Island schools reviving Hawaii's native language  
Associated Press
April 15, 2007

Jaymes Song

KE'EAU, Hawaii - Portraits in the school's library are not of U.S.
presidents but Hawaiian royalty, from King Kamehameha to Princess Ka'iulani.
Near the classroom door, rubber slippers are tidily lined up by the students, who go barefoot. The calendar shows it's the month of "Malaki."

Hawaiian language and culture fill the hallways and playgrounds of Ke Kula O Nawahiokalani'opu'u Iki and define the mission of the school with the sizable name - Nawahi for short. English is only allowed during the one-hour English class.

A major effort is under way to revive and preserve Hawaii's native tongue, including immersion schools, marking their 20th anniversary. Courses from math to science are taught entirely in Hawaiian. The language was nearly wiped out after being banned from schools across the islands for nearly a century. In 1983, when a small group of educators founded a key Hawaiian language revival program, fewer than 50 children spoke the language. Today, the rhythmic, fluid sounds of Hawaiian are used proficiently by more than 2,000 children.

"It's important because I'm the only one in my family who speaks Hawaiian,"
said Leiali'i Lee, a 10th-grader at Nawahi, one of 23 immersion programs in the state. "I can make a difference and I can revive my language."

While fluency is still rare - just 1 percent of the state's 180,000 public school students attend immersion programs - Hawaiian words are commonplace around the islands, from vowel-filled town names such as Ka'a'awa and Aiea to popular fish like mahimahi. There's a weekly radio news report in Hawaiian. Tourists often are greeted in the language even before stepping off the plane. Hawaiian is finding its way into more books and Web sites.
And it is taught as a foreign language at many island schools, public and private.

The immersion schools carry this teaching further, of course.

Nawahi, which has nearly 200 students from preschool through 12th grade, was founded in 1994 as a laboratory school affiliated with the University of Hawaii-Hilo. Students are taught Hawaiian traditions and culture, such as growing sweet potatoes, building canoes and understanding the land.

The school has succeeded despite financial and political challenges, and skepticism about educating in Hawaiian, the only indigenous language in the United States that is an official state language.

Although about half the students are from low-income families, the school boasts a perfect graduation rate, with 80 percent moving on to college, well above the statewide average for public schools.

A visit to Nawahi reveals its formula for success: small classes, a family-oriented environment and teachers dedicated to rescuing the Hawaiian language.

"If you're not successful, I'm going to make you successful. That is my responsibility," said teacher Hiapo Perreira, who in 2002 became the first person in the country to receive a master's degree in Hawaiian and who is now in the University of Hawaii-Hilo's new doctoral program.

"If my dream were to come true tomorrow ... every Hawaiian would know Hawaiian," Perreira said.

Student Akala Neves, a junior who hopes to attend Harvard or Stanford, explained why that's important: "If you know who you are, you're confident and you don't have to be afraid. ... This school teaches us we can compete with everybody."

In the tiny school library, besides the portraits of royalty, there are dozens of framed pictures of the students' families. "We don't want to do bad because our grandparents are watching," said Lee, the 10th-grader.

Books are in Hawaiian, including many originally in English. With very few children's books available in Hawaiian, parents paste translations on top of the English text. So, for example, Shel Silverstein's popular book, The Giving Tree, becomes O Kumula'au Aloha.

Critics say students could be held back by learning a language that's not "viable" in today's world. But school officials say Nawahi students have exceeded peers in standardized English tests. Studies have also suggested that highly bilingual students tend to have higher cognitive abilities.

"What people don't realize is that we speak English. Right after we leave this campus, it's English," Akala said. "When we go home, we speak English.
So we have so much English."

State Sen. Clayton Hee, a longtime supporter of Hawaiian language programs, was encouraged to speak only English while growing up, like many other Hawaiians.

"The assumption, 'To be educated, you must speak English,' is a fallacy,"
said Hee, a former educator and state Office of Hawaiian Affairs chairman.

He finally learned Hawaiian in college and now uses it proudly and often.

"It gave me a sense of identity. It gave me a sense of pride," he said.

Still, Hawaiian is far from being saved.

"It's still very close to being dead," said William "Pila" Wilson, one of the founders of Aha Punana Leo language program and chairman of the Hawaiian program at the University of Hawaii-Hilo. "A language is dead when children are no longer speaking it. Once children stopped speaking Hawaiian, especially to each other, we knew it was going to end."

With extinction looming elsewhere, a resuscitation movement began in the 1970s. In 1978, Hawaiian was re-established as an official language of the state.

In 1990, the federal government adopted a policy of recognizing the right to preserve, use, and support indigenous languages.

Today, as hula and Hawaiian music spread beyond the islands, even non-Hawaiians are picking up the language. About a fifth of the students at Nawahi have no Hawaiian blood, such as blonde, freckle-faced freshman Kemele Lyon.

"The reason I love to speak Hawaiian," she said, "is because I think it's the most beautiful language I have ever heard, and every sentence is like poetry."

Lyon also knows how to use traditional plants as medicine, play ancient games and pound the taro plant into poi.