Learning the language; Hmong refugees adjust to a new life

Three years ago, Heng Khang arrived in the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand with hardly a word of English in his vocabulary. Today, he serves as spokesman for the 4,000 Hmong who live in this capital city, meeting daily with American representatives of local church and community agencies to help develop resettlement programs for his beleaguered people.

Like most of the men in his proud, tightly knit group, Heng took a number of intensive English courses shortly after he arrived in the US to help prepare him to find a job. A soft-spoken young man who still wears the patterned, V-neck shirt of his native Laos, Heng smiles shyly when the conversation turns to his two-week-old daughter, the youngest of his four children. He says he has ''big hopes'' for his family - hopes that depend on their learning English and doing well in school.

Heng practices English at home with his children, and encourages his wife to join them in their conversation exercises. Although he's concerned that so far she speaks ''only a little'' English, he is more concerned about what the future may hold for his parents in the US. He still has to communicate with his mother and father in the centuries-old language of the Hmong.

One of several hill-country tribes that emigrated from southern China to settle in the mountains of northern Laos, the Hmong have a rich culture, but one that social scientists describe as ''preliterate.'' It was only 20 years ago that a foreign missionary began to phonetically transcribe their dialects into Roman script, and the majority of Hmong still do not read or write their own language.

Although most of the men in Heng's community have either studied English in job-training courses or picked it up at the workplace, Hmong women continue to remain at home to raise the children. They are largely isolated during the day, often have no contact with other refugee families, and usually depend on their husbands and children for such simple tasks as shopping for groceries.

''They seem content now, but what happens when their children start school, or when they have to go to work to help with the family income?'' asks Sister Angela Daniels. ''At some point, they're going to need some kind of 'survival English.' ''

Sister Angela, program director of the Indochinese Advocacy Project sponsored by Catholic Social Services here, echoes the concerns of many refugee resettlement workers. The arrival of a so-called ''second wave'' of mostly rural , uneducated Indochinese refugees during the past two years has brought with it a number of new challenges, many of them focusing on how the women are adapting to life in the US.

One recent study commissioned by the Lutheran Council in the USA notes that:

* Today's refugees tend to be less prepared for making the cultural transition to American life than those who arrived in 1975 and 1977.

* Nearly 4 out of 5 women are experiencing some loneliness.

* Many women refuse to speak English at home or to their children.

The Lutheran study, ''One Year After Arrival: The Adjustment of Indochinese Women in the United States,'' concludes: ''In many cases, refugee women are the stabilizing force in their families, and if these women are successful in their integration, so will be their children and husbands.''

Serving the fifth-highest concentration of Indochinese refugees in the US (4, 000 Hmong, 2,700 Cambodians, and some 300 Lao), the staff of Providence's Indochinese Advocacy Project is in the process of establishing a school specifically designed for women. Funded by the Genesis Foundation, a group of European businessmen, classes will start in September for 125 students. Subjects offered? Survival English.

''The courses are designed to provide very basic English,'' Sister Angela explains. ''At the end of a couple of months, these women should be able to make emergency telephone calls, give personal information, recognize currency, take a bus, and shop for household items. They should begin to be more self-reliant.''

Building confidence is one of the basic goals of the English textbook that the Providence staff will be using in their classes. ''The HER Project, Homebound English for Refugee Women,'' published in Tacoma, Wash., by the Tacoma Community House with funds provided by the United Methodist Church, is the work of a former Peace Corps volunteer who taught English as a second language in Afghanistan and Iran.

So far, there are only half a dozen such programs for refugee women in the US. Considered a model project, ''The Women's Program: Cultural Skills for Refugee Women'' established by the Indochinese Cultural and Service Center in Portland, Ore., has an identifying philosophy.

''We don't try to acculturate the women we work with,'' says program coordinator Carrie Wilson. ''We only try to give them the kinds of skills they need to fulfill their traditional roles in the home.''

During the nine-month course, refugee women are in classes an average of 4 hours a day, 2 days a week. For the first two hours, they learn basic English - how to shop for cleaning products, for example. For the following two hours, interpreters teach them in their own Hmong, Cambodian, Lao, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Mien languages how to use the products.

''Most English programs don't include a native-language component,'' Ms. Wilson explains, ''but we think it's important for these women to have certain kinds of information that they don't necessarily need to be able to explain in English. You don't always need to know how to say you're going to clean the oven. But you do need to know how to do it.''

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