MILWAUKEE — Annie Vang was two years old when her family came to the United States as refugees. Like many Hmong families now living in America, Annie and her parents were forced out of their cultural home in Laos after the Hmong people sided with the U.S. in the Vietnam War.
"They left behind everything to start a new life here, to try and live the American Dream," Vang said of her parents.
As refugees fled Laos following the war, stories and histories were lost because Hmong is historically an oral language, and only recently became a written language.
"Because everything was not written down many centuries ago and especially during the war, everything was lost," Vang said.
After leaving Laos, Vang's family lived at a refugee camp in Vietnam before moving to Iowa. Growing up she moved around the country, living in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Today California, Minnesota and Wisconsin are the states with the largest Hmong populations in the United States.
Vang recalls feeling a need to assimilate as she grew up in her new home. But with that, she began to lose her native language and connections to her own history.
"Growing up in America English was the primary language spoken here, so growing up I myself started to lose my identity as a Hmong American not being able to communicate," she said.
So, she decided to take the opportunities and skills living in the United States gave her to reconnect to her roots. She is now an iOS app developer and web developer and created the HmongPhrases phone application in 2011. She updated the app in the summer of 2021 to include even more features.
"I saw that there was a gap. And I wanted to be able to also preserve the language for the younger generations to be able to speak to the older generations as they start to leave us," Vang said of her motivation to create the app.
The HmongPhrases app has several different sections: phrases, words, sounds, and flash cards. Annie recorded her own voice for the app to help users learn the correct pronunciation. The app also includes both Hmong Dialects; green and white.
She said it's important to preserve and record the Hmong language because "it's critical for identity purposes, being able to communicate. Our stories need to be told."
Vang also hopes non-native speakers will use the app and learn more about the Hmong culture.
"I find it really exciting when a non-native Hmong speaker speaks it to me, because I feel that they're learning and they're curious. And I'm willing to teach and willing to share whatever I learn," she said.
"It's just to teach Hmong recipes and Southeast Asian recipes," Vang said. "It's the same purpose as why I built the HmongPhrases app.
Now both of the apps not only help her connect with her history, but can also help the over 260,000 Hmong Americans across the country, and nearly 50,000 here in Wisconsin, stay in touch with their roots.
"I wanted to have something that I could connect to that was easy to share, which is recipes and also the language app which I created with the skills that I had discovered and learned here in America."