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Saving Hmong Australian language

Hmong New Year 2009 (Courtesy of Professor Alexandra Aikhenvald -Michael Rudov) Source: Courtesy of Professor Alexandra Aikhenvald

Professor Alexandra Aikhenvald and her team from Sydney University has recieved a grant close to AUD500,000 to do a project at James Cook University to help Hmong Australian language survive. Professor Aikhenvald, Nathan White, Dr Gary Lee Yia and Vang Yee Chang President of Hmong Australian Association Cairns branch share their insights.

Professor Alexandra Aikhenvald says that since she came to Cairns it is her dream that she would like someone to document Hmong language and Cairns is happened to be the hotspot for Hmong language and Hmong culture.

Professor Alexandra Aikhenvald  who is the director of the Language and Culture Research Centre from James Cook University says "We are constraint for how much we can appy for and have to abide by the Australian Research Council Rules. But we’ve got surprisingly everything we applied for and the main point of course is Nathan's salary and his work on documenting the among language of North QLD as it is spoken and publishing books publishing pedagogical materials publishing materials for the community is also scholarly studies about what's happening in their language.”

So this project "Helping the Aussie Hmong language survive" as James Cook Univesity put will kick start from 2021 and it will take 4 years to complete. there are many things to carry out. Firstly it will be publishing Nathan White's PhD thesis on Hmong gramma. Next, it will there will be onging fora or forums with Hmong community, Hmong-Mien scholars, divers community languages centre, along with the insights from languist who has done research or studied about Hmong, teaching Hmong on how to document Hmong language of north Queensland, to publish books, materials for the Hmong community and also carry out scholar studies about what is happening to Hmong language."

So there are many different things such as Hmong grammar book, Hmong spelling check or word prediction, Hmong medical corpus, Hmong story, Hmong history and how Hmong use their language as part of this project.

Nathan White who has just finished his PhD study about Hmong grammar says that he want to know if younger Hmong under 45 years old still speak Hmong with their children at home, how do they keep their language alive, do they remember and use Hmong words or subsitute with English mix with Hmong, do they mix between white Hmong and green Hmong, so he want to figure out what is happening to Hmong language and identify some of the motivation behind it and what Hmong actually do to keep its language survive in whatever forms that is pass from generation to generation and support that."

Professor Alexandran Aikhenvald says lanugages changes and it is part of what it is. But what is important she says, is to maintain the language that is spoken so that Hmong don't lose their identity and basically they are happy, otherwise they will have a lot of dilution and Hmong community could slightly lost.

Dr Lee Yia says that there used to be Hmong ethnic schools in the 1970s and 1980s but there is no more today due to there is no new Hmong settlers. Hmong get used to the Australian ways, the learn English and move on. There are still other factors like some of the parents don't encourage their kids to learn Hmong or just let school teach Hmong to their kids but they don't check or teach Hmong to their kids at home.

"Some parents say don't teach too many languages to our kids, it confused them and make them very anxious because they have enough worry from study at Australian schools to deal with. We live in Australia and we will speak English and we are Australian, studying English is enough."

Dr Lee Yia says that it is not just happening in Australia it is a global trend and it is worse back in homeland like Laos and Thailand. Hmong young people carry Lao and Thai name, even those in Thailand use Thai surname, or when Hmong youth joint events and they speak Hmong, they are not using the word mother - niam- in Hmong anymore but using -Mae and Phore-that are Thai and Lao word for mother and father.

Dr Gary Lee Yia says that according to his research and studies when people migrat to a country like Australia where English is spoken and has different culture and values from the new settlers, it is a very big problem for them. Hmong for instance, the first generation migrated to Australia are still speaking Hmong and keep their culture going, but it is not the case for those children who grow up in Australia or were born in Australia. It is because they have to adapt to the dominant culture that is adjusting to the new culture like speaking English or adhere to Australia values where Hmong language and culture are just occasionally spoken or practiced so they are slowly faded away.

What's more, says Dr Gary Lee Yia, Hmong family speak English at home so they slowly get used to speaking English and don't speak Hmong anymore. Some of Hmong parent are iliterate in their own language as well therefore it is very hard to maintain Hmong language.

Professor Alexandra Aikhenvald says that "parents and relative can teach their language to their kids at home, they don't have to just leave it to school and believe it is a better to teach a language. Group play event, she says, is working quite well with Greek community, where organiser make sure that kids speak their language."

Dr Gary Lis Yia says that "he prefers taking his children to visit their homeland. I will take them to Thailand and Laos and take them to remote Hmong villages where young Hmong people cannot speak English with them and will automatically force them to speak Hmong with them. I have noticed that after we went for a couple of time, my children can speak Hmong better and do not shy to speak Hmong and they also know who are their relatives."

Nathan White also says that "in the areas where Hmong has a privilege status like in the areas well everybody there is Hmong, and everybody passively we know is Hmong. We need to use Hmong in the settings where it's already appropriate so in in the meetings in family gatherings in social events keep it in Hmong. Because I've noticed in the past couple of years in the Hmong community here, there's been a tendency to switch into English but if your generation is concerned about the long term life of the Hmong  community the long term survival of the Hmong community in Australia speaking to them in English doesn't help them.”

Professor Alexandra Aikhenvald also says that Hmong could set up Hmong academy where it study and documenting what is happening to Hmong language and Hmong culture in order to prevent misunderstanding from mainstrean Australians or Americans for instance Anne Fadiman put into perspective on her book "When the spirit catches you and you fall down" where two culture collide and the child suffered."

Nathan White wants as many as Hmong community members to participate with this project.

I just want to emphasize we need as many of the Hmong community to participate as a willing and that that would be the biggest benefit both for us and our research but as well for the Hmong community because everything we're doing here  will benefit them on the Hmong community somehow if it's academic research that means the Hmong community is better represented. Though rest of the academic world would more familiar with the Hmong their interests, their needs and also their hopes for the future and so on but also with the Hmong community the more people get involved the more we can produce the more tools we can produce for the community more information we can get out to the community I mean for every aspect of this project it will work well the more members of the Hmong community who become involved the better the project will be greater the outcomes more we can get done the more the Hmong  community will have actual tangible real visibly recognisable benefits we want to be able to do and just you know the closer we can get to being able to establish perhaps a school in the portal project somehow you know the more people get involved the more these things are possible, say Nathan White.

Vang Yee Change the President of Hmong Australian Association Cairns branch says that the president of Hmong Australian Assocation, Dr Gary Lis Yia and Dr Pao Saykao should help checking this project in order to present it appropriately that it will represent Hmong well and avoid any misunderstanding.


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