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Researchers create tools to test hearing in people who speak Hmong

| Judy Berthiaume

Speech-language pathologists will eventually have a better option for testing the hearing of their patients who speak Hmong thanks to the work of a UW-Eau Claire faculty-student research team.

This summer, UW-Eau Claire students Mai See Xiong and Kao Lee Lor, along with their faculty mentor, Dr. Lynsey Wolter, associate professor of English, compiled the first White Hmong word lists for audiology testing.

Their long-term goal is to create materials for a word recognition test in White Hmong, Wolter says. This kind of test allows audiologists to determine the conditions in which patients can hear well enough to distinguish among words. It can be used as an initial assessment and as a way of checking how well an assistive device such as a hearing aid is functioning, she says.

“This project has obvious practical value,” Wolter says. “If we are successful, audiologists will be able to provide better care to patients who are most comfortable speaking Hmong.”

This is a two-part project, with the UW-Eau Claire team overseeing the gathering of initial research, analyzing Hmong word structure and constructing several phonetically balanced word lists.

During the 10-week project, Blugolds did extensive research on language and methodology to guide them as they created four lists, each including 50 words in the White Hmong dialect, the most widely spoken dialect of Hmong in the United States.

Word lists created for word recognition tests can't just be random words, Wolter says. The lists must include words that will be familiar to native speakers of White Hmong in the United States, and they must contain a carefully determined balance of the sounds of the language, she says.

The second part of the project involves collaborators at UW-Madison recording and testing each word list with native speakers of White Hmong.

A UW-Madison nursing professor began the project after learning that audiologists don’t have Hmong language materials to use for hearing tests. She asked Wolter to join the project because of her previous research to describe the sounds of White Hmong.

Wolter invited Xiong and Lor to work with her on the project because they have a passion for linguistics, an interest in research and both are native Hmong speakers.

“We are excited to be a part of the project because it is a great opportunity to examine the Hmong language through a linguistic lens,” says Xiong, a senior English major from St. Paul, Minnesota, who also is pursuing a topical critical Hmong studies minor and working certificates in interdisciplinary linguistics studies and women, gender and sexuality studies. “To be a part of a research team doing something that has never been done before was a great way to learn more about ourselves and our own native language as a growing minority group.”

The project was especially meaningful because their research centered on the Hmong language, the students say.

“Every day and every year, the Hmong language is being spoken less and less from generation to generation due to assimilation and communicating less in Hmong,” Xiong says. “When I was told that I will be researching my own language through a different perspective and tearing it down sound by sound, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to learn how to describe my language and eventually teach it to those who want to learn how to speak Hmong.”

Lor says the research was intriguing because she’s long been fascinated by language concepts and complexities, as well as the many ways people use and perceive language.

As a native speaker of Hmong, the project was especially interesting because she knows research on the Hmong language is limited, Lor says.

“Because language is used daily, most people probably don't think about how essential it is to our own identity, and, when we lose that ability to understand or convey our thoughts and ideas, how detrimental that can be,” says Lor, who was born in Thailand but grew up in Wausau. “Through this project, I learned a lot about language in general but also more about my own language.”

The students say it is satisfying to contribute to a research project that will have real-world applications.

It’s also exciting to know that their work is laying the groundwork for a variety of related projects, Lor and Xiong say.

For example, future research groups can use their work to more easily compile new sets of word lists, including in other Hmong dialects, says Lor, a senior linguists major who also is pursuing a certificate in women and gender studies.

“There's a lot to consider when it comes to language, which makes these lists challenging even for native speakers,” Lor says. “For example, language variation can be diverse from one place to another so there is no way for us at UW-Eau Claire to guarantee that the words spoken here would have similar semantics in another geographic location. Language also is very contextual, so this allows for meanings to change based on the situation.”

Through the project, the Blugolds also identified new linguistics research questions specifically about the Hmong language that could be pursued.

For example, they discussed how Hmong speakers in different regions and countries incorporate different loan words into their vocabulary, Wolter says, explaining that Hmong-Americans borrow words from English, Hmong people in Thailand borrow words from Thai and so on.

“We're curious about how these different sets of loan words might influence the development of regional dialects of Hmong,” Wolter says. “Investigating a question like this helps linguists understand more about how language works and can also help communities to document endangered languages.”

While the long-term goal of their project is to provide audiologists with a new tool to better meet the needs of their Hmong-speaking clients, the Blugold researchers say they also gained a great deal from their research project.

Being part of a collaborative research project has enhanced their college experience and better prepared them for future success, Lor and Xiong say.

"I've always wanted to go into research," Lor says. "I have the mindset that I am perfectly happy being a student for life. I love learning and being able to figure things out on my own even if there are many trials and errors throughout the process.  I think research has always been of interest to me because it fulfills all of my interests while challenging me at the same time. I also get the opportunity to learn and research things that interest me and I don't know if many people can say that."

Lor says she knew research wasn't easy, but being part of this summer project has given her a new appreciation for just how difficult it can be.

However, it also taught her adapt and shift her thinking as new questions or challenges arise, Lor says.

“I've learned a lot and it's helped me grow as a student and as a future linguist,” Lor says. “This project also provided me with a new way of thinking about language, especially how I think about my own native language, and all the complexities that come with it. It has made my college experience much more meaningful.”

Xiong says she enjoyed all aspects of the research experience, including the challenge of finding solutions to the many problems that come with any research project.

Working alongside an experienced researcher like Wolter made the entire experience even more meaningful, Xiong says.

“The great thing about being a part of a faculty-student research team is that when I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, there’s someone there who has gone through research who can help me get back on track and answer my questions,” Xiong says. “If I was alone and had to do the research all by myself, I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

Wolter says she enjoys working alongside students on research, and hopes the experience inspires her students to think differently about research in the future.

“I always find it especially rewarding to collaborate with students who are native speakers of less-studied languages,” Wolter says. “During these projects, I get to learn about languages other than English, which is always fun.

“More importantly, my student collaborators have a chance to see that in linguistics, every language is valuable as a topic for academic research.”

Photo caption: Kao Lee Lor, Mai see Xiong and Dr. Lynsey Wolter (front to back) are part of a research project that will provide audiologists with new tools to assess the hearing of patients who speak Hmong.