I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was while I was in high school that many Hmong refugees were first welcomed into the area to settle and reestablish their families. During one summer I was a teacher’s assistant who worked with Hmong children new to the United States. That began my lifelong love of and respect for Hmong people, language and culture. I want to share with you some of what I have learned. This will be helpful to you especially if you will be teaching Hmong-American children.
I work with many Hmong-Americans who are second generation citizens. These children frequently tell me their parents speak Hmong at home and also speak Hmonglish. They use this term to describe the pidgeonization of Hmong and English into a comprehensible language. A Hmong friend of mine once told me that the Hmong language does not have many words that will translate directly to English or vice versa. In Spanish and other languages from the same language family you can often find cognates that are common to both English and that language. This is not true of Hmong. This is another reason it is difficult for Hmong children to learn the intricacies of the English language.
About the Hmong Language
According to Ominiglot, the Hmong-Mien language is spoken by about 2.6 million people in China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, USA and French Guiana. According to the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul, Minnesota and Wisconsin are home the second and third largest number of Hmong-Americans in the United States. Only California has more Hmong people. Hmong belongs in the language group of Hmong-Mien languages that many Western linguists believe originate between the Yangtze River and the Mekong River in Southeast China. Other linguists, particularly Chinese linguists, argue that the Hmong languages are part of the Sino-Tibetan language family along with Chinese.
Hmong languages are tonal languages and can have up to 12 distinct tones to designate meanings, Mandarin Chinese for example has 4 distinct tones. There are also different Hmong dialects. Green/Blue Hmong (Moob Leeg/Hmonb Ntsuab) and White Hmong (Hmoob Dawb) are dialects. These dialects have 8 different tones that they use. They are named after the traditional colors worn by women of the different groups. Hmong people I have met in Wisconsin and Minnesota tend to speak one of these dialects. The Chinese word for Hmong is Miao. Different forms of Miao are spoken in different regions within China.
Frequent English Difficulties
The typical English errors I find with Hmong children learning English include the following:
- Dropping the final consonants on words.
- Not hearing the final consonants
- Inability to hear/pronounce some vowel sounds
- Difficulty remembering to add suffixes
- Little understanding of irregular verb forms-they must be explicitly taught.
- Understanding and using synonyms
The Hmong language rarely uses consonants at the end of words. This is partially why we see these students struggling in some of areas listed above.
Let’s look more closely at the areas mentioned above and find some solutions.
Dropping the Final Consonants on Words; Not Hearing Final Consonants; Inability to Hear/Pronounce Some Vowel Sounds
These first three errors are all in the language learning domains of listening and speaking. This area is the most neglected area in our school programs for English Language Learners. The current educational focus on achievement in the reading and writing domains leaves little time for ESL teachers to address these language issues.
- Use 1:1 reading time to correct the lack of end consonants and/or mispronounced vowel sounds. While it is necessary to not overcorrect a student in this area, I have found that if it is not pointed out directly the student will not notice the mistakes on his/her own. Regularly, yet privately, correcting these errors whenever possible will help the student “hear” the mistakes.
- If a student is regularly misunderstanding verbal directions, break down the directions as much as possible into different steps. Often our complex 2 or 3 step directions make it difficult to understand especially if a student is having a hard time “hearing” final consonant sounds.
- Play a game.
- Have the kids stand in a circle with you.
- Whisper a word to the student next to you.
- That child repeats your word and then creates a word with the last letter of that word. Each student adds on as the words move around the circle.
Example: Teacher says- start. Student One says- start and took. Student Two says: Start, took, kitchen, etc. Third student says: start, took, kitchen, napkin, etc.
This game requires hearing the endings and saying them correctly so the next student gets it correct. If a student misses, he or she sits down and is out for that round.
Difficulty Remembering to add Suffixes in Writing
Combination lessons where spelling with endings and writing sentences helps in this area. Explicitly teaching and re-teaching “s”, “ed”, and “ing” endings help. Transference from spelling lessons to actual writing lessons can be difficult unless combined into one lesson and done repeatedly. Here is one area native English speakers can usually catch onto very quickly, however ELL’s need repeated practice.
Little Understanding of Irregular Verb Forms
- Memorizing frequently used irregular verbs. Drill and kill! I know it isn’t popular but it will help. Really!
- Writing the same sentence with various verb forms.
- Oral lessons: Teacher uses the wrong irregular verb form and asks the student does it sound right? Practice until the student can hear the errors.
Understanding and Using Synonyms
- A Synonym Dictionary to add to as the year passes. This Synonym Dictionary can be personalized. The student can refer to it throughout the year when writing.
- Explicitly teaching synonyms. Most elementary curriculum includes a lesson or two about synonyms. Expand on this for the ELL’s in your classroom. The entire class will benefit from an extended unit on synonyms.
I hope this information has been helpful to you. Please let me know if you would like more information on working with Hmong students.