At Sacramento’s Susan B. Anthony Elementary,
Sao Vue’s kindergarteners sit on a brightly
colored carpet, looking up at him and repeating
alphabet sounds. “Ahhh, aaay, eeeh,” they sing.
The sounds are not in English — they are in Hmong. Sacramento
is home to the nation’s third-largest Hmong American community,
and the school has the only Hmong dual-language immersion
program on the West Coast. It’s the second such program in the
country after one in St. Paul, MN, which has the largest Hmong
In dual-language, or two-way, immersion programs, students
learn English and another language. Instructional time includes
a minimum of 50 percent in the non-English language. Administrators
strive for a class composed of both fluent English speakers
and native speakers of the other language so both populations
can benefit from one another. These programs aim to develop a
high level of proficiency in both languages in addition to academic
achievement in all subjects, and to foster an appreciation for other
cultures — or, as the case often is, for the students’ own culture.
Early dual-language programs started in the ’80s, but have
grown exponentially across the country in recent years. In California
in particular, the number of these programs nearly doubled
from 119 in 2000 to 233 in 2010, according to the California Department
of Education. About 200 of these programs in the state
are in Spanish; the rest are in Mandarin, Korean, Cantonese,
Armenian, German, Italian and Japanese. In 2011, Hmong was
added to the list.
The growth is also due in part to the widespread movement
toward American students acquiring more language skills to
adapt to an increasingly global job market. Research has also
shown concrete benefits to language immersion, according to
Julie Sugarman, senior research associate at the Center for Applied
Linguistics, a Washington, DC, nonprofit that researches
bilingual education. Studies show that in the long run, students of
language immersion programs perform as well as or better than
their counterparts who were raised learning only in English. Some
researchers believe that learning the structures and grammar of a
second language improves the understanding of the child’s native
“It is not just learning to read and write Hmong, but using this
method to accelerate the learning of English,” says Principal Lee
Yang (pronounced “Ya”), who spearheaded the Sacramento program
What’s more, research suggests that learning a second language
at an early age has a positive effect on intellectual growth
and leaves students with more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity
to language and improved listening skills.
While languages like Mandarin are witnessing a rapid rise in
global prestige with the economic ascent of China, the rewards
for students who become fluent in Hmong may be less clear.
There are only 260,000 Hmong in the US today, comprising just
1.5 percent of the Asian American population.
Yet parents who enroll their children in Hmong immersion
programs hope that the hours spent learning in two languages
will reverse some disturbing trends in their community. More
than one in three Hmong in the US do not have a high school
diploma, and 26 percent of Hmong families live below the poverty
But more is at stake than the future of the language in the United
States. Parents also hope that the programs will instill in their
children a sense of their community — one that may be small and
struggling but is also fiercely proud of its history.
“[The children] know that they are Hmong, but they don’t
even know the tradition or culture,” says Melany Lo, a parent of a
first grader in the Hmong program. It’s a concern shared by many
in the community who fear that in future generations, their culture,
language and history will be forgotten.
Preserving the Past
Since the first wave of Lao Hmong refugees arrived in 1975,
their culture and history has slowly receded, and with it, their
language, community members say. The Hmong have been a
nomadic people, fighting off centuries of genocide and war. The
Hmong originated in northern China and later migrated south,
where about 9 million Hmong (called “Miao” in Mandarin) still
reside. Over centuries, they continued to move southward, settling
in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and elsewhere.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the Hmong in Laos were recruited to
fight in the CIA’s “secret wars” against the communists during the
Vietnam conflict. When that effort was lost, many fled to neighboring
Thailand and ended up in refugee camps there. The first
wave of Hmong refugees to the United States arrived in 1975, and
the most recent was in 2005.
Although all immigrant communities face the gradual diminishing
of culture and language after arriving in the United States, the
demographics of the Hmong community poses a unique challenge
— and opportunity. The community is overwhelmingly young: 45
percent of Hmong Americans are 17 or younger, according to the
Census (24 percent of the general Asian American population are
17 and under). This means that almost half the population is, at the
moment, growing up primarily surrounded by English. But they
are also still young enough to learn the language of their heritage.
Hmong is a language that did not have its own written alphabet
until the 1950s, when it was developed by a linguist and missionaries.
Sixty years later, there still isn’t much Hmong literature, compared
to other languages and cultures.
“If the people don’t read, don’t write, then they don’t know how
to provide more literature in their language,” Yang says. “Slowly,
their language and their culture disappear. We may still be
Hmong, but we may not know anything about Hmong 100 years
Students are already passing their knowledge to another generation
— their parents’. Cece Vang’s two daughters entered Susan
B. Anthony’s Hmong program last year. Before that, neither knew
much of the language. Today, her eldest, in second grade, speaks
in complete sentences and reads books in Hmong. “My brothers
and sisters don’t know how to read [Hmong],” Vang says. “My
daughter is teaching them.”
A Growing Need and Growing Benefits
The first Hmong two-way immersion public school program in the
US opened in St. Paul’s Jackson Preparatory in 2006. The program
currently spans pre-K through fourth grade and will be adding
fifth grade this fall, according to Principal Yue Vang.
