Hawaiian Language Revival
By: Napua Hueu
Reviving the language of Hawaii’s ancestors through education has dramatically increased the number of native speakers over the course of 21 years.
Just two decades ago, less than 40 individuals possessed the ability to speak the Hawaiian language fluently. A swift transformation has taken place, using a unique immersion educational method. It has helped to significantly raise the number to more than 2,000 speakers of the language of Hawai‘i today. The 'Aha Punana Leo and Kula Kaiapuni Immersion programs have achieved the task of reviving the official language of the State of Hawai'i, and guided the children of Hawaii to be better connected with their language, culture, ethnicity and home.
Ideas, informational meetings and movements began in the 1980s to help form a plan to prevent the extinction of the Hawaiian language. New Zealand was facing a similar drawback of possible Maori language extinction. As a result, Elders and new generations of parents formed the conception of “language nest” preschools where the entire education was based in the native Maori language and around the traditional Maori values.
The young Maori parents that had not had the opportunity to learn their language wanted their children to have the opportunity to speak and understand it. They also believed that their children were the stakeholders for the future of the language. The task lay in the hands of a group of elders that were over 50 years of age, who possessed the fluency and depth of Maori language and knowledge that was needed to preserve something so valuable and necessary. The value and importance was clear, without the language there will be no culture and the survival of unique identities would be lost forever.
Facing the same crisis in Hawai'i, a small group was formed under the leadership of Larry Kimura, who was a teacher of Hawaiian language. He asserted such “Hawaiians didn’t lose their language. It was taken away from them deliberately.” With strong convictions, perseverance was a mainstay and progress began to unfold in the 1980’s.
The group led by Kimura learned of the motions occurring in New Zealand and decided to mirror the movement and form their own language nest schools, where fluent speakers interacted with preschool children strictly in the indigenous language alone. As a result, the 'Aha Punana Leo was formed.
The Hawaiian language was already the official language of the State of Hawai'i; however, the establishment was resistant. Previous restrictions of the Hawaiian language being used in schools still existed, and a high level of fluency by the young children was not achieved right away. After a strict no-English policy, parent meetings, required parent language courses, and lobbying for the change of restriction laws. In 1987, the legislature made provisions to allow the Hawaiian language to be used in schools and the language movement began to multiply. For the first time in 50 years, a small number of new generation of speakers were able to converse with grandparents and each other.
The small progress was exciting, but a continuing education program was needed for students exiting the Punana Leo preschools. Kula Kaiapuni, also known as the Hawaiian language immersion school, was originally formed as a boycott by Punana Leo parents who saw the need and dreamed of the opportunity for their children to continue their native language education. The families, staff and students of the 'Aha Punana Leo and newly formed Kula Kaiapuni struggled to develop and expand this unique educational program through high school. Over the course of a decade, the establishment of a total Hawaiian medium school was achieved on several islands.
Currently the 11 Punana Leo preschool sites around the state of Hawai'i have continuing elementary through high school Kula Kaiapuni sites nearby. Most of the Kula Kaiapuni schools are held within English public intermediate and high schools, although there are two schools taught at campuses that are administered completely in the Hawaiian language. The schools teach English as a second language, which is introduced for the first time in the 5th grade, and is continued on as a yearly course through high school. Criticism was not absent, and the concern of this approach was made clear by opposition. One parent recalls, “The critics are not in the classroom or at home with these young Hawaiian speakers, English is approached as an exciting subject and often their English test scores reveal better understanding then those students actually studying in English.”
The Punana Leo and Kula Kaiapuni programs maintain the right to conduct education completely in Hawaiian, and have teachers who are certified as instructors and fluent speakers, textbooks and teaching materials in Hawaiian. It also offers testing in Hawaiian and bus service for the students in the same way that children in English schools have. State, as well as federal funds, are designated for curriculum and special teacher training.
In 1999, the first two groups of students graduated from the two campuses conducted entirely in the Hawaiian language. They were previously enrolled for early college courses in association with the University of Hawaii Hilo's Ka Haka 'Ula O Ke'elikolani College. These students maintained adequate grade point averages and passed the English composition placement examination. These students were the first to graduate from totally Hawaiian taught schools in over 100 years. In 2006, there were over 2,000 students enrolled in programs taught in Hawaiian.
Aha Punana Leo's partnership and involvement with the University of Hawaii Hilo has allowed for Ka Haka 'Ula O Ke'elikolani to become the College of Hawaiian Language. It is the very first Native American language college in the United States, and offers degrees of all levels and certificates in Hawaiian language literature. Lehualani Kaleiohi, a 2005 graduate of Maui’s Hawaiian immersion program states, “I enjoyed the atmosphere of the University of Hawai’i Hilo campus, the same desire and goal of influencing and promoting the culture as well as the language remains here and everyone continues to work as a family to accomplish this just as we did throughout my K-12 education.” Ke Kula 'o S. M. Kamakau on O’ahu strives to enroll families into the program, providing not only a K-12 program, but also multi-age grouped programming for children and complimentary programming for adults.
The numbers continue to rise and life successes in Hawaii’s language speakers surpass expectations. In just a little over 21 years, much progress has been made with creating and maintaining these programs. As the graduating class of 2005 celebrates 21 years of life, we simultaneously realize that this gift of language and cultural understanding we possess, was made possible at the time of our birth thanks to the hard work and perseverance of our makua, the generations that came before us. Mahalo!