45. Hawaiian revitalization growth under quarantine

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William Wilson
University of Hawai’i at Hilo


The case of the Hawaiian language is truly one of revitalization. The intergenerational use of the language had stopped with one tiny exception when the language revitalization began in earnest with the establishment of the non-profit ʻAha Pūnana Leo in 1983. A tiny core of Hawaiian language learner college students began the Pūnana Leo language nests to support and grow their efforts to use Hawaiian in the home. In order to protect the gains made with preschoolers in the language nest, an effort was made to remove the legal barriers to use of Hawaiian in public education. That successful effort resulted in a movement to reestablish Hawaiian language immersion and Hawaiian medium education in the schools through to high school.

I report here on how Hawaiian language revitalization is occurring during a time when schools are closed and the community of Hawaiian speakers centered around schools taught through Hawaiian must find other ways to strengthen themselves. An effect of the COVID-19 crisis has been to reinforce a sense of responsibility among parents for the Hawaiian language use of their children and a growth in the use of Hawaiian in homes. That sense of responsibility is part of a larger movement to move forward from this pandemic even stronger as a unique island community with a distinctive heritage.


Historical background

First contact between Hawaiʻi and the larger global community occurred in 1778 with the arrival of Captain James Cook of Great Britain. The neolithic indigenous Polynesian culture rapidly adopted a western form of government under a constitutional monarchy. Protestant Christianity spread rapidly along with a Latin based writing system. Through Hawaiian language newspapers, Native Hawaiians documented a substantial body of traditional culture, literature and history. The written record plus a substantial tape recording collection has served as an important resource for language revival.

Disease reduced the Native Hawaiian population by more than 80% resulting in the importation of workers from China, Japan and the Azores among other areas. Nevertheless the indigenous Polynesian Hawaiian language remained the largest spoken language and was used for interethnic communication up until the US supported overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy in 1893.

There was already widespread bilingualism in English in the majority Native Hawaiian population at that time. Universal compulsory public schooling for children had begun in 1841 with Hawaiian language medium schools attended by children of all ethnicities. English medium schooling spread first among the elite. Then due to political and economic pressures from the American derived sugar planter class more and more English medium schools opened for the non-elite in the Native Hawaiian and immigrant populations (R. Fernandez in https://www.linguapax.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/linguapax19-1-1.pdf). Once that group overthrew the Hawaiian Monarchy they made English the only medium of education. With annexation of Hawaiʻi to the United States in 1898, US policy to eliminate indigenous languages in favor of English solidified and children were punished for speaking Hawaiian in schools.

In response to the punishment for use of Hawaiian and predictions that there was no future for the Hawaiian language, children adopted a pidginized English as their peer group language. This language then creolized as the dominant language of the multiracial non-elite groups replacing Hawaiian https://www.hawaii.edu/satocenter/langnet/definitions/hce.html).

By 1920 the last generation of children who used Hawaiian as the primary means of peer group communication had been born throughout the eight Hawaiian Islands, except for the most isolated of the inhabited islands – Niʻihau. On that island Hawaiian remained in use by about 200 people into the 1980s, when they began to migrate to the nearest larger island where their children began to assimilate to Hawaiʻi Creole English.

The 1980s was also a time of cultural awakening in Hawaiʻi – what is often called the Hawaiian Rennaissance. College enrollments in optional Hawaiian language courses grew exponentially. More advanced students began to consider the possibility of raising their own children speaking Hawaiian as a first language as had been the case two generations earlier. My wife Kauanoe Kamanā and I were among those students. A small group of us and our teacher Larry Kimura founded the ʻAha Pūnana Leo non-profit organization to follow the lead of the Kōhanga Reo language nest movement in New Zealand. Our family was one of the very first group of second language speakers to raise children with Hawaiian as the first language of the home. The Pūnana Leo language nest was a means of protecting our children from losing Hawaiian that would have occurred through enrollment in the English medium schools. Such loss of Hawaiian among children was then happening with the Niʻihau community and had happened in earlier generations for other communities.

When the Pūnana Leo movement began in the early 1980s, there were still elders proficient in Hawaiian who could work in those total Hawaiian medium childcare centers, as well as a few younger people from Niʻihau also available as teachers. However, from its initiation the ʻAha Pūnana Leo was keenly aware that second language speaking teachers needed to be developed. Today, the teachers in the Pūnana Leo and follow up programs are all second language speakers or first language speakers who acquired Hawaiian as a first language from second language speaker parents https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVMNXNMVY_M). The Pūnana Leo preschools give enrollment preference to children who already speak Hawaiian through parent use in the home. The rest of the enrollment is made up of children of parents committed to learning Hawaiian with their children.