This growth mirrors the reality of the community. Hmong
Americans are not only the youngest Asian American community,
but also among the fastest-growing Asian American groups, with
the population swelling by 40 percent between 2000 and 2010,
according to the Census.
And the increase isn’t just due to immigration — Hmong households
average 5.6 persons. “I think the school districts need to understand
that there is a growing need there,” says Lee Pao Xiong,
who also co-founded two Hmong charter schools in St. Paul.
Although many dual-immersion programs include students
from various backgrounds, all the students in the Susan B. Anthony
Hmong program are of Hmong heritage. The majority is
second or third generation, born in the United States, and their
parents are mostly literate in English if not Hmong.
But, as with large numbers of US -born Latino students, most
are also designated by the state as English Learners, which means
English is not their first language or they are not fluent in English
when entering the program. This phenomenon is due in part to the
fact that families may still speak a language other than English at
home and that many monolingual grandparents care for the children
while parents work.
For language immersion students, not being fluent in English
isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. Classroom instruction in the
Sacramento Hmong program starts with 90 percent Hmong in
kindergarten, and English is slowly added each year until fourth
grade, when the students are taught 50 percent of the time in
Hmong and 50 percent in English. That means that subjects such
as math and science are also taught in the Hmong language.
In the early grades, English test scores for students in dual-language
immersion programs may be lower than their mainstream
counterparts, because they are spending much of their time learning
in another language and their competency may not show up
on tests in English. But, research suggests long-term benefits of
fluency in two languages.
By late elementary or middle school, most will have caught
up to — or surpassed — their peers in English-only classrooms in
both English and math, according to studies by Wayne Thomas
and Virginia Collier of George Mason University, and Kathryn
Lindholm-Leary and her colleagues at San Jose State University,
among others. Studies also show that literacy in one language
facilitates literacy in another. Plus, advocates say dual-language
immersion classes are just more rigorous.
“They’re a lot more challenging because the students are having
to think through two languages,” Lindholm-Leary says. “It’s a
lot of cognitive work.”
While the Hmong immersion program in Sacramento is still
new, there are already promising outcomes. A school-based assessment
for English and math from spring 2012 showed that
none of the students were far below basic level, even as some in
the regular English classes were.
Not all parents have been convinced about the benefits of
Hmong language immersion, however. Long Thao is a parent who
considered putting his young daughter in the program.
I do want her to know how to speak Hmong and keep the culture,”
says Thao, who supports the idea of the program. But because
his household speaks both English and Hmong, he believes
his daughter was behind in English before starting school, and he
ultimately chose English-only classes to strengthen her English.
Although Thao would like to enroll his daughter in Hmong
classes when she’s older, he is enjoying seeing her excel with English
now. “I don’t want her to fall behind with English,” he says.
“If she takes the Hmong class, she will be even more lost and even
more behind. I have broken English sometimes, and I don’t want
her to be like me.”
Lost in Translation
A typical day for the teachers in the program begins before 7am.
Most remain long after school has ended and are often there on
weekends. Their commitment is the product of both practical
necessity — they need to prepare curricula — and personal experience.
"Growing up, because I didn’t have this program, there was a
period in my life where I was ashamed to be Hmong,” says Makaelie
Her, who was born in Laos and spent much of her childhood in Stockton, CA. “I was one of the English learners who struggled
with English, and there wasn’t any program to support me. That’s
one of the reasons why I wanted to become a teacher, so that I
could actually reach out to other Hmong students and provide
them the support that I never got growing up.”
Her admits the program is not without its challenges. One of
those is attracting more students, including those from outside
the Hmong community — not an easy task with a largely unknown
language. “We want other ethnic groups to participate, so that we
can become a more rich program,” Yang says.
But at the Hmong International Academy, a Minneapolis
public school, about 16 percent of students are African American.
Though the school is not an immersion program, it uses the
Hmong language as a medium to accelerate achievement and second
“He always comes home telling me Hmong words and singing
Hmong songs,” says Victoria Christian, an African American
parent of a pre-K student at Hmong International Academy.
“He might not have had the same exposure at nearby schools. I
think my son is building confidence that he has the ability to learn
another language that he wouldn’t have had in our home since
we don’t speak another language.”
This sort of cross-cultural understanding will ultimately help
the students compete in the increasingly global job market, according
to Hmong International Academy Principal Andrew
Xiong. “My message to parents is that we are a global community.
That means we value multilingual and multicultural perspectives.
When they graduate and look for jobs, they can work with others.”
Back in the Sacramento classroom, Vue is teaching addition and
subtraction in Hmong. He and Principal Yang have staked a great
deal on the program. Their kids are enrolled and will be among
the first cohort of Hmong-fluent graduates. For Yang, the program
would be successful if students can write and read in English and
Hmong and become culturally competent. Yet another goal would
be for students to be prepared for college: Many of today’s Hmong
children would be the first in their families to attend college.
Vue notes the ultimate success for students may not be something
measured on a test or a diploma. “We want to make sure
we maintain the culture and the language so the kids later on will
know who they are. It does not matter how successful you are. If
they don’t know who they are, they are kind of lost.”
Momo Chang is Hyphen’s features editor. This story was produced as part of
New America Media’s 2012 education reporting fellowship for ethnic media
journalists in California, with support from the California Education Policy Fund
(CEPF) and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.