Mau Loa ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i: Why the Survival of the Hawaiian Language Matters

Isra Safawi – India

After nearly dying out under American colonial rule, the Hawaiian language, or ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, made a remarkable and unprecedented comeback in the 1970s thanks to the newly formed ‘‘Aha Pūnana Leo” immersion school system. The methods utilised by Pūnana Leo have since become known as the Hawaiian Model, and are now being used on the mainland to aid the survival of North American indigenous languages.

There are thirteen ways to spell the ‘o’ sound in French. Spanish has more than 40,000 words and conjugations utilising all five vowels. !Kung is mainly composed of clicking sounds, while Basque is the only European language not related to any other known language.

And ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, despite being spoken fluently by merely 10,000 people, continues to be one of the richest in uniqueness and tradition. Passed down orally in part through hula (traditional Polynesian dance) for centuries, it is unique in that it consists of a mere twelve letters—five vowels and the consonants H, K, L, M, N, P, and W—which form its trademark mellifluous sounds.  

Ōlelo Hawaiʻi is also unique in its ability to survive systematic oppression.  

The rise of the Hawaiian League in the late 1800s—whose members ironically consisted solely of wealthy Caucasian businessmen—began the restriction of the rights of native Hawaiians during the reign of King Kalākaua. In response, his sister Lili‘uokolani proposed a constitution after assuming the throne that would both restore these rights and return power to the monarchy. Her resolution sparked a series of reactionary actions from the League and the US military that, despite vocal opposition from President Grover Cleveland, ended in the disintegration of the monarchy in 1893 and formal annexation of Hawai’i in 1898. While these were significant political blows to Hawaiians’ autonomy, the 1896 law proclaiming that English would be the language of instruction in every school without exception was the measure that brought Hawaiian to the edge of extinction.

The law not only forcibly established English as the dominant language by actively punishing students for speaking Hawaiian, but also potentially prompted a subconscious association between speaking English and being “educated”, which discouraged parents from speaking ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi with their children. There was also a possible neurological factor in that the law specifically blocked ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi n during the critical learning period—childhood and early adolescence—which would make it extremely difficult to master Hawaiian later in life. The combination of these factors led to critically low levels of speakers and the creation of a “gap generation”—the generation of children born far enough after the ban to be raised by non-Hawaiian speaking parents but too soon to be affected by the revitalisation efforts. My grandfather, who was raised in Makawao, Maui in the 1940s, is one such member of the gap generation: growing up, he only knew bits of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi despite having fluent grandparents. When asked why his parents never taught him, the immediate answer was, “It was important for the second and third generations to speak English when Hawai’i was annexed as a territory of the United States. When Hawai’i became part of the US as a territory we were second class citizens. In order to assimilate and be accepted, it was important to speak English. There was a period of time [the years immediately after the Nationality Act of 1940] in which immigrants entering the United States were required to speak English to obtain citizenship”. These extremely strong disincentives to learn Hawaiian, combined with a decrease in cultural ties, began to steer the language dangerously close to extinction. Small pockets of speakers managed to stave off what seemed to be an inevitable disappearance until the 1970s, when the Hawaiian Renaissance set the stage for a revival movement.

Desperate to prevent the complete death of their language and frustrated with mainstream attempts to teach ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi in schools (the law technically never outright banned it, and restrictions became less harsh throughout the twentieth century), a small set of teachers established the ‘Aha Pūnana Leo—translated as “nest of language”—in 1982 with the hope of reviving the language by “feeding” children bits of their language and tradition in a similar manner to birds. The establishment of this system was the single most important factor in bringing back ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi from the brink. Despite its instatement as an official state language in 1978 and the introduction of a Hawaiian major at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa’s in 1979, the number of native speakers did not increase until Pūnana Leo’s founding because children were not learning the language—the most essential step to revival. ‘‘Aha Pūnana Leo, which began as a single immersion preschool and has since expanded to a multi-school system in which students can be taught entirely in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi from preschool to doctoral-level, succeeded where others failed through a unique blend of teaching methods that together have become known as the Hawaiian Model. Key aspects include:

  1. Most importantly, the previously mentioned complete range of education from preschool—university
  2. The support of a native speaking population unaffected by English dominance (The residents of the island of Ni’ihau, whose private ownership granted them exemption from the restrictive laws)
  3. Continuous intensive community and heavy involvement
  4. Immersion implementation through the public school system (enabled by the Hawai’i State Legislature’s passage of a 1986 bill allowing Hawaiian to be taught in public schools)
  5. Fusing both traditional and modern cultural elements (i.e., taro pounding, outrigger canoeing, hula, and ukulele with football and modern arts)
  6. The establishment of an overseeing body—the Hawaiian Lexicon Committee, which oversees the addition of new words for modern concepts to the language.

These measures have enabled the population of native speakers to rebound from an estimated 1500 in 1983 to 10,000 in 2013—creating a remarkable U-shaped growth curve rarely seen in dying languages. Hawaiian’s resurgence remains relevant not only because of the Hawaiian Model’s crucial role in preserving indigenous culture, but in how it provides a path for vulnerable Native American languages on the mainland.  Many of the efforts have been either driven or spearheaded by Pūnana Leo itself. Hale Kipa ‘Ōiwi, founded in 2001, is a program under designed for indigenous leaders and teachers visiting Hawai’i that provides technical support for language revitalisation. Reforms advocated by Pūnana Leo and passed by the Hawai’i state legislature also inspired the Native American Languages Act—which President Clinton signed into law in 1990 with the backing of Hawaiian senator Daniel Inouye—that cemented Native Americans’ rights to utilise their own languages. And recently, after facing a shortage of qualified teachers in the United States, the Blackfoot immersion school in Montana drew native speakers from Alberta in a similar manner to how Pūnana Leo drew from Ni’ihau. While neither dramatic or sweeping victories, these are important indicators that the Hawaiian Model can be implemented outside of the islands.

Some Hawaiians have expressed skepticism regarding the actual progress of the ‘‘Aha Pūnana Leo movement and the Hawaiian language’s potential for growth—mainly because fluent speakers still comprises less than 1% of the state’s population. However, focusing solely on statistics ignores the most significant impact of the Hawaiian language revitalisation: its contribution to restoring Hawaiian culture’s presence in everyday life and its ability to provide a voice to expressions of Hawaiian identity. The Hawai’i of today could not be more different than the English-centred world of my grandfather’s childhood. My cousins, who attend a Kamehameha school close to Honolulu, have the opportunity to study ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, hula, ukulele, and outrigger canoeing, read Hawaiian language newspapers, and tune in to the Hawaiian television station. And for the first time in decades, Hawaiian children are growing up speaking their language—taught not in school, but by their parents, the first generation of Pūnana Leo graduates. That, above all, signifies that Pūnana Leo has succeeded in its mission: to create a society in which Hawaiian children, supported by their family and community, can express themselves in whatever language they choose. And in a world in which a language dies every two weeks, their success provides hope for indigenous languages by granting them the tools to return from the brink of disappearance.