Eau Claire resident Tifanie Moua grew up speaking Hmong with her family. But as she got older, she began to lose some of her vocabulary and had trouble remembering words she didn’t use frequently.
“You go to school, you only speak English,” Moua said. “I didn’t have a class where they taught you in Hmong. My Hmong language was therefore not used as much as I would have liked.
One day, Moua was browsing Facebook when she saw a post about an iPhone app called HmongPhrases. The app allows users to search for common words and phrases, providing spelling and an audio recording of how it’s pronounced.
Moua said he immediately downloaded it, hoping to test his memory and grammar. One of the first phrases she remembers searching for was “Can I pay for this?” or “Kuv them nyiaj rua qhov no puas tau?” – a question she had used before when shopping, but wasn’t sure she was saying it correctly.
“When you grow up and you’re not really fluent in Hmong, you kind of create your own little phrases. You formulate your own way of saying things and it’s not always correct,” Moua said.
The HmongPhrases app was created by a colleague from Wisconsin, Annie Vang, who also happens to be Moua’s aunt. Vang, who is an iOS app developer from Madison, first created the program 11 years ago after taking an app development course at Madison Area Technical College. She said she was inspired by the advice of her teacher, who encouraged her to build something she was passionate about.
“Google Translate didn’t exist at that time and the Hmong language was definitely not in Rosetta Stone or any of the other language apps available in the App Store,” Vang said. “So I took it upon myself that, you know, I want people to know who we are, who I am, and I thought it was important to just have a presence in the App Store and to leave a digital footprint.”
Eleven years, constant updates and a major rewrite later, the app now has over four thousand downloads.
Vang said she is always looking for ways to improve the program, taking feedback directly from users and her parents, who are her main beta testers.
“My mom helps me test the words, just to make sure, like a bowel check, that I’m pronouncing them correctly. And my dad also checks the words to make sure they’re correct and pronounced correctly,” she said.
Vang’s parents speak different dialects of the language, with her father speaking Hmong White and her mother speaking mostly Hmong Green. Vang said it was important to her that every word and sentence be recorded in both dialects, especially because many documents are presented only in Hmong White.
“I feel like a lot of Hmong Americans are losing their Hmong language. But a lot of it is Green Hmong that’s not represented. I feel like if I didn’t try to keep some a digital footprint…we risk losing it,” she said.
Vang said she received surprising requests from users about what content they would like to see added to the app. More recently, she has been working on adding medical terms and Hmong names of parents hoping to use them for babies.
In the world of app development, Vang said creating a program is just the beginning, and developers are constantly updating and improving their apps. She’s already dreaming up ways to make HmongPhrases “smarter,” like guiding users through a practice conversation and using natural language processing to let the app form words automatically or respond to voice and text. text.
“If only Siri could understand Hmong, that would be awesome,” Vang joked. “I really see that myself in the app five years from now.”
Through it all, Vang said it was the support of the Hmong community that kept her going. She admits she was nervous about releasing the app at first.
“I’m not of linguistic origin, or I’m not an expert on the Hmong language,” Vang said. “I can only project what I know and try to grow from there. What I received from the community was that they were very warm and welcoming to me and super proud and very supportive. So I felt reassured that what I was doing was making a difference in the world.
Beyond learning words and phrases, Vang says the app allows native Hmong speakers to practice their intonation – an important part of the mostly oral language. She said young Hmong Americans often speak Hmong stiffly or have trouble hitting the right tonal notes.
“I can hear that a lot from kids growing up and not being fluent with maybe an elder,” she said. “Even my nieces and nephews do the same. When they say they are hungry, there are the wrong tone markers. So you can understand what they say, but they might not know that they say it more in English than in Hmong.
This is something niece and app user Moua said she enjoys about the program. Growing up, Moua said she spoke both English and Hmong to her parents, or sometimes a combination of both, which she and other speakers refer to as “Hmonglish”. She said her parents rarely stopped the flow of conversation to correct her because they understood what she was trying to say.
Moua said she is now practicing speaking Hmong with her friends and is motivated to keep learning.
“I can’t say I’ll be able to speak 100% Hmong, but it’s something I want to be able to pass on to my children,” Vang said. “I think it’s so important to be able to speak your mother tongue.”