research method to collect, process, and analyze the data. Qualitative research defined by Creswell (2009) is where a researcher will describe a research problem that can best be understood by exploring a concept or phenomenon (p. 98) and purposefully selecting participants that will best help the researcher understand the problem or the research questions, which does not necessarily suggest random
sampling or selection of a large number of participants as typically found in quantitative research (p. 178).
Role of Researcher. The key role of the researcher was to collect data, however, since the researcher is a member of the Hmong community, she understands many aspects of the culture and traditions of the larger Hmong community. To account for possible interference of her own perspectives on her interpretation of the data from the interviews, she had another researcher cross check codes, which is the process of comparing codes that are independently derived. In addition, the researcher applied member checking, which is the process of determining data accuracy by taking back to the participants the themes that surfaced in the interviews and whether the participants feel they are accurate (Creswell, 2009, p. 191).
Participants. The research sample consisted of 13 young adult Hmong students who attended K-12 schools in the state of Colorado. The students were second-generation Hmong young adults; most of whom were attending colleges in the Denver metro area and surrounding cities. The first students were chosen from Hmong Student Association of Colorado and recommendations for additional participants were requested and sought out. There seems to be more Hmong female students attending college, more female participants are included in this study. There were eight female and five male student participants. In addition, five parents of the student participants were invited to participate and subsequently all five were interviewed. The studentsâ€™ parents were first generation Hmong individuals and their perspectives were gathered for a more comprehensive experience of Hmong families living in Colorado.
The researcher, to the best of her ability, tried to diversify the group of students to include a variety of participants in the areas of: gender, students currently attending, students who are non-continuers, different Hmong language abilities, age, if possible; social economic status,
family size. The same goal of diversifying was attempted with the Hmong parents as well. To diversify, the researcher kept a log of the different participants. As participants consented to participate in the study, the researcher kept notes of participants and their specific aspects such as age, gender, language ability and etc. Then she maintained notes of the specific aspects that she needed to balance the participant pool. Subsequently, the researcher sought out additional participants that would balance or diversify the qualities of the group. After interviewing the student participants, the researcher inquired to see if their parents would be interested in participating in the study as well. If parents were interested, the researcher made contact and set up a meeting. After consent was given by the participants, they were informed that their participation was voluntary and at any time they could withdraw from the study. No material incentives were offered to the participants.
Survey construction. The interview protocol was developed with some themes in mind,
which were drawn from the theoretical framework and literature review. The protocol for the
participants consisted of demographic questions and additional semi-structured open-ended
questions that explored four main areas of Hmong studentsâ€™ academic experience: navigating the
school system, barriers, language and culture, and improvement. According to Creswell (2014)
whose work guided the data collection in this study,
In qualitative interviews, the researcher conducts face-to-face interviews with participants, telephone interviews, or engages in focus group interviews with six to eight interviewees in each group. These interviews involve unstructured and generally open-ended questions that are few in number and intended to elicit views and opinions from the participants, (p. 190)
Open-ended questions elicited authentic and genuine responses from the participants, free from the direction of the researcher. The protocol questioned the participants about their first experiences in American schools, navigating the school system, barriers, their perceptions of the
school climate towards Hmong families, and opportunities to improve the educational experience of Hmong students. In addition, the protocol explored the participantsâ€™ views on the impact of the dominance of English on the studentsâ€™ heritage language and the relationships between the students and their parents. The protocol was translated into Hmong for parents who might prefer to have the interview conducted in Hmong. A protocol in the native language was intended to reduce barriers and potentially be more engaging for parents. The researcher had an additional bilingual Hmong individual examine the translated survey for clarity and meaning.
Data Collection. The researcher and each of the participants set up a day and time to meet and agreed on a quiet location, free from distractions to conduct the interview. The researcher explained the general goal of the study and reminded the participants that their identity would be kept confidential and that they could withdraw from the study at any time. The researcher also informed the participants that the interviews would be audio recorded in the language of choice, either in English or Hmong, determined by the participants. During the interview, the researcher attempted to remain neutral and not influence the participantsâ€™ response. Participants were at ease and spoke freely about their experiences in the American educational system, both positive and negative aspects. The interview sessions lasted from 20-35 minutes in length.
Data Analysis. The researcher followed a general qualitative research study data analysis. To begin, all oral responses in Hmong were directly translated into English so that the data set was in one uniform language. All audio files were transcribed into a document. The student and parent data sets were organized separately into different spreadsheet documents by questions and responses. The research used both pre-set and open forms of coding, and the analysis was completed manually without the use of software. First, the researcher read through
all the studentsâ€™ or parentsâ€™ responses for each question. Then the researcher open-coded for similar ideas with words, phrases, analyzing each set of question and responses until the entire data set had been coded. Then the codes were organized and sorted into sub-categories and main categories. After that, the main categories were sorted into themes. Theme analysis, the process of extracting recurring themes from the data, illustrated through the use of thick descriptions or quotations (Miles & Huberman, 1994). As Creswell (2003) suggests, the data was mined for clarity to gain more detail on patterns of themes that were significant. The data analysis extracted themes that captured the participants lived experiences. A member check was conducted through a focus group of 3 students to reviews themes the emerged from the data set. The focus group helped to keep high levels of trustworthiness that could support the findings. Major themes that emerged from the data was discussed in the findings. Findings and interpretation of the data will be shared and presented to various Hmong and non-Hmong organizations and institutions.
The participants were all informed that the study was entirely voluntary, and they could decide to terminate the interview at any time. There was no compensation in any form for the participation in this study. The researcher collected data and reported the data as presented by the participants. The data collected in Hmong was directly translated into English with an attempt to keep meaning intact. In addition, this study is considered a low risk study since all the participants will not have their identity revealed and pseudo names are used instead; in both data collection and the data to be reported in the findings.
CHAPTER IV FINDINGS
In this section, the findings for this research study are arranged as follows: the research questions, student demographic information and student findings, parent demographic information and parent findings, improvement suggestions, and unexpected findings. The findings will be discussed in two sections; the themes that surfaced from the student participants, then the themes from the parent participants. In the last section of this chapter, themes for improvement which were similar for both groups, will be reviewed, Pseudonyms are used in the findings to keep the participantsâ€™ identity confidential.
In this research, the intent was to study how English, the dominant language in the U.S. impacted the lives of Hmong youth, their parents and families in Colorado. The overarching questions that guided this qualitative study were:
1. What are the educational experiences of Hmong young adults living in Colorado, and how has schooling all in English impacted their identity, self-esteem, and academic gains?
2. How has the use of English impacted the families of Hmong youth living in Colorado, their culture and language?
3. How has the predominant use of English in schooling impacted Hmong young adultâ€™s native language skills and their relationships with their parents?
4. How do participants perceive what educators can do to enhance Hmong childrenâ€™s opportunities to maintain their heritage language and respond to their educational needs?
Hmong Student Demographics
There was a total of 13 Hmong student participants. Their demographic data is summarized in Table 2. Eight participants were female and five were male students, all living in the Denver metro area. The majority of the students were bom in Denver, some were born in California; one student was bom Minnesota and another student was bom in Georgia. All of the students were first generation U.S. born Hmong students whose parents were immigrants to the U.S. Twelve students had parents that were both of Hmong heritage, one student was from a bicultural family and her parents were Hmong and Laotian. The twelve students from Hmong parents first spoke Hmong in the home before learning English. The bi-cultural studentâ€™s first language was a mixture of English and Laotian. The ages of the students ranged from 19 to 26 years of age. The majority of the students were in their early 20â€™s.
Twelve students attended English elementary schools in Colorado where instruction was all in English. One student attended elementary and middle school in Minnesota where most of her instruction was in English. She did have some Hmong language and culture classes for about three years. Eleven participants are current students and two are non-continuing students. The students are attending colleges and universities in the Denver metro area and surrounding cities. Most of the students were attending the University of Colorado at Denver. Two students were attending Front Range Community College and there was one student each from the following colleges: University of Colorado at Boulder, Metro State College, University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University. The students had a wide range of majors, from biology to media, marketing, engineering, ethnic studies, education, nursing and psychology. All of the students completed their elementary and secondary education in Colorado except the one student who moved to Colorado during her freshman year of high school from Minnesota.
Table 2. Hmong Student Demographic Information.
Stude nt Gend er & Age Place of Birth K-12 Education College Generat ion College Major
Bee M, 26 Broomfiel d, CO Broomfield , CO 1st Metro State College Computer Info Systems
Chue M, 23 Fresno, CA Westminste r, CO 1st UNC Greeley Physical Ed. Teacher
Der F, 23 Lompoc, CA Northglenn, CO 1st Front Range Community College General Ed. Requirements
Doua M, 23 Porterville, CA Henderson, CO 1st University of Colorado, Denver Biology
Fong M, 22 Denver, CO Henderson, CO 2nd University of Colorado, Denver Mechanical Engineering
Keng M, 20 Thornton, CO Westminste r, CO 1st Colorado State University Ethnic Studies
Kia F, 20 Denver, CO Arvada, CA 1st University of Colorado, Denver Marketing
Mai F, 19 Saint Paul, MN Saint Paul, MN & Colorado 1st University of Colorado, Denver Psychology
Mai Ker F, 21 Northglenn , CO Northglenn, CO 2nd University of Colorado, Denver Biology
Nou F, 20 Atlanta, Georgia Thornton, CO 1st Front Range Community College Elementary Education
Sheng F, 22 Littleton, CO Westminste r, CO 1st University of Colorado, Boulder Molecular Biology
Shoua F, 21 Denver, CO Northglenn, CO 1st University of Colorado, Denver Biology
Xee F, 21 Fresno, CA Northglenn, CO 1st University of Colorado, Denver Psychology
Summaries of Student Participants
This section includes a summary description of each student participant, listed in alphabetical order.
Bee. Bee is a 26 year old student attending Metro State College majoring in Computer Information Systems. He was bom in Broomfield, Colorado. He has one sister and two brothers. He attended elementary school in Broomfield and then attended middle school and high school in Thornton, Colorado. He is a first generation college student. His mother is fluent in both Hmong and English. His dad is more fluent in Hmong. Bee reported that he was fluent in Hmong when he was young but now, he is only fluent in English and his Hmong is minimal. He rated himself a 10/10 in English and a 4/10 in Hmong.
Chue. Chue is 23 years old and he is attending the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, and he is majoring in Physical Education K-12. Chue has two sisters and four brothers. He was bom in Fresno, California and moved to Colorado during his elementary, middle school, and high school years. He went to schools in Westminster, Colorado. He reported that his mom only speaks Hmong. so he speaks Hmong with his mom and English with his siblings. Chue rated himself an 8/10 in English and a 6/10 in Hmong.
Der. Der is 23 years old and she had attended Front Range Community College where she was taking general required classes. She had discontinued school and is planning to return in the next year. Der was originally born in Lompoc, California but moved to Colorado. She attended elementary school, middle school and high school in Northglenn and Thornton, Colorado. Der is the youngest of nine children. Her parents are in their 60s and they still follow Hmong traditions. Her mother is a shaman. She speaks Hmong with her parents. She rated herself at 10/10 in English and an 8/10 in Hmong.
