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On a Thursday afternoon in early June, students, teachers, and local residents filed into the Multicultural Resource Center at Roseville Area High School to hear a reading from a new book—compiled by a student.
The editor: 18-year-old Laichia Vang, a graduating senior. The book: Exploring Language and Identity: The Experiences of ELL/ESL Students, a compilation of essays by English language learners around Minnesota.
“As a former EL [English language] student, I felt like I really struggled,” Laichia, who uses she/her and they/them pronouns, told the crowd. “I wanted to share these experiences to really humanize this.”
Laichia grew up in Little Canada, where their first language was Hmong. They recall being pulled out of their general education classrooms to receive English language instruction, and having to make up the work they had missed in class later. At the end of third grade, Laichia achieved English fluency and no longer needed to take English language classes. But as time passed, Laichia spoke less and less Hmong, both in school and at home.
“When I lost my language, I also lost my people,” Laichia said, reading from their own essay in the book. “Our elders are the carriers of history, the carriers of the Hmong language. And I don’t know it. Many of us Hmong youth don’t know it at all.”
Stories like these, Laichia learned, were not uncommon. But people don’t often talk about them. They applied for, and received, a Social Justice Through the Humanities “mini-grant” for $1,000, through the Minnesota Humanities Center. By creating a book of stories from English learners, they hoped to illuminate the lives of these young people inside and outside of English language class—and spark change for other English learners, like Laichia’s younger sister.
“I believe that stories are really important, because they really can begin the conversation,” Laichia said in an interview after the reading.
Laichia collected stories through outreach to English language teachers and schools around Minnesota. They were “really, really shocked” to receive so many submissions, all of them from strangers. The book contains 16 essays and poems, which Laichia edited “lightly.” The stories represent a mix of students’ experiences in English language class, both positive and negative, and stories from their personal lives. Students who submitted them recounted their families’ journeys from Mexico, Burma, Laos, Togo, Somalia and Ethiopia; they described their schooling in Ham Lake, Forest Lake, Hugo, St. Paul, and Minneapolis.
Excerpt: “Get Out,” by Zubeyda Kawo
“Get out,” the old white lady said to my family and me while walking into my grandma’s apartment. The first thought that popped in my head was she’s racist because she was a white lady telling a Black and Muslim family to get out of a building. I told myself in my head to walk away. It’s not worth it. But the old white lady kept yelling out the same thing, “get out,” “get out.” I felt shocked and confused all at once. I looked at her with confusion, not understanding why she was yelling at us until she said, “take that off your head, you’re in America.” The old white lady was acting prejudiced towards my family and me. I could tell that my mom was getting angry and frustrated by looking at her facial expression, but she didn’t say anything.
Then, my little brother and I went inside my grandma’s apartment while my oldest brother, dad, and mother went to talk to the old white lady in the apartment lobby downstairs. After a few minutes, I went down to the apartment lobby where the old white lady and my family were. Once I opened the door, I could see the old white lady getting super close to my older brother, trying to spit on him as if he was trash. When I saw that, I felt angry and disgusted. I couldn’t even believe what I saw. I said, “What is wrong with you!?” to her….
After this experience, I learned that living life in America as a Black person is tough even though people won’t speak about it. I am scared to go grocery shopping because they might think I am shoplifting. On top of that I am a Muslim that wears a headscarf in public and people look toward me in fear and hate. And I am a girl living in a world mostly controlled by men. I feel powerless: I am a Black Muslim girl living in a country that goes against everything I am. I just want to get out.
Reprinted with permission from Laichia Vang.
Several of the stories from Hmong students echo Laichia’s experience of language loss. Others recount experiences of racial harassment, sexual violence, and family trauma.
“Something that really struck me was their experiences as people of color, as youth of color: The traumatic and hard racial violence that they already experience,” Laichia said. “It’s not easy to talk about it.”
It’s important for people to see English language students as full human beings, not just language learners, they added.
