Revival of Hawaiian language
Mar. 12, 2005
Immersion, other education bring increasing use of island native tongue
HONOLULU - "E heluhelu kakou," Nako'olani Warrington tells her third-graders:
let's read together.
But there's no need to translate at Ke Kula Kaipuni o Anuenue, a public
immersion school where all instruction for the 350 students is in the Hawaiian
The school represents a turnaround for the native language in the islands, which
appeared to be fading away 20 years ago.
A 1983 survey estimated that only 1,500
people remained in Hawaii who could speak it, most of them elderly. Today there
are probably 6,000 to 8,000 Hawaiian speakers throughout the state, most of them
younger than 30, said Kalena Silva, professor of Hawaiian studies at the
University of Hawaii-Hilo.
Everyone knows a little bit of Hawaiian, even visiting mainlanders.
"Aloha" has become an almost universally recognized greeting and expression of
love. "Mahalo" often subs for "thank you."
But there's less understanding of the state motto - "Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka
pono" (the life of the land is preserved in righteousness) - or the name of the
state fish - humuhumunukunukuapua'a.
"Before, people would hear me speaking Hawaiian to someone and ask what language
I was speaking," said Leilani Basham, coordinator of the Hawaiian language
program at the University of Hawaii's flagship Manoa campus. "I don't get that
Hawaiian now is recognized, along with English, in the state constitution as an
official state language. Lawmakers this year are trying to build on that status
by requiring that Hawaiian be used on government signs and in government
Silva remembers that when he joined the UH-Hilo faculty 20 years ago, only 10
students were majoring in Hawaiian studies and Hawaiian language. Now, there are
more than 100, he said, including some from the mainland and from Germany and
Japan. Hawaiian language enrollment also has increased at the university's Manoa
campus in Honolulu.
Silva, who is also director of UH-Hilo's Ka Haka 'Ula Ke'eliikolani College of
Hawaiian Language, attributes the greater interest in learning Hawaiian to
Those efforts began in the early 1980s with parents and Hawaiian language
instructors who wanted to make sure the language remained strong on Niihau, a
privately owned island populated exclusively by Native Hawaiians.
As a result, Hawaiian is the only indigenous language in the United States that
showed growth in the 2000 census, said Verlieann Leimomi Malina-Wright, vice
principal of Anuenue school.
About 200,000 of Hawaii's 1.2 million people are of Native Hawaiian ancestry.
The university's Hilo campus now has a doctoral program in indigenous language
and culture, while the Manoa program has received preliminary approval to offer
a master's degree in the language. All sophomore, junior and senior courses in
Hilo's Hawaiian studies major are taught in Hawaiian.
Hilo also has provided curricula and materials for the public school immersion
programs, where elementary and secondary students receive all instruction in the
The immersion program began in 1987 with about 16 students at two sites in
Honolulu and Hilo.
"We now have 19 sites, not including four public charter immersion schools,"
said Keoni Inciong, the state Department of Education's specialist for the
Hawaiian language immersion program.
Instruction from kindergarten through fourth grade is in Hawaiian, with English
introduced in fifth grade, Inciong said. And while some secondary texts are in
English, instruction is in Hawaiian, Inciong said.
Most of the students are of Hawaiian ancestry, but it's not a requirement, and
the majority come from English-speaking homes, he said.
"When we started in 1987, the main focus was on perpetuating the Hawaiian
language," Inciong said.
"Now we have the equal goal of a quality education, with emphasis on culture,
traditions and values."
Thirty-eight students have graduated from Anuenue school, Malina-Wright said. At
least half have gone to college, including all of last year's class, and have
done well, she said.
While some continue with Hawaiian studies, "our first college graduate was an
English major who hopes to become a screenwriter," she said.
Silva and Basham hope that understanding of the language will increase.
"Our vision is that eventually Hawaiian become a language of a large bilingual
population. We believe that everyone in Hawaii has a responsibility to the
native language," Silva said.
Hawaiian is spoken in the islands in a variety of ways.
Island ceremonies usually include a chant or prayer in Hawaiian, and Hawaiian
music with lyrics in the native language are making people more aware. The new
Hawaiian music category for the Grammy awards requires the majority of vocal
songs that are entered be sung in the Hawaiian language.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin publishes a weekly Sunday column in Hawaiian, and the
Honolulu Advertiser uses the proper diacritical markings in Hawaiian names and
phrases. A Honolulu radio station broadcasts a daily newscast in Hawaiian and a
"Hawaiian word of the day" segment.
Most U.S. colleges recognize Hawaiian and allow it to fulfill students' language
requirements, Basham said.
State Sen. J. Kalani English, who is of part-Hawaiian ancestry and speaks
Hawaiian, also wants the language used more extensively. He introduced a bill
that would require state and county governments to print letterheads and
documents in both English and Hawaiian, with Hawaiian listed first.
Another bill this session would have required all state and county signs to be
in Hawaiian as well as English. That was the idea of Daniel Anthony, a Hawaiian
language student from Honolulu who persuaded his aunt, state Rep. Maile
Shimabukuro, to sponsor the measure.
"It would mean a lot to use the language I love every day," Anthony said.