|Lost words: Ly Thi Tung holds a brown-paper book of Mong folk songs. She fears she will never be able to read a single word in the book or write her own name. Researchers and relevant authorities hope that measures will be taken to enable the Mong people to use their own language fluently to preserve their culture. — VNS Photo Khanh Chi
by Nguyen Khanh Chi
LAO CAI — Under the glow of a winter fire in her wooden house, Ly Thi Tung holds high a brown-paper book of Mong folk songs.
However, the 37-year-old mother of four can't read a single word.
"I can't read my own language. It's so miserable," said Tung, who is even unable to write her own name in the Mong language. "I hope that my children will be able to use the language so they can maintain our customs."
Like Tung, who lives in Ta Phin Commune's Giang Tra Hamlet, most of the Mong people in the northern province of Lao Cai and other parts of Viet Nam can't read or write the language, although they use it daily to communicate.
Addressing a Mong language workshop on Saturday in Lao Cai Province, head of the provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism Tran Huu Son stressed that "written language plays a decisive role in the conservation and development of national cultural identities".
While ethnic groups without written language "often preserve their culture through oral dissemination from older to younger generations", writing is a more "precise" form of preservation, he said.
Son also emphasised the importance of writing when it came to tackling social issues: "Among ethnic minority groups, the Mong people still cope with lots of challenges and record a high percentage of poor households. To address these difficulties, it is crucial to have script."
Mong people lack basic infrastructure such as clean water and concrete toilets and struggle with unemployment, human trafficking and natural disasters, according to a study by the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), which organised the workshop together with the province's culture department.
"The conservation of ethnic groups' scripts is also the Party orientation and State policy. With more than 1 million people [mostly located in the North], I'm convinced that the Mong language will have favourable conditions to grow," Son said.
"We will work with iSEE to experiment with our first classes in Sa Pa. Hopefully within three or four years, the written Mong language will be widely popularised."
In 1961, the Vietnamese Government approved a system of Mong script. In the 1970s and 1980s, the study of the language developed, mostly in the northern mountainous areas, according to a study by Dr Nguyen Kien Tho and Lau Van Chinh from Thai Nguyen Province.
"However, due to a number of reasons, only a handful of Mong intellectuals still use the script to write down their studies of the Mong people," the study points out.
There are two different types of Mong language.
"The internationally-recognised script consists of 13 vowels whilst the Vietnamese-style script has 29 vowels," said Tho, from Thai Nguyen University's College of Teachers' Training.
Demand for using the international Mong language is much higher than the Vietnamese Mong language, according to a survey conducted by the Central Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs in 2014 on the actual usage of Mong language in Yen Bai, Lai Chau, Dien Bien, Ha Giang and Cao Bang provinces.
"We should unify these two Mong language systems in order to help preserve the culture of the Mong people and develop the country's cultural identity. The sooner the better," Tho said.
"Most people asked said they want to learn the Mong script, which stems from their imagination of practical benefits that the script will bring about," reports a study on the Mong language carried out by iSEE, Lao Cai's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism and a group of seven people in Giang Tra Village.
"An obvious benefit which is usually mentioned is that the script will help people retain their customs and practices," said researcher Pham Thanh Tra from iSEE.
"Men will make notes about the musical instrument khen, worshipping rituals and ways to use farming tools like ploughs and hoes while women write down techniques to tailor traditional dress. This can only be done precisely in the mother tongue of the Mong people, not the popular language of the Kinh majority people."
Chang A Cang belongs to the Chang family in Ta Phin Commune. Of the 56 households in the clan, only seven elder people can perform traditional rituals, so they are called for whenever there is an important ritual in the family. Who will replace them when they pass away?
"The Mong people always respect the elders. If the elder people do not ask us to take notes on our cultural features, we won't do so, even though we understand that it is crucial to preserve our tradition," said Cang, one of a few people in Ta Phin who can use the language fluently.
"They are getting older and older. If they die, we young people can't replace them in these crucial customs." — VNS