Doua. Doua is a 23 year old second generation college student attending the University of Colorado Denver majoring in Biology. He was born in Porterville, California but moved to Colorado before his preschool years. Doua attended elementary, middle school, and high school in Henderson, Colorado. He has a little sister. His father in his 60s and his mother is in her mid 40s. He reported that his father had immigrated to France early after the Vietnam War and then his father also moved to Canada before settling in California. He reported that he grew up speaking Hmong but eventually he lost a lot of his skills. He rated himself 8 or 9 out of ten for English and a 4 or 5 out of 10 for Hmong. He only speaks English with his family.
Fong. Fong is a 21 year old second generation college student attending the University of Colorado Denver majoring in mechanical engineering. He was born in Denver, Colorado and completed his K-12 education in Northglenn, Colorado. Fongâ€™s father is in his mid 40s and has a masterâ€™s degree in computer technology. His mother is in her late 30s. He has six siblings. Fong reported that he first only spoke Hmong but lost a lot of his Hmong skills after entering school. He rated himself 9/10 in English and a 7/10 in Hmong.
Keng. Keng is 20 years old and he is attending Colorado State University majoring in ethnic studies. He was born in Thornton, Colorado. He completed his K-12 education in the Westminster area. His parents are in their 40s. Keng has four brothers. He reported that his first language was Hmong and that he lost it when he attended English schools. He rated himself a 10/10 in English and he has lost his Hmong skills since he only speaks English with his family.
Kia. Kia is a 20 year old student attending University of Colorado Denver majoring in marketing. She was born in Denver and completed her K-12 education in Arvada, Colorado. She is the youngest of six children; she has two brothers and three sisters. Her father is in his mid 50s and her mother is in her mid 40s. She reported that she first spoke Hmong but that she had lost a
lot of her skills after starting school. She uses both Hmong and English with her family. She rated herself an 8 or 9 out of ten in English and a 5 out of 10 for her Hmong skills.
Mai. Mai is 19 years old and she is attending the University of Colorado Denver. Her major is psychology. Mai was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota where she attended elementary and middle school. She moved to Colorado in her freshman year of high school and attended high school in Henderson, Colorado. She is the only participant who received Hmong language and cultural classes while she was living in Minnesota. Mai has six siblings and her parents are in their mid 40s. She speaks both English and Hmong with her family. She rated herself an 8 out of 10 for English skills and a 6 out of 10 for Hmong skills.
Mai Ker. Mai Ker is 21 years old and a second-generation college student currently attending the University of Colorado Denver, with a major in biology. She was born in Thornton, Colorado and completed her K-12 education in the Northglenn and Broomfield areas. Her father is in his early 50s and her mother is in her mid 40s. She is the youngest of three children. She reported that she was very fluent in Hmong during her preschool years, however, as she attended school, she lost a lot of her skills. She speaks mostly English and some Hmong with her family. She rated herself a 10/10 in English skills and a 5/10 for her Hmong skills.
Nou. Nou is 20 years old and she is attending Front Range Community College, and her major is elementary education. Nou was born in Atlanta, Georgia to a Hmong father and a Laotian mother who are both in their mid 40s. She is the only bi-cultural participant in this study. Nou has an older brother and a younger sister. They move to Colorado when she was a toddler. She completed her K-12 education in Thornton and Broomfield. She grew up learning Laotian with her grandparents and English with her parents. She never learned Hmong. She speaks
English with her family. She rated herself a 10/10 in English, a 2/10 for Laotian and a 0/10 for Hmong.
Sheng. Sheng is 22 years old and she had attended the University of Colorado Boulder majoring in molecular biology, but she has discontinued her studies. Sheng was bom in Littleton, Colorado and completed her K-12 education in Westminster area. She has six siblings and her parents are in their mid 50s and 60s. She speaks a mix of Hmong and English to her parents and only English to her siblings. Sheng rated herself a 7/10 for English skills and a 3/10 for her Hmong skills.
Shoua. Shoua is 21 years old and she is attending the University of Colorado Denver majoring in biology. She was born in Denver and went to elementary school, middle school and high school in Northglenn, Colorado. Shouaâ€™s mother is in her mid 40s and her father is in his late 40s. Shouaâ€™s father is an active member of the Hmong community where he is always helping with traditional events or practices. Shoua has three brothers and she only speaks English with her family. Shoua reported that she has a difficult time expressing herself in Hmong. She rated herself a 7 or 6 out of ten for her English skills and a 5 out of ten for her Hmong skills. She mentioned that she struggles with English vocabulary.
Xee. Xee is 21 years old and she is attending the University of Colorado Denver majoring in psychology. She was originally born in Fresno, California but moved to Colorado and completed her K-12 education in Northglenn and Thornton. She has 10 siblings and her parents are in their 50s and 60s. She speaks to her father in Hmong and the rest of the family in both Hmong and English. Xee mentioned that she struggled a lot in school with identity, she felt she was an outcast in elementary years and also during college. Kids made fun of her ethnicity and her accent. Xee rated herself a 9/10 in English and an 8/10 in Hmong.
Themes from Student Interviews
In the data set for the Hmong student participants, the initial analysis of the interviews with students revealed 33 themes. The initial coding of the student interview transcripts generated 33 codes, see Appendix C. The 33 codes were sorted and grouped to form five overarching themes, which included:
1. Dominance of English Contributes to Hmong Language and Culture Shift
2. Entering School with English Difficulties and Leaving Unprepared for College
3. Impact of English on Relationships Between Hmong Youth and Parents
4. Fractured Identities of Hmong American Youths
5. Potential Improvements in the education system.
Each of these themes will be discussed with specific examples and quotes from the participants.
The last theme of Potential Improvements will be discussed in the last section, joined with the parent improvement suggestions.
Student Theme 1â€”Dominance of English Contributes to Hmong Language and Culture Shift
In the interview protocol, the first question that was asked was: What language do you prefer to do the interview, English or Hmong? All of the participants responded, English. Only two of the participants requested, that in addition to English, they would also like to include some Hmong. This was the tone for many of the topics that were discussed in the interview, ultimately contributing to the perception that English dominates studentsâ€™ lives. This is a phenomenon found consistent with previous studies on Hmong youth, especially among the second-generation children.
As previously mentioned, of the children who had Hmong parents, they all first spoke Hmong in the home before attending elementary grade school where all instruction was in English. Most students mentioned they received English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction. When asked about their English and Hmong language proficiency, 100% of the
students responded that they were more proficient in English. Overall, the students had
considerably fewer skills in Hmong. When asked about their knowledge of American culture and
Hmong culture, again, ten out of 13 students said they knew more about American culture; one
student knew both cultures equally and two students felt they knew more about Hmong culture.
Below are the narratives of the Hmong students and how English has impacted their
heritage language and culture loss. First, the story of Fong is presented. He is one of the five men
interviewed. His story is representative of many other students in this research study. Many
Hmong students start out with strong Hmong language skills but diminishes as they enroll in
English speaking schools. The longer they attend English schools, they more skills they lose.
And with the loss of language, culture eventually starts to fade away as well. This same theme
will spiral throughout the interviews and across different experiences and participants. Fong is
the oldest child of his family. His father was a first generation Hmong immigrant who
immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s. Fong starts his story with the first days of his schooling
experience with English instruction. Fong reported that he first spoke Hmong, and only Hmong
with his parents and grandparents. He recounts his first experiences with school.
I was growing up, I only knew full Hmong. I didn't know any English. I didnâ€™t understand any English. So the preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers thought I was dumb, like clinically dumb. And my mom and my dad theyâ€™d get mad at me. Like why you donâ€™t talk in school, you know, and I said, â€œKuv tsis paub hais lus mecas.â€ (I donâ€™t know how to speak English). I don't understand, I just say yes and no, I just shake my head. Back then, I didnâ€™t feel any different. The only reason I felt different was because I couldnâ€™t understand. I didnâ€™t have any issues or anything. Other than that, when I got higher up in the grade levels, and the bullying happened, like oh, hey Chinese kid, I didnâ€™t care too much because thereâ€™s no point to fight because he doesn't know anything.
I feel like for the kids that are experiencing the identity issue or they feel uncomfortable,
I think if s just the lack of the population here because I think in Minnesota and California or Wisconsin, the more popular states, theyâ€™re fine. Because here we only have like one, maybe one or two Hmong people. But if we were all centralized, it would be a different story.
Teachers thought he was dumb when he didnâ€™t know English. This may happen more than often than people think, especially with the statistics of over-identifying of second language learners in special education (Losen, & Orfield 2002; Sullivan, 2011). Fong continued to explain that in elementary school, he still had some Hmong language skills. There were some Hmong kids at his school along with some cousins. So he was able to play with the Hmong children and speak Hmong. Then in middle school, his language started to diminish because Hmong was not as cool and so most of the kids wanted to be American. Fong describes,
But when I reached middle school and high school, everything changed because a lot of my friends and the Hmong kids that I knew were pushing away the culture saying that it wasnâ€™t worth it. We donâ€™t need to learn culture because weâ€™re being taught English and everything, they didnâ€™t want to be as inclusive to the culture, so thatâ€™s what kind of pushed me away from the culture a little bit.
In addition, he started to branch out and have other friends who didnâ€™t speak Hmong. By the time he got to high school, it was mainly English. The only chances of speaking Hmong was at home, which by then, had also started switching to mostly English. His parents were also pushing English because people needed English to survive and be successful in U.S. society. His opportunities to speak Hmong became slim and the only time he did have to solely use Hmong was when he was interacting with his grandparents. He lost touch with his culture and language.
After high school, he started college, mostly due to his parentsâ€™ expectations. He stated that, even though his father has a masterâ€™s degree, there were still huge barriers and his parents didnâ€™t understand the school system well. He reported that his father didnâ€™t have a good understanding of college and didnâ€™t know how to manage the financial aspects of it, so he took out all of the loans and there was a lot of debt. Fong reported that even though he is a second generation college student, college life was very rough. He did not feel prepared and the
coursework was quite challenging. He would try his best and even though, he put in a lot of hard
work and effort, it was not good enough. He not only struggled with the coursework, but he had
financial hardships as well, at the time of the study, he had to work a weekend shift to pay for
school. Between Friday through Sunday he would work 40 hours so that he could pay for tuition.
Working on the weekends and starting school on Monday morning was exhausting. During the
week, he would study and stay at school late. His parents would not understand and they would
assume he was just playing or messing around. Fong reported that there is a huge cultural gap.
