The Hmong people are nomadic tribal communities from the jungles and hilltops of various southeast asian countries primarily originating from Laos, Vietnam, and China. In the shadows of the Vietnam War was a “Secret War” by the CIA. The CIA recruited the Hmong people as allies for their knowledge of the jungles and forests of Laos as an attempt to help prevent the spread of communism. Due to the end of the Vietnam War, the Hmong people travelled on foot to Thailand to escape persecution and genocide due to the involvement with the CIA.
The first wave of 3,500 Hmong refugees began arriving to the U.S. In late 1975, according to Minneapolis Federal Reserve. By the mid 1983, the U.S. had admitted 54,000 Laotian hill tribe individuals, many of them Hmong people, as refugees (Grover & Todd, 2008). Since 1975, more than 200,000 Hmong people have fled from Laos to Thailand as refugees and the summer of 2004 marked the last immigration wave of 15,000 Hmong refugees, 90% of which resettled in the U.S. (Yau, 2005).
The system for writing the Hmong language was developed in the 1950s through missionaries and through self-teaching in Laos (Grover & Todd, 2008). As late as the 1970s, Hmong people in some remote areas had never seen use of the reading or writing of the Hmong language and most adults couldn’t read upon their arrival to the United States (Grover & Todd, 2008).
An Endangered Language
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the causes of the language endangerment and disappearance are when its speakers disappear or shift to speaking another language, most often by a larger language used by a more powerful group. The definition of an endangered language is when its speakers don’t use it or stop passing it on to the next generation. The UNESCO experts and Ethnologue reports data of the following combination to consider the endangerment of a language:
- Intergenerational language transmission
- Absolute number of speakers
- Proportion of speakers within the total population
- Shifts in domains of language use
- Response to new domains and media
- Availability of materials for language education and literacy
- Governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies including official status and use
- Community members’ attitudes toward their own language
- Amount of quality of documentation
National Science Foundation states, “As ‘globalization’ increases, so does the loss of human languages. People find it easier to conduct business and communicate with those outside their own culture if they speak more widely used language… Children are not being educated in languages spoken by a limited number of people. As fewer people use local languages, they gradually die out.'”
Why is Preserving a Language So Important?
The UNESCO states that the extinction of a language results in irrevocable loss of cultural knowledge including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that only the survival of the language is dependent upon its speakers. The UNESCO describes the definition of extinction of a language is when the language is “no longer the first tongue that infects learn in their homes, and the last person who did learn the language in that way has passed on within the last five decades.”
There is a dilemma among the Hmong population regarding the endangerment of the Hmong language. The absence of a country to keepsake the aspects of the Hmong culture and traditions and immersion of surrounding society negatively impacts the preservation of the Hmong language.
What Can We Do?
Extinct languages can be revived through strong motivation within the ethic community when there are elders still living who learn the language as infants, according to UNESCO. In addition, the most important thing is to create alternative ways in learning and favorable conditions for speakers to learn and teach it to their children. According to NSF, documentation is key to preserving endangered languages as many languages are only spoken and no written texts exist.
- Ethnologue. (2016). Endangered languages. Ethnologue. Retrieved from https://www.ethnologue.com/endangered-languages
- Grover, M: Todd, R.M. (2008). Accounting for regional migration patterns and homeownership disparities in the Hmong-American refugee community. 1980-2000. Volume 2008-1. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Affairs Report. Retrieved from https://www.minneapolisfed.org/~/media/files/pubs/cdpapers/homeownership_disparities.pdf
- United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (2016). Frequent asked questions on endangered languages. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Retrieved from https://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/faq-on-endangered-languages/