The Revival Of The Native Hawaiian Language

The US news and current affairs website, Slate, has a lengthy article on the modest revival of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, the native language of the Pacific state of Hawaiʻi, and the importance for that project of schools teaching entirely through the medium of the Hawaiian tongue. Where the language was once on the verge of extinction, official recognition and facilitation by local and federal government has taken indigenous-speakers from less than two thousand people in the 1980s to some 24,000 at the present. For many Hawaiians the campaign to protect the archipelago’s native speech is as much about rolling back centuries of colonial thought and practice as reviving the territory’s daily vernacular.

“When Herring Kekaulike Kalua was a child growing up on Hawai‘i’s Big Island, his parents spoke mostly in their native language, ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. English had long been the official language of government in the islands, mandated in schools and other public spaces. But Kalua’s family favored the soft vowels of Hawaiian, rejecting the harder consonants of English while they fished, hunted, and grew taro, customs their ancestors had passed down for generations.

That ended about 60 years ago when Kalua’s father Samuel declared that Hawaiian was kapu —forbidden — in the family. Samuel, who had only a middle school education, panicked when his son started skipping class because his teachers insisted he use English. Samuel worried his son would fall behind and forfeit his future. Quickly and quietly, Hawaiian disappeared from Kalua’s childhood.

But where the language was once banned it’s now protected by the law, and a thriving network of schools aims to promote it. Today, three of Kalua’s 13 grandchildren attend public language-immersion schools where subjects are taught in Hawaiian until about fifth grade, at which point English is gradually introduced. Designed to revive the fading language, these institutions began spreading across the state three decades ago, resulting in what many consider the most successful revival of an indigenous language in North America. More than 18,000 people statewide speak Hawaiian, according to the Hawai‘i State Data Center, out of a total Native Hawaiian population of about 142,000. The increase is partly the result of a growing community of immersion graduates who have brought the language back into their homes.

By the early 1980s, fewer than 50 people under age 18 could speak Hawaiian fluently.

Hawaiian was declared an official state language in 1978, 19 years after the islands were fully admitted to the United States. But the language’s speakers still struggle to have their native tongue recognized. In 2014, a state representative, after speaking in Hawaiian during a legislative session, was asked to behave “in a respectful manner.””

Please read the whole piece here.

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2 comments

  1. Yes, the whole piece is well worth reading, much more thorough and balanced than articles of this sort generally are.
    Was it the Hawaiians who came up with the ¨language nests¨ that the Maori copied or vice versa? A good place to start provided you still have a sufficient nucleus of native speakers.

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