Even though he struggles immensely, there is a communication barrier between him and his
parent. He reports, â€œI think itâ€™s a communication thing. If I need help, going to my parents is one
of the last options on my plate, but the challenges of just going into it, I just try to manage.â€
One of the major barriers is probably just the communication between my parents even though I try to communicate with them as much as I can. Because in the Hmong culture, you go to school and come home, but sometimes, my parents donâ€™t understand that I stay later at school because of student clubs and student help such as tutoring, studying, and studying groups and such. I think thatâ€™s one of the major barriers I face because they think I go out to play and mess around. So in all, Iâ€™m actually trying to get everything done but success is done in silence and no one knows what youâ€™ve actually done until you achieve it.
Fong described that since there is a cultural gap between him and his parents â€œthereâ€™s still a lot of parents that donâ€™t know how to speak English.. .but the issue is that Hmong students donâ€™t know how to speak Hmong either, with that being said, it creates that gap and it creates miscommunication.â€ He says that he mostly deals with his problems and issues by himself. Sometimes he can rely on friends because they might understand him better and many of them are going through the same issues and it helps him to cope.
Even when both parents speak Hmong to the child, itâ€™s hard to maintain the heritage language. Another student described her difficulties in finding the right words to converse with her traditional parents.
Speaking Hmong it is, definitely, I feel like there's like kind of like a barrier there because sometimes like I'm embarrassed to speak it because I have to speak English with it... Sometimes when I try to explain something to them in Hmong and like I can't because I don't know all the words for it, they're just like oh, like what are you trying to say? Like, are you stupid? You know, like I'm just like, oh okay. Yeah, but they're just like, we grew up and like we grew up teaching you Hmong and, how can you not explain to us in Hmong? Iâ€™m just like I don't know like yeah, so that's an issue that I need to work on too, but them being like, away, like I don't really speak Hmong at home anymore. So yeah. -Der
Many of the of the student participants felt that school, especially English-only school
contributed to their language shift. Nine out of 13 students mentioned that language was an issue
when they went to school. Some students felt the need to conform to fit in with the dominant
culture; neglecting their own heritage language and culture.
But when I reached middle school and high school, everything changed because a lot of my friends and the Hmong kids that I knew were pushing away the culture saying that it wasnâ€™t worth it. We donâ€™t need to learn culture because weâ€™re being taught English and everything. They didnâ€™t want to be as inclusive to the culture, so thatâ€™s what kind of pushed me away from the culture. -Xee
I understand and speak English very well but can only understand and speak Hmong very little. This is because when I was integrated into an English-dominated environment throughout my education, I lost proficiency in understanding and speaking Hmong because I spoke less of it. In order to fit in, I ended up neglecting my heritage and language. -Mai Ker
Student Theme 2â€”Entering school with English Difficulties and Leaving Unprepared for College.
A second theme closely related to the first theme has to do with the 13 participantsâ€™ perceptions about schooling. When asked about their educational experience in Colorado schools, most of the students reported that overall, it was a good experience and the teachers for
the most part were supportive. A couple of students reported being bullied in grade school, but the academic barrier most reported was difficulty with not speaking English when first enrolling in school, which was mentioned by seven out of 13 students. When asked about college, the majority of the students liked the freedom and flexibility of campus life and many students enjoyed meeting new people. When asked about the barriers they encountered in college life, a different theme surfaced at the entry point into college; unprepared for college workload. All 13 students reported they had difficulty with the workload and classes. These two aspects contribute to the second theme found with the Hmong student participants; Entering school with English Difficulties and Leaving Unprepared for College. Both accounts of barriers in elementary school and college experiences are presented.
Entering School with English Difficulties. Hmong students reported having difficulties with the early entry points into English speaking classrooms. A couple of students reported being made fun for their pronunciation of English, others reported that teachers did not understand them and mistook them to be less intelligent, but the majority of the participants reported having a hard time entering elementary with dominant Hmong language skills.
I remember I was very bad at English when I was in preschool like I did not understand anything really and I just kind of went to school and I went day by day until I started to learn more and more. ~Shoua
I think elementary was the hardest because thatâ€™s a time where I had a language barrier. I was sort of trying to learn English and stuff. So I think that was like probably like the hardest. Once I like I started getting more proficient in my English skills then it started getting easier. -Chue
From elementary to middle school, the hardest one for me was learning English. Because when I was younger and going into preschool, I was way more proficient in Hmong. I didnâ€™t know any English at all. I was like a foreigner. My teachers and everything thought that I was basically dumb because I couldnâ€™t understand or reply in English. I would only nod my head up and down for yes and no. They thought that I had a
condition, but it turned out that I didnâ€™t understand anything. I only spoke Hmong.
Leaving Unprepared for College. Ten of the students were first generation college students and three students were second generation students. When asked about their college life experience, the students enjoyed the freedom that college offered, from choosing your own schedule and classes. They enjoyed meeting new people and making friends and joining student groups such Hmong Student Association of Colorado (HSAC). The students reported a wide range of support for navigating college life. Most of the resources the students reported were their counselors, advisors, and teachers; they also looked to their friends and family for help. A couple of them used online resources for information and to complete homework or classwork. A couple of students reported not knowing how to get help and felt isolated. This was one of the students who discontinued college. However, the most reported barrier for the students was that they were not prepared for the workload of college life. The students reported feeling inadequate, unprepared and overwhelmed. Most felt it was a huge jump from high school to college and they were not prepared and did not know how to tackle the level of difficulty or the amount of work that was presented and required. All 13 students reported they had difficulty with the workload or classes; both first and second generation college students.
My experience attending college has been really wonderful because of how wholesome the classes are. However, because I wasnâ€™t prepared throughout primary and secondary education, I struggled immensely with my freshman year of college. The level of difficulty between high school and college classes was very big, and my transition to college was not easy because of how academically challenging the classes were.
It was mainly in the first like year or two to just transitioning to the workload and getting into good study habits.. .you know. -Doua
I feel like it was really hard because I was the only one going to college. I got a lot of support from my family, but when I asked for help, I had to do it on my own. College is
challenging because thereâ€™s a lot of work and the classes Iâ€™m in are challenging and I struggle with managing work and school. ~Xee
I feel like the homework, like how the homework and the, what is it, like your assignments how they're all so clashed together and like do it at a certain amount of time, I thought that was really challenging. ~Der
Well, it was challenging just balancing, you know being an adult. But another challenging aspect was just being in college because the way I was taught how to learn at my high school was actually very, very different compared to how I learn in college. And so the way the learning was taught.. .it mostly it was a big shock because I thought I knew how to study and I went to college. I did not know how to study.. .keeping up the class was the hardest part. Also, like accepting that you can't retake a test because at my high school you could retake as many tests as you need. And then the university professor's like now you got one chance, dude. Good luck. -Chue
Student Theme 3â€”English Impacts Relationships Between Hmong Youth and Parents
In the interview when students were asked the question, What language do you use to communicate with your parents andfamily and why? One hundred percent of the student participants reported using English with their parents and family. Nine of those same students also reported also using Hmong. Even though nine students seem high, of the students who are using Hmong with their families, the language skills that they reported using was minimal. The students were not fluent in Hmong except a few. Most said they could only convey the simplest ideas, words or phrases and revert to English when ideas get complicated. It seems the table has turned when looking at those same students before they entered school, when it would be heavy on the Hmong and light on the English. Now, English dominates. Four students responded that they used Hmong with grandparents, also mainly expressing simple ideas.
When the students were asked, Does speaking or not speaking Hmong influence the relationship between you and your parents andfamily? A few students shared that it did not
influence their relationship with their parents due to the fact that their parents were highly fluent in English and both parents and students were able to communicate and express their ideas, thoughts and feelings effectively. The parents of these students, for the most part were younger and had higher fluency in English and had attended school in the United States; and were acculturated to the mainstream society.
For most of the students, not being able to communicate in Hmong did impact their relationship with their parents and families, as reported by eight out of 13 students. These parents, for the most part did not speak English well; either they immigrated later in their lives to the U.S. or they did not attend much schooling in English. When parents were mostly fluent in Hmong and the children were mostly fluent in English, there was conflict in understanding which they reported led to barriers and challenges in the exchange of ideas, information, values and feelings. This theme was apparent in the both the student and parent data sets. Four out of five parents reported that not speaking Hmong impacted their immediate family or extended family. The parents were able to articulate this phenomenon more effectively with details and examples.
Below are some descriptions from the student participants that demonstrate this theme.
I know there's like a big gap with me and my dad just like communicating-wise. Yeah, he knows some English words and he understands them when I talk to him, but when he speaks Hmong to me, Fm just like, Dad I only got like maybe 50% of what you said. So what's the whole thing you said in English? So yeah, so it's a bit of a struggle there but you know, I make up with that with you know, just going fishing with him. So yeah, and then letâ€™s see my mom it's just all English now really. And then of course like when she's talking Hmong to me, I can understand some words. It's like when she's trying to tell me like a secret password. It's like that's not going to work. You know, even just with numbers. If s just like I have to count my fingers, like, you know, 1234.. It's like wait, hold on, say that number English, you know, so it's a bit of a struggle sometimes. Yeah.
I think it does really depend. If your parents are super Americanized, then it doesnâ€™t. But if your parents are super traditional, then I would say yes. Like with me and my dad, we
donâ€™t really talk a lot anymore just because when we talk, he talks in Hmong, and sometimes I reply in Hmong but most times I reply in English. We donâ€™t really know how to, I guess, in a sense, communicate with each other. But then with Americanized families, itâ€™s easy because they speak English, both of them forget how to speak Hmong. When the grandparents come over, grandparents yell at the parents about why they donâ€™t speak Hmong and why the kids donâ€™t know Hmong. -Kia
Yeah, I can imagine from the grandparents side, they probably feel bad because they can't talk, but they do want to talk to you because what grandparent doesn't want to talk to their grandkids, you know? -Fong
With my parents, I communicate with them mainly in English. I would say about 75% of the time, and with my family in general I mainly like mix a little Hmong and English together when I speak with them. (Do you have any grandparents?) Yeah, I do. I do talk with them in Hmong, but I feel like my grandma is off. I feel like it is very...so like.. .1 love them, but I try not to speak like very hard sentences...or answer hard questions.
Student Theme 4~Fractured Identities of Hmong American Youths
Perhaps the most surprising finding in this study was one related to identity. When asked, How do you identify yourself culturally and linguistically? Two students responded that they identify with being Hmong. Five students identified themselves as Hmong-Americans. This is what I had presumed most students would say. As a first generation Hmong in the U.S., I had some of my own biases. I connect with my own culture and I had expected the same for other Hmong as well. However, when the last six students responded that they identified themselves as Asians. It was surprising. I did not expect that answer to be reported by half the students. I could not understand why they would identify themselves with a term that was so broad and vague at the same time. Therefore, during the member checking phase, I organized a group of three students to discuss this exact theme. I asked the students to try to explain why they identified themselves as Asians. It appears that it has to do with one student being almost invisible as a Hmong outside of the few places other than a sizeable Hmong population. Mai explained that when non-Hmong individuals ask the students about their ethnicity or their heritage, the students
may at first respond that they are Hmong. But in communities like Denver or even all of Colorado, where the Hmong community is so small that most people generally will not know what Hmong is. They reported that when the Hmong students respond that they are of Hmong heritage, then non-Hmong individuals ask more questions about who they are, where they come from, and the reasons for immigrating or relocating to the U.S. The challenging part is when the Hmong students try to respond, but they are uncertain of their roots and history, themselves. They may not know enough details about their own people, the Secret War in Laos and why or how they ended up in the U.S. Furthermore, they do not know their own culture, traditions, and values. So this is why the Hmong students said that they are Asian. A couple of the students had reported to me that they may respond differently to the type of individual who ask them questions. They may respond that they are Hmong if the participants think the person asking might know about the Hmong; but if the person might not know about the Hmong, then the students might respond they are Asian. Examples of this same concept is described by the participants below.
