In most families, parents and their children speak the same primary language at home.
That’s not so for Braden Swanson, 11, whose family and extended family speak mostly Hmong. It’s a language Braden started hearing at birth, but after a lifetime living in an English-speaking world, can no longer understand.
“It feels pretty bad,” Braden said on Thursday of his inability to understand relatives when they speak in Hmong. He sat in a chair near a window at the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association. “That’s the language I was supposed to be born with. But then I lost it.”
Beside him, Braden’s newfound friends Michael Paintner and Ivan Wiltrout, both 11, listened as he spoke. The trio were waiting for their summer class to begin, where they and roughly 13 other students would learn Hmong greeting phrases and about life during the Vietnam War.
The class is part of a new Eau Claire school district summer school program that aims to educate students about the Hmong language and culture. Most students in the class come from Hmong-speaking families, but a handful had no exposure to the language before starting the class this week. Educators are hoping the class helps Hmong students connect with their roots and guides non-Hmong students into a better understanding of the Chippewa Valley’s largest ethnic and minority group.
Khoua Vang, a second-grade teacher at Flynn Elementary School, said she took special care to incorporate Hmong history into her course. That includes the CIA’s “Secret War” against communist forces in the 1960s and ‘70s in Laos, the catalyst for many Hmong refugees relocating to camps in places like Thailand and then the U.S.
“The most important thing I want (non-Hmong students) to take away from this course is not really to read and write,” Vang said, “but to really understand the history of the Hmong so they can be culturally aware.”
Students will also learn about traditional family relationships, art and music, etiquette when hosting guests, weddings and funerals. When it comes to speaking, by the end of the course the students will know how to count, greet one another, introduce themselves and ask someone how they’re doing.
The school district’s summer program follows its recent efforts to better spotlight Hmong language and culture. A language club for Hmong speakers that started this year at Locust Lane Elementary School taught students how to read and write, and a Hmong history and culture class will debut at the high school level in the fall.
Vincent Xiong, executive director of the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, said he hopes the summer school program will continue and expand. He expects the program will target more age groups, as the current program caters to mostly middle school students.
The students are doing well, he noticed, even those with no prior Hmong language experience.
“I was pretty surprised,” he said with a laugh, “this young blond girl came up to me, and she could speak three (Hmong) phrases.
“I see it as more of a relationship building,” he said of the course. “Then they can value the culture a bit more.”
Michael and Ivan are both new to the Hmong language. As they waited for Thursday’s session to begin, they contemplated their reasons for joining the program. Michael wanted to be able to communicate with one of his teachers in Hmong.
Ivan said he found the class a good learning experience.
“We get to learn about a language and a group of people who don’t know their origins but make the best of it,” Ivan said.
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