While the movement faced many difficulties and barriers, it has continued and grown since the 1980s, with the ʻAha Pūnana Leo remaining a core force in serving and developing Hawaiian speaking families. One of the key victories was removing the legal barriers to eduction through Hawaiian in the public schools. In most of the resulting Hawaiian immersion public schools a large majority of students enrolled come from Hawaiʻi Creole English speaking homes. Such Hawaiian language immersion schools run under the standard public school system which is English medium focused. While classroom teaching is delivered through Hawaiian, school operations are through English and English is dominant in those schools outside the classroom, even for children from Hawaiian speaking homes.

There is a smaller number of Hawaiian language medium charter schools that are funded by the government, but where operations follow the Pūnana Leo model. In Hawaiian language medium charter schools, Hawaiian is the operational language. Over half of the children in such schools enroll already speaking Hawaiian from a Pūnana Leo site. About one third come from homes where Hawaiian is regularly spoken. Parents at the Pūnana Leo are required to study Hawaiian, even if they already speak it, and grow the language in the home. The Hawaiian medium schools also hold regular parent instruction nights to move parental use of the language forward.


Ni’ihau language loss – Exponential growth elsewhere

Hawaiian has been largely lost in the Niʻihau community due to migration away from their small isolated island to an economically depressed region on the neighboring island of Kauaʻi (http://www.niihauheritage.org/). Socio-economic forces have instilled in many from Niʻihau the fear that their children will be hampered by speaking Hawaiian. English medium schooling there has further weakened use of Hawaiian among them. Even when grandparents in the home use Hawaiian, children use English among themselves and often with their young parents as well. There is one small charter school, however, seeking to maintain Hawaiian among Niʻihauans, albeit in a model that has had to respond to fears regarding the prospect of not knowing English with use of English beyond what would be needed to produce bilingualism.Even among the Niʻihau families affiliated with that school, English has come to be the dominant language of most younger generations in the home.

The strongest use of Hawaiian currently in homes comes from second language speaker parents or descendants affiliated with the laboratory Hawaiian language medium school Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu in Hilo on Hawaiʻi Island https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhELoIta084). That school is also the site of the largest Pūnana Leo. Second language speakers are similar to survivors of an epidemic who have a certain immunity to the disease that disseminated earlier generations. The second language speakers realize that the Hawaiian language is not a detriment to the socio-economic success of their children. The school focuses on college preparatory education and is affiliated with the rather recently established Hawaiian language medium college (https://www.hawaii.edu/news/2014/01/13/new-hilo-home-for-hawaiian-language/).

At Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu, high proficiency in Hawaiian is associated with socio-economic success. Therefore, children enrolled at Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu who speak Hawaiian at home are resistant to pressure to abandon Hawaiian as their language of primary use and identity. They also provide a model for other children from Hawaiʻi Creole English dominant families in their school to emulate. Regardless, as children enter adolescence at Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu and interact more with the dominant society in sports and social activities they begin to use a mixture of Hawaiʻi Creole English and Standard American English as a peer language, among many informal activities that they associate with the larger world. Because of the strength of the school and overall language revitalization community, however, they remain fully proficient in Hawaiian, and begin to move out of their external language exploration phase as they mature in their understanding of themselves and society.

As Hawaiian language and culture have gained prominance throughout Hawaiʻi, the status of Hawaiian has grown. More and more young parents who grew up speaking Hawaiʻi Creole English or Standard English in the home are trying to use as much Hawaiian as possible in the home. Doing this is facilitated in Hawaiʻi by the large number of Hawaiian terms, place names, personal names, songs and other connections to the Hawaiian language in the common Hawaiʻi Creole language and culture. It is fairly easy for parents in the home to mix more and more Hawaiian language into their daily life as so many Hawaiian terms are already used in informal Hawaiʻi Creole English.

United States census numbers reflect the growth of Hawaiian use in the home. When the ʻAha Pūnana Leo began in 1983, the organization counted less than 50 children under age 18 proficient in Hawaiian. All but three of these children were from the Niʻihau community. The latest figures collected by the United States Census from 2010-2014 indicate that the number of children between the ages of 5 and 18 speaking Hawaiian in the home had reached 5,200. This is an amazing figure and most surely indicates increased status for Hawaiian rather than actual numbers of children who use Hawaiian as the dominant language in the home. The numbers of actual Hawaiian dominant homes are especially high on the island where Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu School is located, making Hawaiian the largest language spoken by children on that island and the only non-English language where there are more children speakers than adult speakers (http://files.hawaii.gov/dbedt/economic/data_reports/Non_English_Speaking_Population_in_Hawaii_April_2016.pdf)

College students who are studying Hawaiian and also students in English medium high schools who are studying Hawaiian are indicating aspirations of raising their children with Hawaiian as their first language. High school students attending the Hawaiian medium school Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu are also indicating that they would like to raise their children with Hawaiian as their first language. This is especially encouraging as it is often the case that students who know the most Hawaiian are the most likely to take it for granted. It is generally only after Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu School students leave high school and attend an English medium university that they fully realize how distinctive their experience of being educated totally through Hawaiian has been. In the past it was generally at that point that they began to think about their own future families and continuing Hawaiian language in that context.


