Desire for an own language: The voice of Hmong community

In the morning of December 12th, 2014, iSEE and Lao Cai Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism jointly held the workshop “Hmong Script in Vietnam: The situation of using, dissemination and its role in ethnic cultural identity conservation and development” in the city of Lao Cai. The workshop welcomed a large amount of participants who are researchers, staffs from central and local management agencies working in the field of ethnic minorities and people interested in Hmong script.

Several advantages of International Hmong Script

At the workshop, many multi-dimensional comments were raised on whether international or Vietnamese Hmong Script should be used to teach and disseminate officially in Vietnam. Most of the delegates and researchers voted for international Hmong Script for its several undoubted advantages such as its easiness in writing, learning, disseminating and its cost-saving ability. On the opposition to the thought that international Hmong script is “Protestant language” or “exotic language”, according to many delegates, we must separate languages from politics; no language is a bad language itself but the way we use it. It is the fact that official Vietnamese language today was also brought to us by the foreign Christian priests.

According to Mr. Lau Van Chinh, Deputy of Social Security Bureau PA88 – Thai Nguyen Public Security, it is always worried that Latin Hmong language is detrimental to the politics; however, the Hmong people appears before the religion and the script is nothing but simply the letters and signals.

Mr. Thao A So, Member of the Son La Provincial Commissioner, Secretary of Yen Chau District Commissioner also added: “Vietnamese Hmong language also cannot develop well in Son La. Since it does not have a united phonetics and phonology system, almost no one want to learn it and just nearly 100 persons can use it until now. In contrast, Latin Hmong is well-known by about 80 percent of people in 12 districts of Son La. In brief, people recognize the Latin Hmong language and learn it whether we recognize it or not.

For a closer look, the Hmong language today has 5 dialects: White Hmong, Hmong Njua, Hmong Do, Black Hmong and Blue Hmong. However, these dialects are not too different and White Hmong (as International Hmong language) is the most popular one in Vietnam and many other countries since most of the Hmong people are White Hmong. In comparison to others, White Hmong language is softer and easier to use, so it can be spoken more easily and smoothly.

Why has Vietnamese Hmong language gradually vanished?

The main reason for not using and developing Vietnamese Hmong is some of its disadvantages causing difficulties for the users. This language system has too many different letters to denote different variants of the same phoneme; some letters are for phonemes that only exist in loanwords or in some regions and not ever known by the major of Hmong people. Another confusing disadvantage for the Hmong people is the big different between Vietnamese Hmong language and the national official language manifesting in the use of letters to denote tones, which causes confusion in distinguishing between letters denoting phoneme and letters denoting tones.

While almost all the delegates voted for international Hmong script, some of them still insist on choosing Vietnamese Hmong for popularizing. One of them is the novelist Ma A Lenh, who really loves the “Uncle Ho Hmong language” which was taught to the people since 1950s by the government and has been used by the author to portray the sincere soul and heart of his beloved Hmong people. He shared: “I still persist in my opinion that Vietnamese Hmong language is a collection of international Hmong dialects and international Hmong script built and introduced into Vietnam for Vietnamese Hmong people. Therefore, Vietnamese Hmong language is the most progressive language. It falls into oblivion just because we do not have enough favorable conditions, governmental interest and investment for teaching and developing it.”

Hmong people’s choice

From September 2013 to June 2014, iSEE and Lao Cai Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism jointly conducted a research on “The situation of using and teaching Hmong script and the demand of learning Hmong script of Giang Tra hamlet people”. Especially, this research is conducted by the local Hmong representatives themselves as local researchers with the support of researchers from iSEE and Lao Cai Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

The result of the research was also announced in the workshop by iSEE researchers and local Hmong paticipants. The delegates at the workshop were surprisingly impressed by the strong voice of Hmong people in the share of Ms. Hang Thi Sa: “The elders told us that they had learnt Vietnamese Hmong language but they could not remember it any more. People aged about 35 to 45 also do not know anything about that language. In contrast, the international one is so easy to understand and wide-spread on the internet and media means. So why do the Chinese, the Americans, the French can use their language, but not us, the Hmong, to our own language?

The book recorded the Hmong folk songs
Hmong people is facing the sad fact that they cannot read the books they have since they do not have the chance to access their own language

The spoken and written language is one of the fundamental elements that contribute to the formation of a people. Not just simply the means of communication, spoken and written language is one of the most important cultural identities to reflex and store the cultural progress of a society. The expectation of the Hmong people to learning their own language to record all the prayers for the dead and the ancestors, folk songs and melodies is urgent in their hearts.

To make a conclusion for the workshop, Prof. Tran Hii Son, Chairman of Lao Cai Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced that Lao Cai Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism would corporate with the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment iSEE for further researches to introduce international Hmong into educational pilot projects in Sa Pa next year

Following the series of activities toward ethnic minorities, in the last December 13th and 14th, the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment iSEE organized a field trip for the journalists and reporters to discover the social and cultural identity and the role of spoken and written language in Hmong cultural identity conservation and development at Giang Tra hamlet, Ta Phin commune, Sa Pa. From the trip, the journalists and reporters gained much practical information on the relationship among Hmong language, Protestantism and the government and the real difficulties in accessing and learning international Hmong language of the local people.

The journalist delegation in a field trip to study Hmong language in Vietnam organized by iSEE – Photo by Vuong Anh.

Đoàn Thanh Ngân