Rebirth of the Hawaiian Language

Aug 5, 2020 | General Information

Table of Contents
There is a long history in Hawaii of English being taught in Hawaii’s schools. In 1862 Kamehameha IV addressing the Kingdom’s legislature said: “… it is important to change all Hawaii’s schools to English speaking schools, and I once again put this forth to all.” In 1882 the Kingdom’s Board of Education adopted a policy that mandated English as the language for teaching all subjects. Students were forbidden to speak any other language even among themselves.

By 1892 95 percent of all government schools in Hawaii were using English as the classroom language for teaching all subjects. At the time the majority of kids in Hawaii were children of Japanese, Chinese, or Portuguese plantation workers. The Government wanted to ensure that Hawaii’s kids mastered one language that they all could speak. English was chosen for several reasons including the expectation that Hawaii soon would become part of the US.

Private schools were exempt from the law. Parents and community groups were free to establish after-school programs or academies where other languages could be taught and used. As a result, hundreds of such academies were established where Japanese history and culture were taught using Japanese language. Hawaiians, however, chose not because they wanted their kids to become fluent in English. Most Hawaiian parents insisted that their kids speak only English even in the home.

More than three decades ago a small group of activists in Hawaii decided that it was time to revive the Hawaiian language. Their goals were 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 Hawaii’s Department of Education allowed these activists to create Hawaiian language “immersion schools,” but without any state support.

A handful of families created Pūnana Leo which means “nest of voices.” Starting with preschools, 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 millions of visitors to the islands of Hawaii? Hearing and use of the Hawaiian language can remind us that this idyllic vacation spot is not simply a visitors’ playground. Hawaii is a unique legacy of ancient Hawaiians that envisioned both land and water 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 respected and worshipped. These deities were credited by Hawaiians with allowing them to discover, live and thrive on tiny 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 means “forbidden” or “no trespassing.” When you are not sure whether a beach or swimming spot is culturally OK or “pono”, ask the advice of someone who might know the right things to do. Visitors to Hawaii should remember that pono is so important that it is even part of the state’s motto. Many of the people in Hawaii’s tourism industry that Tom Barefoot’s Tours works with will gladly provide guidance on pono for their guests, clients and strangers.