Language lessons

Hmong teens make it happen: Minneapolis school offers Hmong language class

MaiKa Lee and Soua Chang were part of a group of Patrick Henry High School students who lobbied for Henry’s new class, Hmong Literacy and Languages. Photo by Debra Fisher Goldstein

MaiKa Lee and Soua Chang were part of a group of Patrick Henry High School students who lobbied for Henry’s new class, Hmong Literacy and Languages. Photo by Debra Fisher Goldstein

Neng Vang doesn’t know how to explain the words “scholarship” or “essay” to her non-English-speaking mother. The Patrick Henry High School senior said it’s hard to find the words to tell her mom why she is late coming home on the days she stays after school to get help with college and scholarship applications.

Vang’s mother, who was born in Laos, “understands basic stuff,” Vang said, but trying to explain certain American cultural concepts to her in the Hmong language doesn’t always work.

Despite being raised in homes where the spoken language is Hmong, Hmong teens say they don’t have the Hmong language skills they need to communicate well with their parents.

Petition for class
That’s one of the reasons a group of Patrick Henry High School students lobbied the Minneapolis School Board to allow a Hmong literacy course to be offered at their school. That class-Hmong Literacy and Languages-began in January. The curriculum included basic reading and writing skills as well as Hmong history and culture. About 100 students signed up for the class, which was taught in three sections every morning at the school. Not all of the students who signed up were Hmong.

Senior Soua Chang wasn’t a member of the Asian Club, but when a petition began circulating around the school to institute a Hmong language class, she signed it and got involved. The Patrick Henry course is modeled after a class at Harding High School in St. Paul. The students met with Dang Soung who teaches the class at Harding. “He filled us in on how it started [at Harding]. He gave us the curriculum,” Chang said.

School board member Lydia Lee and Superintendent Bill Green met separately with the students. “Then we went to talk to the school board,” Chang said. MaiKa Lee, Sura Vue, Neng Vang and Chang were able to construct a logical and rational argument as to why this course was necessary and important to Minneapolis Public Schools, according to Paul Compton, Henry’s Asian Club adviser.

The presentation was nerve wracking, according to Chang. The students showed their petition, which had 400 names on it, and a story board that outlined their proposal.

They emphasized that 39 percent of Henry’s student population is Hmong and more than 50 percent of the honor-roll students are Hmong. They shared how learning the language can help ease tensions between the American Hmong students (students who have grown up in the United States) and the recent Hmong Thai immigrants.

The clincher, Chang said, was when they pointed out how Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis has a 16 percent Somali population yet the school offers an Arabic language class.

Cultural ties
Pasee Moua, the Asian Club’s public relations officer, was born in the United States. Her parents were born in Laos. “I barely speak Hmong,” she said. “I think it’s important to carry on the Hmong language.”

MaiKa Lee agreed: “We are losing our culture.” Lee was born in Thailand. Her parents were born in Laos and she says they don’t speak English. Learning their language is a “way to understand our parents more,” she said.

Of the six students interviewed for this story, three were born in the United States and three were born in refugee camps in either Thailand or Laos. Because they have been raised in homes where Hmong is the spoken language, teachers often assume the students are fluent in their parents’ native language.

“What they are really speaking is ‘Hmonglish,'” Compton said. “Some ideas or words don’t translate. Parents have no concept of what their student is doing.”

Parent-teacher conferences are trying for both parents and teachers. Parents “don’t come to the conferences because they don’t understand what the teachers are saying,” Chang said.

An identity thing
Neng Vang said she tries to translate to her mother, “but my Hmong is not as good. I’m not saying exactly what the teacher is saying. My mom asks if I’m telling her everything.” That’s a problem for both teachers and parents. “The teacher says she said all this stuff and the student only says a sentence to the parent,” Compton said.

Even the words “Asian Club” have no translation into the Hmong language. Chang said the best word they can come up with in Hmong translates as “agency.” Ia Vang, a junior, said school in general is hard to talk about with parents.

Chang said Henry needs a class like this: “It’s an identity, a pride thing. Our school is made up of 39 percent Hmong. We play a large role in our community.”

Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the TC Daily Planet in January.