In February, Microsoft announced that they had added Hmong to the list of languages translated by their search engine, Bing. Last week, Microsoft announced the release of a new, free online Hmong/English translator for smart phones, chats and websites. What’s with the focus on Hmong? It’s actually part of an initiative to help preserve the language within the Hmong community in the US.
The Hmong currently living in the US are mainly refugees from the Indochina Wars, as many Hmong sided with America in both Vietnam and in the “Secret War” in Laos. In the US, they are safe from the persecution they faced in their homeland, but their culture is at risk as their children often neglect Hmong in favor of speaking only English.
As Microsoft program manager Will Lewis explained to Business Week,
“All these years, the language has been preserved, despite efforts to eradicate it. Now, the irony is that in the United States, a country where they’re free to speak it, the thing that never happened in Hmong history is happening; some children are not learning Hmong.”
So, Hmong community leaders decided to partner with Microsoft to bring the language to the place kids spend most of their time these days: the Internet. Though the online translator will also help older Hmong refugees who can’t speak English, the big hope is that it will also help keep the language relevant for the younger generation. As Fresno State University outreach counselor Phong Yang told a local news affiliate, “Without language, a culture will disappear.”
Also, the technology used to create the translator holds the promise of being able to do the same thing for the thousands of other threatened minority languages scattered across the globe. Using dictionary entries and documents in both the original language and English, the program is able to “learn” what words are likely to mean by using context clues.
Learning the language of their grandparents along with English allows kids to take pride in their heritage. Need proof? The Business Week article quotes US-born Joshua Lor. As a young boy, Lor told his mother that he didn’t want to be Hmong any more. Lor said that learning the language was key to changing that perspective:
“My grandpa told me stories about the Hmong, about how he served in the war, and how they moved from Laos to Thailand to America. The language opened my eyes to the history of Hmong culture. It’s exciting that the translator can help kids do that.”
Hmong is actually a macrolanguage with numerous closely-related dialects. Currently, the translator only works with Hmong White, though the team is working on one for Hmong Green, the other major dialect spoken by Hmong in the United States.