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New Hmong Online Translator May Be Model for Other Languages

By Louise Fenner | Staff Writer | 05 April 2012
Close-up of Phong Yang (AP Images)

Phong Yang coordinated a project between the Hmong community in Fresno, California, and Microsoft to create the first online Hmong translator.

Washington — Members of the Hmong community in Fresno, California, were concerned that their children and grandchildren weren’t learning the Hmong language, and some older Hmong needed help communicating and reading documents printed in English.

They did something about it. Through a partnership with researchers from Microsoft, they helped develop a new online translator for the Hmong language. Hmong is now one of 38 languages supported by Microsoft Translator.

Starting in November 2011, Hmong speakers helped build a Hmong translation engine by providing examples and feedback on the use of Hmong words and phrases, as well as adding vocabulary not included in existing Hmong dictionaries. They continue work with Microsoft to perfect the translator’s language skills.

The new tools used for the Hmong Translation Project are still in beta (testing phase). In the future, they will “enable automatic translation support for additional languages,” according to Microsoft. The company points out that of the approximately 7,000 languages in the world, automated instant translation is available for fewer than 100.

THE HMONG LANGUAGE

“Without language, a culture will disappear,” said Phong Yang, a teacher of Hmong at California State University, Fresno, who coordinated the project within the Hmong community.

“The translator is just another way of providing extra support to preserve the language, the culture,” he told the Fresno television station KSEE. 

The translator currently focuses on Hmong Daw (White Hmong). Green Hmong, another dialect, will be added later.

The Hmong are an ethnic group originally from China, Laos, Thailand and Southeast Asia. More than 260,000 live in the United States, according to the 2010 census. California, Minnesota and Wisconsin have the largest Hmong populations. Among metropolitan areas, Fresno has the second-largest Hmong population (after Minneapolis–St. Paul). 

Most Hmong families speak a language other than English at home. However, Hmong children and teens spend a lot of time conversing with their friends in English via Facebook and other social media, and they are not learning the language of their heritage, Yang said.

He hopes the online translator will appeal to young people. It can be accessed via a computer or through a mobile application.

Chue Her, a Hmong elder, told KSEE that the translator will also help older Hmong who don’t speak English. They will be able to translate English texts and communicate better with English speakers, including their grandchildren. “It will help the young generation, help the elders,” he said.

See the Microsoft Translator website.