I think between elementary and middle school, I struggled with being Hmong because I knew more about the Hmong culture but I didnâ€™t know a lot about the American culture. I had to conform to the American culture to fit in. -Xee
They say Asian because when people ask me what I am, I say Hmong. And they say, whatâ€™s that? And then thatâ€™s when it hits them, I donâ€™t even know myself. They donâ€™t know the culture themselves or they donâ€™t know too much of the past so then they get asked more questions. Then theyâ€™ll be like, oh I donâ€™t know. Because usually people that are like Chinese or Japanese, they know their history and roots. But for us, we know the bare minimum. -Mai
This is the same concept that had been mentioned earlier. For example, when Mai lived in Minnesota where there was a large community of Hmong and most people would know who the Hmong are, then Mai would report that she is Hmong. However, as she had mentioned, after
moving here in the early years of high school, she stopped reporting that she was Hmong. When non-Hmong individuals in Colorado asked about her ethnicity or heritage, she would reply that she is Asian. Der also mentioned the same idea in her interview. She explained that when it happens so often, she gets tired of explaining herself to others. So it was simpler just to report something else such as Asian because often, non-Hmong would think the Hmong were Mongolians due to the similar sounds in Hmong and Mongolia.
I think for here, weâ€™re really used to not knowing what Hmong is so we say weâ€™re Asian more than our own nationality. Itâ€™s just a constant thing that I do here. But back in Minnesota, Iâ€™d say Iâ€™m Hmong. I donâ€™t know what to say here because Iâ€™m not Chinese or anything. -Mai
I feel like most of it is just because, ugh, theyâ€™re not gonna understand if I say Iâ€™m Hmong so I just say Iâ€™m Asian. I feel like, for most Hmong people, I donâ€™t want to explain it because they think youâ€™re from Mongolia. -Kia
Well it's kind of a hard question because like sometimes when people ask you like what you are and what you speak, they're like, oh, what's that? And you can't really like explain to them what it is. So Iâ€™ve always had an issue like, I don't know. I would be fine with it, I would tell them like, oh I'm Hmong and I speak Hmong and they're like, what's Hmong? And if s just like you don't really have a question for that, you know, I mean, like an answer for that question. So, I wouldn't really, I would just tell them to go research about it or something. -Der
Xee, mentioned in her interview that she struggled quite a bit with her identity. She is also one of
the students that reported herself as â€œAsian.â€ When Xee was in elementary school, she had a
difficult time. She mentioned that she hated being Hmong because she was different. Kids made
fun of her.
I would get picked on for my accent and they would ask, â€œWhy do you sound like that?â€ or they would make fun of my eyes. Sometimes they would say things like, â€œching, chongâ€ and â€œting, tongâ€ and I hated it and I tried to conform to the American culture.
Xee explained that she hated elementary and middle school because she was the only Asian and she often felt like an outcast. And when she went to high school, there was a bit more diversity.
But when she entered University of Colorado Boulder, again, she felt like an outsider who did not belong. The campus had little diversity she missed the diversity so when she transferred to University of Colorado Denver, it was better because there were a lot of Hispanics and African-American people. Xee felt that living in an American culture makes you forget about your own culture. She says people are forced to learn about American culture so you get caught up in the culture and eventually forget about your own culture.
During the member check focus group meeting, this theme of identity loss came up again. Two student participants were associated with the HSAC student group at the University of Colorado Denver campus. They had given me an example of how Hmong youths in Colorado compared to the Hmong youths in Minnesota. At a national Hmong conference, Hmong youths from Colorado and Minnesota had some opportunities for interaction. When the groups met, the Hmong youths from Colorado noticed they were quite different than their Minnesota peers. The Colorado Hmong youthsâ€™ Hmong language skills did not compare to the Minnesota students. The Minnesota students had conversed more fluently in Hmong and invited the Colorado youths to join the conversation, however, they felt inadequate.
The Hmong community in Denver is quite small in comparison to other Hmong communities in the U.S. In 2010, Colorado had 4000 Hmong individuals living in Colorado compared to Wisconsin at 49,000; Minnesota with 66,000; and California with 91,000 Hmong individuals according to Pfeifer, Sullivan, K. Yang & W. Yang (2012) who used data from 2010 U.S. census. Since then, the numbers have increased considerably, but these figures give a general sense of the size of the Hmong community in Colorado compared to other states. Bigger communities tend to have more resources to maintain the culture and language. As for Colorado, Hmong individuals are isolated and there are fewer resources for language and cultural
maintenance, which was reported by a few participants. Therefore, the loss of language is
multiplied. Below are the accounts of the Hmong students experiences at the Hmong national
conference with other Hmong individuals from across the nation and their observations about the
difference in maintenance levels of Hmong language skills.
Oh yeah, for sure. When I went to a conference, the Hmong National Development, it was two years ago me and my friendsâ€”we went there and we could feel the separation between us Hmong Colorado compared to the Hmong Minnesota and everyone else in the Midwest. -Fong
We connected, but then there was still that small barrier where it was hard for us to adjust, relate, and blend in with them. The way they grew up over there is still traditional and over here, weâ€™re not as traditional and strict. When we go over there, we talk differently from them and they notice that too. You could feel the energy, they want us to join, but we canâ€™t really join. -Fong
They had very good fluency in Hmong. -Mai
You could just tell we were whitewashed. -Kia
All of these stories show and describe how English has impacted the lives of Hmong youth. English seems to have contributed to a language and cultural shift, it has created barriers for Hmong students to achieve academic attainment, it has distanced the relationship of children and their parents, and it has affected Hmong childrenâ€™s cultural identity.
Hmong Parent Demographics
There were five Hmong parent participants and each participant also had a child who participated in this research study. Their demographic information is summarized in Figure 5. There were two male and three female participants between 44 to 52 years of age. They each had between 3-7 children. All the participants were Hmong refugees that immigrated to the United States between the early 1980â€™s and 1990â€™s in order to escape the persecution of the Communist Lao during the Secret War of Laos. All five participants were originally from Laos and three of
the participants mentioned they lived the jungles of Laos, hiding from the Communist Lao before fleeing to seek asylum in neighboring Thailand. All participants first immigrated to Colorado, except one participant who originally settled in Fresno, California.
With regards to education, four out of the five participants finished high school in the United States and the other participant attended some adult English classes because she was married with children. Another participant completed a vocational building trades program and one participant attained a masterâ€™s degree in computer technology. As for occupations, one participant was a homemaker, two worked in factory and assembly lines, one was a business owner of a tailor shop, and the last worked in an office for a non-profit agency.
Table 3. Hmong Parent Demographic Information.
Pare nt Gend er & Age Year and Age Immigrated Education Occupation Number of Children Language Preference
Bao F, 46 1979, 6 years old High School Business Owner, Seamstress 4 English & Hmong
Ger M, 52 1982, 14 years old High School & Carpentry Program Machine Operator 3 English & Hmong
Mee F, 48 1981, 10 years old High School Homemaker 4 English & Hmong
Ong F, 50 1989, 20 years old Adult English School Tie maker 7 Hmong
Seng M, 44 1989, 14 years old Masterâ€™s Degree in Computer Tech Office Worker, Non-profit Agency 7 English & Hmong
Summaries of Parent Participants
In this section, a brief summary of each parent participant is given. All parent participants came to the U.S. as refugees after the Vietnam War ended.
Bao. Baoâ€™s father was a soldier in the Vietnam War, and they left Laos to escape the persecution of the Hmong people that was occurring. She first arrived to Colorado in 1979 when she was only six years old. In 1983 her family moved to Fresno California to continue the farming lifestyle they had had in Laos. In 1994, she and her husband moved back to Colorado due to the lack of jobs in California and the need to find work to support their relatives in Laos. Bao completed high school. Currently she is 46 years old and she has four children. Her daughter attends the University of Colorado Denver, majoring in Biology. She owns an alterations shop in a shopping mall. Her husband is an active member in the Hmong community and he is always helping with different events and traditional practices. She reports that she is losing her Hmong skills and her family mainly speaks English.
Ger. Ger immigrated to the U.S. when he was 14 years old after living in the jungle for a few years hiding from the Communist Lao and salvaging in deserted homes and farms for food in order to survive. He started middle school and he reported that he had a difficult time in middle school and high school and barely managed to graduate. After high school, he enrolled in a building trades vocational program and learned some carpentry skills. He is 52 years old and currently works in a plastic molding company and his job is to run machines that makes plastic molds. He has three children and his daughter attends the University of Colorado, Denver, majoring in Biology. He prefers to speak Hmong, but he mainly communicates with his family in English because the children have limited Hmong language skills.
Mee. Meeâ€™s father was a teacher in Laos and so they were always moving since the Communist Lao were seeking to imprison all educated individuals. She immigrated to the U.S. when she was ten years old and was able to start her education in elementary school. She married young and finished high school. She is 48 years and she is a homemaker. She considers herself a
bilingual individual with abilities to read, write, and speak in both Hmong and English. She has four children and she mostly communicates with her children in English. Her son attends Metro State College and is majoring in mechanical engineering. Her husband is a few years older and he mostly speaks Hmong. Mee reports that her husband has difficulty communicating with the children because they donâ€™t speak much Hmong and his English skills are quite limited.
Ong. Ong also reported living in the jungles of Laos and hiding from the communists before escaping to the refugee camps in Thailand. Ong immigrated to the U.S. in 1989 when she was about 20 years old. She reported that since she came later in her life, she did not have an opportunity to attend school. She only attended some adult English classes since she was already married and had a family. Ong is 50 years old and she has seven children. Her daughter is attending the University of Colorado Denver, majoring in Psychology. Ong has been working at a tie company for over twenty years sewing and making ties. She does not read or write English. She preferred to converse in Hmong.
Seng. Seng also lived in the refugee camps and immigrated to the U.S. in 1989 when he was 14 years old. Seng started his education in 7th grade /middle school. He reported that learning English was a bit difficult, but that he worked hard and graduated. Then he went to college and earned his masterâ€™s degree in computer technology. He says he is able to speak both Hmong and English, but he is slightly stronger in Hmong. Seng is 44 years old and he works for a non-profit agency. He has seven children, his oldest son is attending the University of Colorado Denver, majoring in mechanical engineering.
