Thriving Hawaiian...the Language, That Is

Growing up in Hawaii, most children learn to speak at least a bit of the Hawaiian language.  But that has not always been the case.  In 1896, the Hawaiian language was banned from school instruction after the US government illegally overthrew the Hawaiian government (we'll come back to this in future posts).  As a result, English quickly replaced Hawaiian and the language began to disappear.  

In the 1970s a young professor, Larry Kimura, was teaching himself Hawaiian and looking for Hawaiian speakers for his radio show, Ka Leo Hawai'i.   He began interviewing every native speaker he could find.  The majority of them were over 60 years old and he, along with a group of his students, worked to re-ignite the interest in Hawaiian language.  Kimura's efforts resonated with many students, who wanted to learn the language of their grandparents so his passion transformed to a movement. 

Kimura and the other activists decided they needed to launch Hawaiian immersion schools to reignite the passion for the language.  By the mid-1980s, the Hawaiian Department of Education relented and Kimura was given the go-ahead to create an immersion school, but without any resources, curriculum or support.

They started the first Hawaiian immersion school, Pūnana Leo at the preschool level and it was primarily family/parent-led.  Today, there are 21 immersion schools serving 2,000 students throughout the islands.  Additionally, the University of Hawaii offers bachelor's, master's and PhD programs in the Hawaiian language.  Nearly 20,000 Hawaiians say they speak Hawaiian at home as well as English, according to a 2016 state report.  

But the struggle to save the Hawaiian language is far from over.  The United Nations maintains a list of endangered languages and about 40% of the 7,000 languages spoken globally are considered "endangered."  Including Hawaiian. Language tends to be the first aspect of a "people" to vanish so we are thankful all of the cultural ambassadors that are fighting to keep Hawaiian at the forefront.  Preservation of the Hawaiian language helps each generation of Hawaiians connect on a deeper level with their culture and their elders.

As part of our Honua Happy Hour series, Kapua interviewed Kini Ka'awa about her experience as one of the first graduates of the first Hawaiian immersion school.  Kini went on to get her bachelors in Hawaiian Studies and continues in education to this day.   She grew up in Kailua, has danced hula her entire life and was one of the first graduates of Hawaiian language immersion school.  She continues to dance and teach at Hawaiian schools.  Kini is truly a force in Hawaiian culture!



1 comment

New customer here! Thank you for this article. If you’ve ever run into an extremely tall, very fair skinned redhead in Hawaii speaking the language fluently that is my daughter. I had her when I was a teen and she was adopted by a Hawaiian family. It was an open adoption so we met when she turned 18. I have no affinity for the language but have learned to understand when her two rescue dogs are in trouble as she scolds them in Hawaiian. Thank you for your wonderful products and for carrying on the Hawaiian traditions.

LB Johnson June 23, 2021

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