Finding My Voice After Losing My Native Language

photo by Sarah Whiting

“Ching, chang, chong!” 

This is what I heard ringing in my ears as a child while shopping one day with my family. I looked up to see a group of young white boys erupting in laughter. They were mocking my parents, who were speaking our native language: Hmong. I was frozen. I couldn’t find it in me to respond.

In middle school, my classmates found out I could speak another language and asked me to teach them something in Hmong. I couldn’t. Again, I felt frozen. A classmate asked in surprise if I was ashamed. I couldn’t identify my feelings at the time, but in reflection, I was more than ashamed; I was terrified. I could never be sure if sharing the words that are sacred to my people would be met with genuine interest or used to taunt me for entertainment. 

I don’t know the exact moment English became my dominant language, but I do know the exact moment I made perfecting English my top priority. In kindergarten, my class was called out to recess by our hair color. On one occasion, “blond” was called. Blond? I had no idea what color that was. I could feel the desperation in my body as I searched for clues. In my five-year-old brain, I rationalized that the teacher must have meant “black.” I quickly jumped up, but before I could take a step, I heard my name yelled. My teacher proclaimed to the entire class that since I was not following instructions, I would be the last person released to recess. I couldn’t utter a word to explain how I had misunderstood, and sat down holding back tears. I knew that day that I absolutely had to learn English because not knowing English felt unsafe.

As my English got better, my Hmong began to disappear. Gradually, I began to stumble over words at home and with elders. Eventually, my responses in my mother tongue came slower, until suddenly, I felt frozen. Words that had once flowed effortlessly as a child became foreign and choppy.

As an adult and licensed psychologist, I now reflect on these experiences as trauma responses. I have learned how the body turns on the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems in response to stress or threat and prepare ourselves to fight, flee, or freeze. Chronic states of stress can lead to dysregulation of the nervous system.

I now understand how my “freeze” responses work to keep me safe by not standing out and putting myself in a vulnerable position; however, this safety comes at the cost of not speaking up for myself and voicing my truth.

 n 2021, Hmong American gymnast Sunisa Lee won an Olympic gold medal and represented the Hmong community on the world stage. During a press conference, a Hmong reporter asked Lee to share a message with the Hmong community, and she hesitantly spoke a few words in Hmong: “Hi, my name is Sunisa Lee.” Critics flooded the comment section expressing disappointment in her apparent lack of ability, and even went as far as questioning her Hmong identity. I immediately saw myself in Lee. I knew those few seconds of pause and hesitation before speaking my native language. I knew the shame. I decided to write about it on my Facebook page, Hmong Mental Health & Wellness, to encourage the younger Hmong generation and to remind the younger version of myself:

 “Dear Hmong kids who aren’t fluent in Hmong, It is not shameful or a personal failure. It is an example of loss associated with historical trauma.”

 The post was shared over 1,000 times. 

I didn’t always understand the loss of my first language as a symptom of trauma. Instead, I believed the problem was me. As a child of Hmong refugees and the first person in my family to be born in the U.S., I felt the responsibility to bring hope, and a new start, after my community endured horrors. As I struggled to navigate life growing up in America, I felt I had failed my community. It wasn’t until I learned about Hmong history and my parents’ stories of heartbreak and survival that I began to piece together how the problem was much larger than me. Of course speaking up and sharing my truth felt dangerous; my people had long experienced oppression and genocide for doing just that. 

The Hmong, an ethnic minority group residing in the mountains of Laos, were recruited by the United States’ CIA during the Vietnam War to help aid in U.S. efforts. This became known as the Secret War, and nearly half of the Hmong population was murdered in masses for being allied with the U.S. The Secret War has largely remained a secret for most of my life. A majority of Americans had never heard of the Hmong until Lee represented America at the Olympics. The Hmong story was paraded as an extension of the American story for the first time, and a people whose history was intentionally kept a secret for decades was now representing arguably the most powerful country in the world. This moment broke the silence of the Hmong experience, and for the first time, the Hmong had a voice on a global scale. Lee’s win, while momentous, is understandably a huge weight to carry. 

When we understand that losing the Hmong language is not a personal failure but a natural consequence of historical trauma and survival instincts, we can better understand the struggles that our younger generations face. 

Honoring our community while also gaining the skills to succeed in today’s society is no easy task, and no one should be expected to maintain the competing responsibilities perfectly.

 Instead of shaming our younger generations, we can:

  • Grieve the losses in our community. Many families lost elders in the war. Elders often teach and preserve culture and language, but what happens when we have so few? Our sadness is tied to our losses, and our young ones are not responsible for it. We have to feel the pain to heal the pain.
  • Encourage our children by reading and speaking to them in Hmong. Praising and modeling Hmong instead of laughing or criticizing can help to build confidence. Playing games and making the process fun is effective.
  • Teach our kids Hmong history and share our family legacies. When kids begin to understand the significance of the Hmong story and how they are part of it, they can feel empowered to preserve the Hmong language and culture.
  • Fund our Hmong language teachers and build a culture where the younger generations are allowed to learn, make mistakes, and develop their skills.
  • Honor our grief while accepting that it is important that our children feel confident expressing themselves in any language. While we have had many losses in our history, we have incredible resilience to adapt no matter where we are in the world. 

My father was just a child when he had to make the difficult decision to leave his dying mother in the jungle of Laos because she was too sick and weak to continue to run from communist forces. Learning my grandmother’s last words for the first time brought me grief and wisdom. What used to feel like a burden to represent the Hmong wherever I go now feels like an incredible privilege — I bridge the hopes of the generations before me with the spirit of future generations. While I have lost much of my ability to speak Hmong fluently, I no longer let fear hold me back from expressing myself and sharing my truth. I am grounded in my grandmother’s last words to “love each other deeply.” From this place of love and compassion, I am no longer frozen. I am free to connect with the voice within me and amplify the voices of my people.

 “Sib sib hlub ov mog.”