Themes from Parent Interviews
The initial coding of the parent interview transcripts generated 19, see Appendix D. The 19 codes were sorted into categories and grouped to form four major themes, which included:
1. Dominant English Contributes to Hmong Language and Culture Shift
2. Language Barriers
3. English Impacts Relationships Between Hmong Youth and Parents
4. Potential Improvements to the Educational System
Three of the parent themes (language and culture shift, relationships, and potential improvements) are common to the themes also found in the student data set. The student data set had two themes that differed from the parents - Entering school with English Difficulties and Leaving Unprepared for College and Fractured Identities of Hmong American Youths. Each of the parent themes will be discussed with specific examples and quotes from the participants. The last theme of potential improvements will be discussed in the last section of this chapter, along with the suggestions from the student data set.
Parent Theme 1â€”Dominance of English Contributes to Hmong Language and Culture Shift
The parent participants were recruited through the initial interviews of their children. The student participants asked their parents about their interest in participating in the study. One parent was contacted through email. Subsequently all five parents contacted agreed to be interviewed. Ah five parents are first generation Hmong individuals who immigrated to the U.S. as refugees to escape the Secret War in Laos. Three of them immigrated in the early 1980s (at ages: 6, 10, 14) and two immigrated in 1989 (at ages: 14, 20) meaning that most of them have been in the U.S. for approximated 3-4 decades. When they were asked about their cultural identity, four participants responded Hmong, and one parent responded Hmong American. Mee, the parent who responded Hmong American immigrated the earliest to the U.S., in 1981 at a young age and she started elementary school here. She had the highest self-rating of English skills, as she rated herself a 10. All the parents reported they were able to read, write and speak in both languages, except Ong. She did not attend school in the U.S. except for some adult
evening classes. She did have some literacy skills in Hmong. She was also the only parent who requested to conduct the interview solely in Hmong. The other parents did their interviews in both languages, some more English, some more Hmong. The students in their interviews reported higher skills in English due to the influence of mainstream culture and language, especially the use of English in educational institutions. In the parent interviews, since parents are first generation Hmong, they still had a strong connection to their roots and mother tongue and they had higher skills in Hmong. When parents were asked how English has impacted their children and their native language, all five parents responded that English has had a huge impact on the native language of their children. The same question was asked about culture and most parents responded that the children are losing their connection to their culture, as well. Their views are illuminated in the excerpts from the interviews below and demonstrate how they viewed language and culture as complexly intertwined.
My children are always influenced by English at school and at home. Because my native language is limited in descriptions and expressions, I often use English to communicate to them, which does not help them with learning, obtaining or retaining our native language. ~ Mee
If my child only speak English, they only understand American culture. So they do not understand Hmong culture and do not participate in Hmong culture.
The children do not know Hmong cultural practices. The oldest son knows a little about our culture but the rest of the children know very little or none at all. This is because they cannot speak Hmong so when I speak to them or try to teach them, they donâ€™t understand so they donâ€™t know Hmong culture because they donâ€™t speak Hmong. ~Ong
One of the parents, Bao, mentioned that her family, in particular her husband, is quite active in
the Hmong community and he always attends functions and events so her children see and
understand Hmong culture well. This was not s common for the other Hmong families. Rather,
the common experience is more isolated. However, she said that language was harder to maintain
and even as a first-generation Hmong individual, she is losing her Hmong skills too.
I think that my children have lost some of their Hmong language skills. Just like me, Iâ€™ve lost a lot of Hmong skills. It impacts a lot because they lost a lot of Hmong and they have this attitude that they are Americans and that they donâ€™t need to have Hmong. Even for adults, itâ€™s the same. Thereâ€™s no job out there that says you need to speak Hmong. You have to speak English in order to get this job and so we lost a lot of Hmong. Thatâ€™s a barrier. ~Bao
Personally, my children know about Hmong culture and they know that we are Hmong and that they need to speak Hmong but when they go to school they only speak English and they donâ€™t speak any Hmong. So when they get home, if there are any elders, like grandma and grandpa, then they speak Hmong. And if there arenâ€™t any elders, like me and my husband, then we speak half English and half Hmong. And they donâ€™t want to speak Hmong because they canâ€™t say certain words in Hmong. Even for myself thereâ€™s certain words in Hmong that I canâ€™t remember. We speak English mixed with Hmong. I know that has impacted my family and I tell my daughter all the time you are Hmong, why donâ€™t you speak Hmong? And they tell me Mom, you are Hmong too, but why donâ€™t you speak Hmong? For the children, when they go to school they speak English so English stays with them. As for Hmong, they pick up words from Mom, Dad, grandma, and grandpa. They canâ€™t speak back so they mix English and Hmong. My children know about Hmong culture and Hmong New Years, about spirit callings, birth of a new child traditions, and the duties of a daughter-in-law. They understand that being Hmong is important except that they lose the language. My kids are up to date on the culture because I do not want my children to lose their culture. But the language, they have lost a lot. I hope they do not lose the culture, itâ€™s very important for us. It represents that we are Hmong. If we lose both the language and the culture, then we are nothing. My kids know about the funeral, wedding, new baby arrival, why we have shamans, New Years. My husband is active in the community and is involved with many Hmong traditions within the community. Iâ€™m happy that the culture doesnâ€™t go away but Iâ€™m sad that the language is gone. But itâ€™s never too late. ~Bao
It is difficult to teach and for them to learn cultural practices when they donâ€™t speak my native language. There is a big gap in this area in communication. My husband is less English proficient so it is hard for them to understand each other sometime. ~Mee
Parent Theme 2â€”Language Barriers
When asked about their experiences with Colorado schools, either for themselves or their children, most responded that it was not bad. Teachers seemed supportive, however, there were
some barriers. Parents reported the barriers were, most of all, language. They reported that not
knowing English prevented them from engaging more effectively with the schools and teachers.
Two parents reported having to work to support the family and so there was no time to engage
with their children and their schoolwork. Parents who had more English skills or had experience
attending American schools; had more skills navigating the schools. Two of the parents who had
immigrated later in their life, or didnâ€™t have an opportunity to attend school, had more difficulty
navigating resources for their childrenâ€™s academic needs. In addition, parents also trusted the
school to help their children. In some cases, parents genuinely did not know how to support their
children in schools so they relied on the children to navigate resources on their own.
The hardest part is not knowing the English language so any time I need to communicate with the school or teachers, I need to find someone to translate for me. Because without a translator, I cannot communicate with the teachers, and this is the most challenging because then I canâ€™t do anything for my children. ~Ong
No, I donâ€™t really know how to access support for my child. I would look at their homework, but many times I did not understand it. So I will tell my children to ask their teacher for help. I mostly rely on the kids to pay attention in class and be responsible to do their homework. ~Ger
If I can support my children, I do, but I donâ€™t read and write so itâ€™s difficult for me to support my children. Sometimes I will ask my older children to help the younger children with homework. ~Ong
Of course, I have major barriers. Itâ€™s all about English. I donâ€™t understand English well, so I couldnâ€™t help my children access learning and opportunities. I have tried to help my children with homework many times, but I didnâ€™t understand the directions or content.
The biggest problem is the language barrier. As a second language learner, it is hard to do school work because I didnâ€™t understand English well. The teachers only are able to teach white children. The teachers do not have skills or training to teach second language learners. They also do not have time to work with second language learners in the classroom. ~Ger
The challenging part as a parent was I didnâ€™t have time to get involved much in my
childrenâ€™s education. When they were young, I worked long hours, overtime and even held two jobs for sometimes to support extra relative children. As a parent, at times I donâ€™t know how my children were doing in school and not knowing what kind of problem theyâ€™re facing. ~Mee
Parent Theme 3â€”English Impacts Relationships Between Hmong Youth and Parents
From the parent interviews, the relative impact of English on the relationships between
these Hmong youth and their parents were contingent upon a parentâ€™s level of English fluency.
Two parents who immigrated later in their lives and had limited English skills felt that English
had a greater impact on their relationship with their children. Parents who immigrated earlier in
their lives, at the ages of 6 and 10 felt there were less little impact on their family because they
were fluent in English and could easily communicate with their children. However, one fluent
English speaking parent did report that her husband, who had limited English skills had
communication barriers with the children due to English. Due to being immersed in the
mainstream culture of English, the children were learning English quickly. However, their
parentsâ€™ English skills were limited or even minimal. Therefore there are challenges in
communicating to each other. One parent participant reported that since there is a language
barrier between him and his children, he could not t teach his children about Hmong traditions or
culture. Hence, the loss of language and culture increases.
Yes, when the children donâ€™t speak Hmong fluently, there are relationship problems because the parents donâ€™t understand English so there is no communication. Parents give up and forget about teaching them their native language, culture and values. Itâ€™s very hard. ~Ger
When the children only speak English and the parents speak mostly Hmong, there are communication problems. So for example when you ask them to do something, they donâ€™t understand you. Also when the children speak English to parents, we cannot understand them well. So it impacts our relationship with our children. ~Ger
In her interview, Ong had requested to conduct it in Hmong and she mentioned that she is always working and did not have time to interact with her children. Currently, her two younger children have greatly lost their heritage skills and when she speaks to them in Hmong, the youngest child will find his brother to translate for him.
English has impacted my children immensely. The children go to school and as parents we are busy to earn a living so we are hardly home, so the children go to school and speak English so they donâ€™t know how to speak Hmong. As of right now, I have two children that can barely speak Hmong, my 18-year-old and 12-year-old. When I speak Hmong to them, they cannot respond back to me in Hmong. The 18-year-old understands some Hmong but the 12-year-old does not understand any Hmong. If I use too much Hmong, he finds one of his siblings to translate for him. -Ong
In his interview, Seng also mentioned that Hmong communities in states such as Minnesota,
more Hmong individuals have retained the language and culture, more than smaller communities
like Colorado. And that Hmong values, traditions, and culture are still very visible and vibrant
My kids that are older are still okay, but the little ones, my three-year-old, you speak Hmong to him, he doesnâ€™t understand but you speak English he knows. Itâ€™s a difficulty for our Hmong community but itâ€™s not just the Hmong community, the Asian community, itâ€™s probably the same deal. And plus, we live in Colorado our community is small, itâ€™s not like the other state like Minnesota when I go, they still, their Hmong culture, language, way of life, the way of Hmong is still stronger. In Colorado, I can see in every family that theyâ€™re losing it. ~Seng
In Baoâ€™s interview, she made a point about the children not understanding the Hmong words and that they were unable to distinguish between the sounds and pitches. In the Hmong language, there are eight tones. This just simply means that one syllable can have eight different meanings depending on the pitch of the word. In the example below, Bao mentioned that her children could not distinguish the sound â€œnjeh.â€ If you say the word with a flat monotone, it means fish. If you say this word with a high pitch, the word means salt. The same word can have different
meanings, if you change the pitch. In her example, when grandma asks the children to bring salt and they go look for fish in the refrigerator. These are just some of the examples of communication barriers especially between the youth and their elders.
