Hmong dual-language programs preserve culture

Community demand often leads schools to add classes in less-common languages, such as Hmong, Arabic, Hindi and Swahili
By: | Issue: February, 2015
January 27, 2015

The term “dual language” makes most educators think of Spanish. But dual-language programs taught in less-common tongues can help families preserve their cultural identities as new generations are born in the United States.

One example is the Hmong, an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Many came to America after the Vietnam War in 1975, and the most recent influx was in 2005, after the U.S. government agreed to resettle thousands of refugees from a camp in Thailand. As of 2010, 260,000 Hmong people were living in the United States, according to the census data.

Some 44 percent of this population is under the age of 18, increasing demand on local schools to accommodate these students.

“We see our multilingual Hmong students as an asset,” says Efe Agbamu, assistant superintendent of multilingual learning at St. Paul Public Schools. The district created the nation’s first Hmong dual-language program in 2002. “We decided to follow the research that shows students who learn in a dual-language setting as performing at the same level or above their peers.”

About 7,980 of St. Paul’s 39,000 students are HmongÑ5,600 of those are ELL, and most were born in the United States. Any student can participate in the Hmong immersion program, says Agbamu. A handful of Hmong-focused charter schools cater to students in the area as well.

Community demand often leads schools to add classes in less-common languages, such as Hmong, Arabic, Hindi and Swahili, says Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “Generally, those programs don’t happen without a local community of heritage speakers that are interested in having their children maintain and develop the language,” she says.

The top foreign language taught in U.S. schools remains Spanish, by a large margin. It is followed by French, German and Latin. Mandarin is the language increasing the fastest in schools in recent years, while Hmong remains rare, Abbott says.

The nation’s second Hmong dual-language program opened in Sacramento City USD in 2011. Kindergarten students are taught in Hmong 90 percent of the time, and English 10 percent of the time. Each year, English instruction increases and Hmong instruction decreases until grade 5, when the ratio is 50-50.

Even with community support, district administrators who want to introduce new language programs face challenges ensuring student interest and finding skilled teachers, Abbot says. If schools add an introductory course to a language, they must have a plan to offer higher level courses for students who wish to continue learning. And for some of the less commonly taught languages, it can be difficult to find engaging curriculum materials that will keep students interested, Abbott says.

Administrators interested in starting a new language program can offer an after-school club for that language, to gauge interest and build support, Abbott says.