The COVID-19 pandemic and growth of familiy use of Hawaiian

As with the rest of the world, the COVID-19 epidemic resulted in the closure of schools in Hawaiʻi. This included the Pūnana Leo language nests for children aged 3 and 4 and its few infant toddler programs as well as the Hawaiian immersion schools and Hawaiian language medium schools. Learning went on line and children were suddenly isolated from the strongest Hawaiian speaking communities in existence – the schools. This outcome highlighted for parents who had minimal use of Hawaiian in the home the importance of improving their own Hawaiian and moving toward realization of the goal of becoming a Hawaiian speaking home.

For the past two months, parents have been at home with their children joining in with them as they receive distance education through Hawaiian from their teachers. Sitting with their children, parents have increased their own knowledge and use of the language as they struggled to support their children. As the rule in the schools is strict use of only Hawaiian in the classroom, parents weak in Hawaiian were in a position to integrating that rule into at least part of their daily routine with their children.

As parents became more aware of the importance of them moving more Hawaiian into the home, they have sought to learn more of the language. In order to support parents in their growth in use of Hawaiian, the ʻAha Pūnana Leo has long provided self-paced on-line lessons. There has been an increase in use of those lessons. Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu School obtained access to the lessons and provided them to all its parents as well. These on-line lessons did more than substitute for weekly parent classes, as they allowed for access at any time and a wide range of levels.

Small groups of parents, especially those where one or both parents are fully proficient in Hawaiian have created on-line groupings where they and their children can interact in a fully Hawaiian speaking environments that go beyond their individual households. Other families have joined together to play and sing Hawaiian music together on-line, reviving many songs that were sung by older generations in their youth, but which have not been familiar to younger generations.

For older students, the state has lessened its focus on standard academic content as some children lack access to the internet and it is more difficult for teachers to deliver standard curricula. There is therefore more attention to innovative use of the Hawaiian language. In a early college course for high school students from Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu that I teach, I have been using the internet to share tapes of elders where cultural topics from earlier times are discussed. This is exposing students to rich cultural vocabulary and conversational language normally not included in their daily experiences even in a total Hawaiian language medium context.


Future directions

Hawaiian language revitalization is but one aspect of a larger cultural movement in Hawaiʻi that seeks to maintain the distinctiveness of the islands. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge negative impact on the economy of Hawaiʻi. As tourism is the main economic driver of Hawaiʻi, none of the forty-nine states has been impacted as greatly in terms of economy as Hawaiʻi. The airlines are no longer bringing tourists and the tax base has evaporated.

With the growth of tourism, Hawaiʻi has become more and more dependent on external sources for its food and basic goods. While the idea of revitalizing local agriculture and traditional foods and producing basic goods locally has been discussed before, the COVID-19 crisis has brought those ideas to the forefront. The branding of those things as distinctive to Hawaiʻi involves use of the Hawaiian language.

The association of the Hawaiian language with a totally selfsustaining past, albeit a highly idealized one, has drawn the larger population of the state, not only Native Hawaiians, to identify more with the language. One hears government officials use more Hawaiian terms in their announcements. The local media has integrated features such as the traditional Hawaiian calendar based on the phases of the moon and associated with subsitence agriculture and fishing. Hawaiian music with sing along programs have been broadcast on local television with Hawaiian lyrics available on-line for those who needed help learning or remembering them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also reminded the people of Hawaiʻi that imported diseases killed off over 90% of the Native Hawaiian population within the first 150 years after Western contact (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/04/06/native-hawaiian-population/). That population loss was also a major factor in the near total extermination of the indigenous Hawaiian language. The revitalization of the Hawaiian language to its present level of strength, where it is the most commonly reported non-English language spoken by children in homes in a highly multiracial state has come to symbolize the potential of the larger community to move forward to reach what may have seemed like impossible goals in the past. Such change is realized in its strongest form in the home. E ulu a ola mau nā ʻohana ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi! May there be continuous growth and health among Hawaiian speaking families.