As for the elders, there is an impact. When my mother in law lived with us, sheâ€™s elderly, youâ€™d be amazed, those old people they know English but they just donâ€™t say it. Itâ€™s a bit hard for my children and for grandma because grandma doesnâ€™t speak English. So for example, grandma might say go grab salt, but my kids would tell her we donâ€™t have any fish. But itâ€™s salt and thereâ€™s no fish. If grandma says go get toilet paper, they understand because she has to speak English. If grandma tells them to open the fridge, the kids tell her that they donâ€™t understand it. Itâ€™s quite difficult for the elders and my momâ€™s always complaining that the language is important. To me I donâ€™t think the language isnâ€™t important that much. Itâ€™s a shame that we lose it, but our culture is what stands out who we are. The kids are saying we are Americans, we donâ€™t need to read, write, or speak Hmong because weâ€™re in America but itâ€™s not like that. Itâ€™s different back in the 80s and 90s but this is the 21st century. If you want to be a leader in the Hmong community, you need to know how to speak Hmong, but you also need to know American culture. Itâ€™s hard. You need to be bilingual. Itâ€™s hard to be bilingual. ~Bao
Student and Parent Suggestions for Improving Language and Cultural Maintenance and Academic Achievement
When both parents and students were asked about how to improve the situation for language and culture maintenance, and for improving academic achievement for Hmong youth, the responses were quite similar. The Hmong youth group generated a wealth of ideas for improving heritage language and cultural maintenance. Some ideas were surprising and some ideas were quite creative that included modem issues such as incorporating Hmong music and addressing LGBTQ topics. Both groupâ€™s suggestions for improvement are summarized below in Table 4.
Table 4. Hmong Student and Parent Suggestions for Improvement.
â€¢ Hmong educators â€¢ Hmong educators
â€¢ Hmong language and culture classes â€¢ Hmong language and culture classes,
â€¢ Educators learn and understand about high school & college
Hmong culture and history â€¢ Hmong translators
â€¢ Assignments about culture where â€¢ Teachers encourage families and
students interact with their parents students to maintain heritage
â€¢ Teach history to include Hmong language and culture
involvement with Vietnam War â€¢ Hmong workshops, conferences
â€¢ Encourage speaking Hmong at home â€¢ Teachers understand Hmong culture
â€¢ Curriculum on Hmong language and connect with parents
â€¢ Establish space in classroom to value â€¢ Keep culture going, get the youth
Hmong culture and language involved in Hmong events and
â€¢ Hmong entertainment, music and traditions like Hmong New Years
â€¢ Hmong youth groups or clubs
â€¢ Hmong cultural events and traditions
â€¢ Improve school communication with
parents, esp. for Hmong LEP parents
â€¢ Cultural competency &
â€¢ Hmong translated newsletters
â€¢ Hmong summer programs
â€¢ Hmong daycare
â€¢ Meeting with Hmong individuals and
families to learn about culture
â€¢ Change the school systems, less focus
â€¢ Hmong classes in college
â€¢ Value diversity
â€¢ Culture days, school-wide events to
learn about different cultures and
â€¢ Discuss modem Hmong topics with
Three of the parents gave specific suggestions. However, the two parents who had limited
U.S. school experience or interaction with the schools, or perhaps only had a school view of their experiences in their native country, were not able to generate specific ideas for improving the Hmong experience. One of those parents thought the schools were already doing their best.
These responses show that there are parents who are unaware of their rights or know ways to advocate or improve access educational resources for their children.
Between both groups, several common themes surfaced including to have Hmong teachers and a set of Hmong curriculum on language and culture. In addition, they suggested that current educators should have some background knowledge of the Hmong people in order to better serve Hmong students and families, but more importantly teachers should have more cultural competency.
I think if s just more of like trying to implement for the Hmong adults that have a degree in education or a teaching degree. They could try to implement some kind of class, or maybe like after school program or if anything, just like maybe a language class. Like Spanish, they have French, you know, those are the main languages. They can kind of incorporate that into high school somehow and I think that'd be good, you know, to go to at least like one or two schools that have a lot of popular Hmong students there. Like Westminster High School or Thornton High School. I think doing that might help more.
Well if just for Hmong, I would definitely say, just giving homework about speaking to your parents, you know, I think if you give homework for social studies or something, where they have to ask their parents about a story or folklore or ask your parents to teach you like five new words that you don't know in your language or something, you know, like I think if they could do something like that, I think that really help. ~Sheng
By offering a class actually because like Colorado, there's no class, you know, but I know Minnesota they already do so, it would be great if they did have it here, but you know the Hmong community here is not as big. ~Bee
I feel like we need programs for Hmong students like Hmong schools. Big states like California get that opportunity, but because our population is small, we donâ€™t get that.
Most of the students attended elementary schools in Colorado in schools that provided instruction only in English. However, in the student group, there was one outlier, Mai, who was the only one out of the 13 students who received Hmong language and culture classes in Minnesota during parts of her elementary and some of her middle school years. Due to the fact that she learned her culture, traditions, the history of the Hmong and how to read and write in Hmong, she was the only student who rated herself equally bilingual in both Hmong and
English. Her ratings on language and culture were reflective of her experiences. Her experience
is an important counterpoint that can help improve programming for Hmong youth and families.
For Minnesota, mineâ€™s the opposite. I was perfectly fine. The teachers were all white and they taught us English. I knew English pretty well and Hmong pretty well when I was young. I felt like I was fine because the Hmong community was pretty big and everyone was so welcoming. Over the years of my Pre-K to 12, there were more like Hmong teachers too developing and we had Hmong language classes that were required for Hmong students too. That really helped because I had English on the side and Hmong on the side which balanced things out with us. When I came here, my Hmong kind of went away in high school because I didnâ€™t have Hmong anymore. -Mai
Another subtle theme that emerged from the interviews involves the students who participated in
the activities of the Hmong Student Association of Colorado (HSAC). There were four active
students who were interviewed and all four reported that they were less connected with the
Hmong culture and community before joining the student club. After joining the club, they
reported that they had a stronger connection to the culture as described in the words of one of the
female student participantâ€™s response.
When I was younger, I hated being Hmong because my parents always made me cook and clean especially, when we go over to other Lee families for parties. I was always the only younger girl doing work while other girls would be playing and having fun. I also thought because we were Hmong, my parents were just stricter compare to my other friends who are different ethnicity. Now that I have become older and understand more who I am as a person and my culture, I love being Hmong. Being Hmong makes me who I am today. Due to the Hmong culture, it shapes me to be who I am. Growing up in a traditional Hmong family and the American culture, it was difficult for me because I thought I wanted to become more like the American culture so I hated being Hmong. I wanted to follow how the American culture did things. I thought I had to pick one. Obviously, I canâ€™t be a White American, but I can choose to do things like their culture and not follow the Hmong culture. But the truth is I love being Hmong American because I can be Hmong and follow my culture while also be an American. I donâ€™t have to choose one. I can be both. -Shoua
Two other students had similar responses. Fong also reported that in high school he was not connected to the Hmong culture and that he had lost a lot of his Hmong language skills. But when he enrolled into college, older Hmong peers helped him to reconnect with his Hmong
roots. The Hmong students showed him how to value and feel proud about his heritage and culture. Also, the bicultural student, Nou had a similar story. Nou reported that she had never really learned Hmong. Her parents first lived with her motherâ€™s side of the family, which was her Laotian heritage when she was born. She had learned a bit of Laotian in her grandmotherâ€™s care. But in grade school, she moved to Colorado to be closer to her fatherâ€™s family, which was her Hmong family. And she didnâ€™t know much about the culture and of course she didnâ€™t speak the language. But she wanted to know more about her Hmong heritage and culture, so she joined HSAC. Nou feels that it has helped her connect more with her Hmong heritage. She is learning more and feeling more in touch with the culture. This suggests that a club or organization such as the Hmong Student Association of Colorado can have a powerful effect on the Hmong students and help them to connect or reconnect with their lost culture.
There are many ways to improve language and cultural maintenance for the Hmong and the ideas generated from the students and parents are quite promising and exciting, especially here in Colorado where currently, the Hmong is rather invisible. These ideas will be explored more in depth in Chapter 5.
In the interviews some unexpected topics appeared in the discussions and responses. First, during the focus group, I had asked a question about identity and a student participant mentioned that in the Hmong patriarchy society, Hmong boys are favored over girls. Traditionally, Hmong boys are responsible for taking care of the parents in their old-age years. And since girls usually marry and leave the family, boys are more valued. These values are expressed in many different ways. Boys have more freedom to stay out and girls are more
protected and expected to stay in the house. In addition, girls are expected to perform many household chores that boys are not expected to do. Girls have to cook and clean and learn the duties of a daughter-in-law. This results in many restrictions for girls and how they should behave and act.
One of the female student participants reported that since many girls feel restricted, more girls are attending college as a way out of their restrictions. They indicated that a college degree would help them gain the freedom that would allow them to have choices and opportunities. Hence, there are more girls attending college. And since boys are already valued, they do not work as hard because they know the parents will have their back and will support them. This theme of more girls attending college was shown in this study, eight out of 13 were female student participants and five were male participants.
Another unexpected finding was the clash between two groups of Hmong; the Christian Hmong and traditional Animistic Hmong. Traditional Hmong believe that all living things have a spirit and that everything is interconnected. Traditional Hmong also believe that there are spiritual healers such as shamans who can travel between physical and spiritual worlds. During the conversation of the focus group, a participant of the HSAC club mentioned that he would try to create events and invite Christian Hmong students to join. He mentioned that he even called the different Hmong churches. But since the values and beliefs of the Christian Hmong and the Animistic Hmong are so different, the Christians tend to do their own events within their own group and usually do not like to collaborate with the Animistic Hmong groups.
CHAPTER V DISCUSSION
The purpose of this study was to examine ways in which Hmong youth and their families experience and interpret the use of English in their lives and the ways it affects their use and maintenance of the Hmong language. It also sought to understand how the use of English affects Hmong youthâ€™s identity and the relationships between Hmong students, their parents, and families.
This research study attempted to investigate four overarching questions. The first question was: How has the use of English impacted the families of Hmong youth living in Colorado, their culture and language? The results of this study suggest that the hegemony of English in mainstream society has contributed to a language and culture shift and loss for the families of Hmong youth living in Colorado. When both Hmong youth and parents were interviewed about their heritage language skills, Hmong youth reported that they had strong Hmong language skills before entering elementary school. However, by the time they reached college, their Hmong skills had diminished, and they could only communicate fluently in English. Hmong parents reported the same results that English has dominated their homes. They feared that when their language begins to disappear, the heritage culture also diminishes. For Hmong parents, immigrating to the U.S. from agricultural communities, the barriers were multiplied due to the huge contrast between cultures, lifestyles, and language (Trueba, Jacobs, & Kirton, 2014).
