A New Generation of Hawaiian Language Speakers

Nov 30, 2021 | General Information

A few decades ago a small group of activists in Hawaii decided that it was time to revive the Hawaiian language, for Hawaiians to relearn their native language and Hawaiian to be included in traditional schools. They wanted to start Hawaiian language instruction with preschoolers and create an entirely new generation of Hawaiian language speakers. In the mid-1980s this ambitious goal was endorsed by Hawaii’s Department of Education that allowed them to create Hawaiian language “immersion schools,” but without any state support. A handful of families created Pūnana Leo which means “nest of voices.”

From a preschool, year by year these activists added more grades and more schools. Today there are 21 Hawaiian language immersion schools throughout the islands serving more than 2000 students. The University of Hawaii offers a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. program in Hawaiian language. Hawaiian is now available on language apps and online courses. As a result almost 20,000 people in Hawaii speak Hawaiian as well as English at home.

Why should resuscitation of the Hawaiian language matter for the millions of visitors to the islands of Hawaii? The language reminds us that this idyllic vacation spot is not simply a playground but land and water that ancient Hawaiians saw as givers of life and treated them with reverence. Hawaiian culture was shaped by the belief that all aspects of nature — every tree, every plant, every animal — has a deity attached to it to be worshipped every day. These deities were credited with allowing them to live and thrive on spots of land isolated in the ocean.

Lava rocks, beach sand, local flora and the rest of the islands are said to contain mana (energy or life force), especially wahi pana (sacred or treasured sites such as heiau). Posted signs at these sacred places include the important warning word kapu that usually means “forbidden” or “no trespassing.” Not sure if a beach or swimming spot is culturally OK or “pono”? Not sure about removing flowers or anything else? Ask the advice of someone who is familiar with such questions about the right things to do — pono. Remember that pono (cultural correctness) is so important it is even part of the state’s motto — ua mau ke ‘ea o ka ‘aina i ka pono — “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Many of the people in Hawaii’s tourism industry that interact with visitors will provide appropriate answers to guests, clients and strangers and with aloha.