Laichia first presented their story about losing their Hmong language and an analysis of different English language pedagogies in an “EDTalk” with the education nonprofit Achieve Twin Cities in February (“not a TED Talk, but that is something I want to do in the future,” Laichia explained). Instead of the “pull-out” method used for English learners when Laichia was in third grade, Laichia would like to see a dual language model that keeps students in their classrooms, engaging students with both English and their native language.
“Laichia, I want you to know that everything you just shared with us took me 10 years in college to learn,” said Jaia Lee, an English language teacher at Roseville Area High School, after Laichia’s presentation. “I’m so extremely proud of you.”
Speaking English for eight hours a day in school, it’s easy to lose your native language, Lee said. She pursued her own course of Hmong studies in college.
“Even in my own studies, I wondered why I didn’t know who I was,” Lee said. “I struggled with the whole identity issue and trying to be something I’m not.”
As she became a teacher, she learned to utilize the importance of native languages, she said. And English language classes have evolved since Laichia tested out of them—Roseville Area High School no longer uses the pull-out method, she said.
Lee said Laichia’s work paves a path for future students.
“She is highly academic, but at the same time one of the people who are going to preserve the culture and the language,” Lee said. Laichia’s talk made her feel “super hopeful and so proud.”
Excerpt from Laichia’s EDTalk, reprinted in the book:
A mentor once told me: ELL is a system that makes you lose your language, and one day when you want to learn your language again, it is typically in college where you have to pay. Or in other words, the system makes you lose your language and then benefits from it once you attempt to relearn. While it may be unintentional, this is a cycle of capitalism, white supremacy, and cultural assimilation….
When I lost my language, I also lost my people. My connection to the people who fled during the Vietnam and Secret War. Who traveled from refugee camp to refugee camp. Who nearly died crossing the Mekong River, a mile long swim. Half of the Hmong died there. Who begged for another plane to come after fighting and dying for the CIA, for America.
Hmong people have experienced mass genocide, exploitation by the CIA, war, and continued failed priorities. In the Secret and Vietnam War, the elders were all soldiers. Our language, our history is primarily never taught in K-12. When our elders are gone, we will know nothing of who we are. Our elders are the carriers of history, the carriers of the Hmong language. And I don’t know it. Many of us Hmong youth don’t know it at all.
Language is a connector to culture. In America, it’s extremely difficult to maintain that connection. Because I didn’t connect to my culture or maintain my language, nor did I see myself at school, I was ashamed of who I was. I hated being Hmong, or really because I wasn’t white. I wasn’t the American ideal. I didn’t fit in.
Reprinted with permission from Laichia Vang.
Curtis Johnson, the chair of the Roseville school board, left Laichia’s presentation energized.
“She’s going to change the world,” he said. “I’m really excited to try to take some of the ideas and see what we can do.”
Adding a dual-track English language program for every language might be cost-prohibitive, he said. (According to state data, Roseville students speak more than 80 different languages at home; the largest numbers of English language learners speak Spanish, Hmong, Somali, Karen, and Nepali.) But perhaps Roseville could partner with neighboring districts for cross-programming, he said.
This semester, Laichia enrolled in a Hmong course at Century College, learning numbers and the alphabet. For the first time in years, they are able to communicate with their elders. It’s “cathartic,” Laichia said. And hopeful. Not everyone has the opportunity to learn Hmong, Laichia pointed out. “So what could we do to make sure that all the Hmong kids, all the students of color who have their heritage language but can’t speak it anymore, what do we do there?”
So what’s next for Laichia? They’re off to the University of Minnesota, where they plan to study political science, sociology, and racial justice in urban schooling. In the future, Laichia wants to work in education policy. And they’d like to write more books. Perhaps a future book will feature the experiences of queer people of color, Laichia said.
At the University of Minnesota, Laichia hopes to meet other people with similar passions, and work together to make change. “Tell the world that we’re not going to be quiet,” Laichia said. “We’re going to start doing stuff.”
Exploring Language and Identity: The Experiences of ELL/ESL Students, edited by Laichia Vang, will soon be available through the Ramsey County Library system. It’s also available online.
Update: This story has been updated with a link to an electronic copy of the book.