Hmong youth wanted to fit in with the dominant English culture, so they neglected their culture and their traditions. In addition, parents discussed that the loss of heritage language in Hmong youth, created a communication barrier for parents to relay their thoughts, feelings, and
values. The dominance of English in schools and society contributes to a change to Hmong familiesâ€™ language and culture loss. These results are consistent with previous studies done on language (Wong Fillmore, 1991; Kwan, 2015).
The second research question was: What are the educational experiences of Hmong young adults living in Colorado, and how has schooling all in English impacted their identity, self-esteem, and academic gains? The results from this study shows that predominately all English schooling has a negative impact on Hmong youthsâ€™ identity, self-esteem, and academic achievement. There are two parts to the results. First, the academic aspect of the research will be addressed then matters of identity will be reviewed. In terms of academic gains, the results from this study shows that English seems to have contributed as a barrier in academic achievement for Hmong students. First of all, Hmong youth reported that as they entered school in their early years, English was a significant barrier for them to access content and learning. Furthermore, the students report that due to their limited English skills, teachers misunderstood them, students were made fun of for their lack of English, and some were even bullied. There were limited resources to aid the children to access the curriculum. The Hmong parents also reported that English was a significant barrier for them to help their children navigate resources in the educational setting. Due to their lack of experience with American schools, some parents relied on the school to aid the children and some parents could not even play a role in their childrenâ€™s education. Monolingual English speakers had a significant advantage for the obvious reason that when they entered school, they could understand the discussions and learning, but as for Hmong children, they would need some time to learn basic English vocabulary before they could even begin to engage with their teachers, peers, or the content and curriculum. Because the children had huge barriers at the entry point into their elementary school experience, these barriers
essentially became a ball and chain that followed the Hmong youths to another milestone in their educational career; college life. The students described that the most significant challenge for their post-secondary school experience was that the students were not prepared for the rigorous workload that college life demanded. They lacked resources to navigate support during the initial semesters. Some students suffered during these times and the consequences follow the students into their careers, either as a heavy weight to pull down their GPA or in a hefty loan debt. These challenges left students feeling isolated and lost, leading some to drop out of college. These results that show that the Hmong youth are falling behind their native English-speaking peers and is consistent to previous research across the nation (DePouw, 2012; Lee & Madyun, 2008; Lee, Lam & Madyun, 2017; Lee, 2007; Lee, 2014; Mahowald & Loughnane, 2016; Vang, 2005; Sao Xiong, 2012; "Hmong | Data on Asian Americans," 2019). These examples show the inequities powered by the hegemony of English in mainstream culture. The structure and systems of English schools in U.S. society is unaccommodating to language minorities (S. Lee, 2007). As the study shows, these students had difficulties when they first entered school. However, it does not end there, the inequities continue and can even be seen 12 years later when these Hmong students entered college; English continued to be a gatekeeper to quality of life and socioeconomic status. To even the playing field so that other players can play and win too, there needs to be some reform in school systems and structure, as previously discussed in the theory section, we need to keep in mind how power and cultural groups are intertwined as discussed by Leonardo (2004). At the end of the chapter, suggestions will be discussed about how to improve to these issues.
Matters of identity was another important theme that was apparent in the responses of Hmong youth. The results from this study propose that the dominance of English in U.S. schools
and society contributes to the fractured identities of Hmong American youths. This was evident when the students were asked, How do you identify yourself culturally? As a Hmong individual myself, I was expecting the students to reply, Hmong American or Hmong. However, almost half of the students replied, Asian. It was not a response that I had anticipated. Perhaps since I am Hmong myself, I had my own bias that Hmong people should identify themselves as Hmong or Hmong American. I expected that perhaps the students might not have been as connected to their Hmong heritage as much as I would be since the students are Hmong Americans born on American soil. However, their response was shocking.
As discussed in the findings, when questioned, the students explained that since the Hmong community in Colorado is so small, many non-Hmong individuals would not typically know who the Hmong are or where they are from. The students reported that when they do reply that they are Hmong, usually they are bombarded with more questions about their country, roots, and history. However, many Hmong youth do not know much about their culture, traditions, or about their roots and so they are unable to answer the questions. Most people can speak about their heritage or roots, either from learning through history classes or from books. But many Hmong students do not have opportunities to learn about their history in mainstream classroom. Mainstream textbooks do not mention the Hmong even though they had a large part in the Vietnam War. In addition, the history of the Hmong is a heavily debated due to the fact that much of their history is undocumented. Therefore, Hmong students avoid questions about their people or roots. Based on this sample it appears that Hmong youth in Colorado do not commonly have knowledge of their culture or history. There are no Hmong history classes they can take in their schools or even in college. They may get some information from their parents, but it may be
minimal, since Hmong history has generally been documented by non-Hmong individuals or groups.
The Hmong are currently researching their own histories (G. Lee, 2007). Until these are published, someone Hmong cannot easily pick up a book and learn about their history. Another important piece of evidence that supports this theme is the first question that was asked in the interview: Would you like to conduct the interview in Hmong or English? One hundred percent of the students replied, English. A couple students also said to include some Hmong. This is a huge statement about who they are and how English has impacted the lives of these children. Asians who speak English; this vague description does not reflect a Hmong identity or heritage. Asia is a continent with hundreds of nationalities and languages. These two responses have clearly shown how much the English language and dominant culture have impacted the lives of Hmong youth. Many students reported that they did know much about their culture or traditions. Some students responded that they are not connected to the Hmong culture. Hmong youths living in Colorado are somewhat isolated and secluded compared to bigger Hmong communities in Minnesota or Wisconsin. Most Hmong children do not have opportunities to learn about their roots or culture and if they donâ€™t speak their mother tongue, it makes it worse. This study supports previous research done on heritage language loss and its impact on identity; which is a phenomenon studied by many researchers, nationally and globally (Ngo, 2016; Wong Fillmore, 1991; Kwan, 2015; Native American Rights Fund, 2013; MacGregor-Mendoza, 2000).
However, the results of this study are different from another study completed by Bosher (1997) solely on 101 Hmong college students in Minnesota and Wisconsin, almost two decades ago. Bosher found that the second-generation Hmong students were bicultural, adapting both American and Hmong culture and values. This study was completed when parents had been in
the U.S. only two decades compared to this study, four decades since the first immigrants arrived in the U.S. In addition, in larger Hmong communities such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, traditions and culture are more easily maintained due to numbers. It seems as though language and culture loss is advancing at faster levels now than when the Hmong first arrived and living in isolated communities does not help to slow the rate of assimilation.
The next research question that guided this study was: How has the predominant use of English in schooling impacted Hmong young adultâ€™s native language skills and their relationships with their parents? The results from this study show that the predominant use of English in schooling had a substantial influence on the relationship of Hmong youth and their parents and families. When asked if speaking or not speaking Hmong impacted the relationship between Hmong youth and parents, both student and parent groups reported that it had a significant impact. There was more impact if parents were dominant Hmong speakers and less impact if parents were fluent English speakers. When parents and children did not speak the same language there were communication barriers. One student reported that he could not understand his father when he was speaking in Hmong and since he could not communicate with him, he would go fishing with him to make up the loss of connection between him and his father. A Hmong mother reported that since she was always working to support her family, her youngest son was not fluent in Hmong and when she tried to speak to him in Hmong, he would need to get one of his older siblings to translate for him. Another mother gave an example of a grandmother asking for the children to bring her salt and they responded that they could not find any fish in the refrigerator. These results are consistent with the studies that have been completed on the loss of language and the disruption to the relationship between parents and children. Wong Fillmore (1991) discussed in her study that talk is the crucial link between parents and children and this is
exactly how parents transfer culture. Without this link, families lose the intimacy that comes from shared beliefs and understanding.
The last research question that informed this study was: How can educators enhance Hntong childrenâ€™s opportunities to maintain their heritage language and respond to their educational needs? Both student and parent participants reported that their overall experience in Colorado schools was adequate and most teachers were supportive. Some students experienced microaggressions and bullying due to their race and culture. When Hmong students were asked about how to improve the educational setting for language and cultural maintenance, the students had many ideas to offer; most ideas centered around the visibility of Hmong teachers and Hmong cultural and language classes. Other ideas included engaging Hmong youth with elders in community and cultural events, engaging the youth through Hmong rap or music, engaging youth with current Hmong youth issues such as LGBTQ, and gender inequalities.
As for the parents, they also had recommendations for Hmong educators to provide language and culture classes. However, two of parents genuinely did not know how to improve the situation in schools for Hmong children. These parents did not have much background knowledge about the educational system in U.S. society or that as parents, they have rights.
Either they immigrated late to the U.S. or did not have an opportunity to attend U.S. schools or learn English. These responses clearly show that parents need advocacy and training about schools, their rights, and how to actively engage with their children.
The purpose of this study was to hear the voices of marginalized persons through counter storytelling. Generally, in the realm of academia, only one voice is usually heard, which is the dominant English speaker. Frequently, the dominant speaker will conduct research on
marginalized groups and make assumptions through a dominant personâ€™s viewpoint. In this study, a marginalized speaker told the story of a marginalized group, with an insiderâ€™s lens and insights.
The intent of this study was to explore the perceptions of Hmong youth and their families and the impact of predominant English on their heritage language, culture, academic achievement, family relationships, and identity. In addition, the goal was to raise awareness of the issues and experiences of the Hmong community in U.S. society. Results from the study show that English continues to dominate the lives of Hmong individuals and other language minorities. English has created and continues to create barriers for Hmong youth, parents, and families. Dominant English is a gatekeeper to academic achievement which leads to quality of life and income. Not only is it a gatekeeper, English diminishes heritage language and cultural practices and traditions, disengages family relationships, and fractures an individualâ€™s identity.
The negative impacts of English are rapidly obliterating the Hmong culture. Sao Xiong (2012) analyzed Hmong language trends across four years in a nationwide study and he found that the odds of speaking only English among second generation is three times compared to first generation Hmong individuals. To prevent this from turning into cultural genocide as has happened to many indigenous nations of our countryâ€™s history, important work needs to be done to revive and maintain the Hmong culture and language. In this study, there was one outlier data point. Most of the student participants were schooled in Colorado for their elementary and middle school years and they all lost a significant amount of heritage language and culture. However, there was a girl who grew up in Minnesota and had the opportunity to take Hmong heritage language and culture classes and her perceptions were highest in maintaining the Hmong language and culture. She was able to balance both cultures; a bicultural Hmong
American youth. This provides important insight into the work that can be done to move forward in the right direction in maintaining the Hmong language and culture.
In order to do this work we can start in the schools by using Critical Race Theory to keep an eye on the powers of race and be intentional in creating equitable access, we need to use Yossoâ€™s (2005) cultural wealth model to foster the wealth of knowledge and experiences an individual brings and use them as assets, and mostly importantly, Ruizâ€™s (1984) concept of using language as a resource to support students in achieving academic success.
For educators, the results of this study demonstrate the depth of marginalization the Hmong community is facing. This marginalization is threatening the viability of the Hmong community. As shown in the outlier data point, dual language programs can be an effective method in language and cultural maintenance. Howard et al., (2018) are experts in the field of dual language programming and have presented that 40 years of dual language education has worked well for languages like Spanish, English and French. But for programs of threatened languages such as the indigenous languages or Hmong language, special considerations need to be taken. According to these authors, guiding principles for heritage language instruction should align with the Indigenous nationsâ€™ or communitiesâ€™ own language goals, and how the Indigenous language could be used in an academic school context with meaningful connections to the larger community. â€œA primary goal for many Indigenous language communities is to maintain or revitalize the heritage languages by creating a new generation of language speakers who will sustain and perpetuate the collective cultural identity and life ways of the communities (p.6). â€ It is hoped that if the heritage language and culture is maintained, other issues of academic attainment, family relationships, and identity will begin to be resolved.
Based on the findings of this study and theoretical framework that guided its development, below are some specific suggestions and recommendations for practice and implementation.
Policy. As mentioned in the first chapters of this study, policy is the backbone to the education system in U.S. society. This is the driving force that sets up the structural foundation of American schooling. In order to make learning more meaningful in a diverse country, there needs to be a paradigm shift. We need to restructure our entire school system from where English is the dominant power and replace it with a â€œLanguage is a Resourceâ€ lens where students can use their cultural wealth in the classroom and feel connected and valued for who they are and what they bring to the classroom. Our deficit model needs to end. We need a new way of thinking where a personâ€™s language or languages is a cultural wealth and a national treasure that contributes to as an asset to our nation. What follows are specific suggestions for improvement.
Programming. The programs in our schools need to reflect the children attending them. The children need to see teachers, administrators and support staff who look like them and talk like them. Parents need to see teachers who speak their heritage language so that they can communicate freely without barriers so that can play their roles and take an active role in partnership with the schools to increase academic attainment for the children. Programming needs to include teacher that are highly trained, not only in their content, but they are trained in cultural competency, where they can learn how to use a childâ€™s cultural wealth to springboard learning in the classroom. Children do not lack skills, they have assets to share and add richness to the classroom. This starts with the first moments a child enters school. When a child enters
school, they need to be celebrated for who they are, the language they speak and the culture and
traditions they bring to the classroom. Curriculum to needs to be developed in the heritage language with content related to all studentsâ€™ culture and traditions. Hmong teacher recruitment needs to be an urgent matter among schools, districts, universities, states, and nationally. There needs to be government funding, incentives, and grants allocated to the recruitment and training of Hmong individuals to increase the pool of Hmong teachers. The population of Hmong students should be proportional to the number of Hmong teachers in schools. Heritage language teacher recruitment and reform is necessary and urgent.
Teacher Training. The findings of this study suggest that studentsâ€™ cultural backgrounds were not valued by their teachers. All teachers should be highly trained in both content and cultural competency. Sensitivity to cultural practices and learning to respect all cultures as having value and worth are important skills that teachers will need in a growing country of diverse people. Teachers who teach heritage culture or language classes should have native like fluency. When children are greeted with a teacher who has native fluency in the childâ€™s heritage language, they see their culture as important and valued, which can foster a positive experience and if the children can speak their mother tongue, they will not feel lost or isolated. A childâ€™s first experience sets the tone for their entire educational career, as this study clearly demonstrates. Their first experiences set up the path for either failure or success. To set the stage for a positive experience, fluent heritage language teachers (or support personnel?) should welcome a student into the school where they can understand the directions for a first day experience. As the participants in this study reported, many Hmong students felt invisible in the school, some were thought to be dumb, when they didnâ€™t know English. These experiences harm a childâ€™s self-value and these effects are long lasting. We need to create positive experiences that will foster a healthy self-image and identity. Highly trained and native fluent heritage language
teachers can also connect learning between home and school. Since heritage teachers understand the culture, they can bring in the cultural wealth of the child, family, and heritage community to add richness to the classroom. For example, they can bring in the elders and interact with the children to teach them about their culture and traditions. They can come and tell stories of their experience of the war, they can teach them about their birth or wedding traditions, traditional music, songs, embroidery or crafts. Or even how to greet other Hmong individuals, since this is an important aspect of Hmong culture. Not only do Hmong children need to learn about their roots and their history, Hmong youth need opportunities to practice and enhance their vocabulary.
Language Development. In this study, we saw how English impacted a childâ€™s heritage language; the hegemony of English diminished a childâ€™s heritage language. Not only did it contribute to the loss of a mother tongue, English pulled a child from their learning. For example, when these Hmong speaking children started in kindergarten, they started at zero for learning English. When they were in first or second grade, they were beginning to pick up their academic language, but they were already a few years behind their English-speaking peers which put them at disadvantage. They were forever playing catch up and this concept was shown in the student participants in this study and how they struggled with college coursework. Some of the participants were not strong in Hmong or English. This was apparent when the children rated themselves, both English and Hmong scores were low. The Hmong youth did not have opportunities to develop their academic language. Fluent heritage language teachers can also open this pathway for native speakers. Schools need to provide strong models if they want their students to succeed with high academic language.
Engage Parents. The Hmong are lumped into the group of â€œAsiansâ€ but the myth of the â€˜model minorityâ€™ does not fit with us. Life in Laos was completely different from the that in the U.S.. When the differences are so great, there are conflicts. In the interviews with the parents, some of them did not understand the school system in U.S. society, and they did not know how to help their children. Schools and educators need to create opportunities to involve, engage and train parents. In middle class American society, children are exposed to books while they are in the womb. Some Hmong children may see a first book in kindergarten and an English-speaking child may already be reading books in kindergarten. This may be why the Hmong students struggled so immensely in college. They were not prepared for the rigor.
Schools should have stronger relationship with parents and help them to understand what the educational system in U.S. society encompass and the requirement on their part to actively engage with their children on a daily basis to prepare them for the future paths and academic rigor that is required. The school needs to have training classes for parents. For example, how do you read with your child in the home? How do you build vocabulary and teach comprehension strategies? What should homework time look like? What kind of books should be in the home? What type of books are appropriate for the child? What does teaching math look like? Parent trainings should be explicit and taught by veteran teachers, modeling the appropriate strategies. There should be lots of opportunities to practice and ask questions. Parent trainings should include an emphasis on how important it is to continue to use and develop their home language. It is critical that schools send the message to parents just how valuable it is to be bilingual. In addition, it is important that the parent trainings are ongoing. Parent trainings should occur in the early years of a childâ€™s educational career; in preschool, kindergarten and first grade. The early years are most impactful in setting good habits for lifelong learning. In addition, this is a way to
build rigor over the years. When parents can understand the educational system in the society and learn how to navigate it, they can help their children to become more successful and achieve academic attainment.
Identity. It was appalling and sad for me to see how the Hmong students identified themselves as Asians who speak English. In less than four decades since the first Hmong arrived as refugees in the U.S., the Hmong language and heritage are already disappearing. The Hmong youth have become invisible. In order to have a strong sense of self and their culture, Hmong youth need to see themselves in the schools and community. They need to participate with other Hmong youth and adults and elders. They need to know where they come from and their history. They need to be able to read and write in their native language and communicate with their parents and elders. If all the pieces above which include a country that values diversity and supports heritage language in schools and placing heritage teachers in school with a curriculum on heritage studies, this is how the Hmong youth and other language minority groups can begin to connect or reconnect with their language, their family and their heritage community.
What can be done now? Changing an entire school system or structure may take some energy and some time, however, there are many things that can be done now to foster language and culture maintenance, but most of all, a strong sense of identity. Here are some ideas:
â€¢ Hmong culture or language classes or clubs after school
â€¢ Teachers showing interest in the Hmong culture and be willing to learn about the Hmong culture or the Hmong history.
â€¢ Incorporate the Hmong in lessons when teaching history, like the Vietnam War
â€¢ Have culture days at school, learn about the Hmong people
â€¢ Interview Hmong individuals or bring them into the schools and classroom to present on different topics
â€¢ Visit a Hmong family
â€¢ Attend a Hmong event or activity
â€¢ Read books about the Hmong people or culture
â€¢ Encourage Hmong students to speak Hmong
â€¢ Learn some Hmong words
The suggestions above for improving schools may be too late for the previous generation of Hmong students, but there is a lot that can be done to address those wrongs. We can avoid these issues with other refugee groups who are arriving now or in the future by specifically making sure that we use a childâ€™s heritage language as a resource in their educational setting. And we need to remember that language is a tool of power that has oppressed many cultures. We need to make sure that policies and programming value heritage language development, that teachers who work with immigrant children are highly trained in the heritage language and culture, as well as cultural competence. In addition, schools need to understand that parent engagement is a significant component of a childâ€™s school experience because when parents understand how to effectively help their children, their children can succeed. Most importantly, schools play a huge part in developing the identities of children in the language of instruction. When schools partner with families and value heritage language and culture as resources, these components can foster academic success and healthy individuals.
When looking at Hmong schools across the nation, the schoolsâ€™ academic achievement in general were quite low. Future research should be conducted in looking for efficient and high performing dual language model schools for language minority groups in order to revive threatened languages.
Also, research should be conducted about how to bring more Hmong teachers into schools, and the teaching field overall. Even in Hmong schools currently, there are many teachers who are non-Hmong. The more Hmong teachers are able to be in the classroom, the more benefits it will bring the students. Research could be organized to answer questions such as â€œHow are schools engaging and training Hmong parents and what models are working efficiently?â€
Furthermore, Hmong student perceptions should continue to be studied, especially Hmong students who receive dual language or bilingual Hmong programming to see how they connect with their community. In this study, one student had the opportunity to receive Hmong language and culture classes and due to her exposure, she had a healthier and more balanced identity with both Hmong and American cultures. On a larger scale, how do children who receive Hmong language and culture classes compare with children who do not? How many Hmong youth are proficient in speaking Hmong now in the U.S.?
It would be important to investigate what models of Hmong language and culture classes are used in the world today, including countries with high populations of Hmong people. How are those countries teaching high academic vocabulary and what do those models look like? How are the Hmong passing down cultural traditions to the Hmong youth so that traditions do not become extinct?
Finally, an investigation into Hmong books and the exposure of Hmong children to Hmong literature should be conducted. Where is the literature, written by Hmong individuals with an insiderâ€™s values and insights and how can we get them in the hands of Hmong children and families? What non-fiction Hmong books that teach Hmong language, traditions, culture, and history have already been published? Is there curriculum to strengthen Hmong identity or
cultural loss? In addition, what is the Hmong curriculum available to teachers, along with online resources; researched, collected, compiled and shared. Also, what Hmong curriculum is available online to maintain language or culture? Are there any online classes to learn Hmong? Literature is a means for knowledge and social change.
The Hmong academic research community should come together and work collaboratively to address these questions and create a unified approach to improving the outcomes of Hmong students around the country. Resources should be centralized so all can access the latest knowledge, skills, strategies, research, and materials in order to improve access and opportunities for the Hmong community and it is also a pathway to aid the maintenance of the language and culture of the Hmong people.
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