Island schools reviving Hawaii's native language
April 15, 2007
KE'EAU, Hawaii - Portraits in the school's library are not of U.S.
presidents but Hawaiian royalty, from King Kamehameha to Princess Ka'iulani.
Near the classroom door, rubber slippers are tidily lined up by the students,
who go barefoot. The calendar shows it's the month of "Malaki."
Hawaiian language and culture fill the hallways and playgrounds of Ke Kula O
Nawahiokalani'opu'u Iki and define the mission of the school with the sizable
name - Nawahi for short. English is only allowed during the one-hour English
A major effort is under way to revive and preserve Hawaii's native tongue,
including immersion schools, marking their 20th anniversary. Courses from math
to science are taught entirely in Hawaiian. The language was nearly wiped out
after being banned from schools across the islands for nearly a century. In
1983, when a small group of educators founded a key Hawaiian language revival
program, fewer than 50 children spoke the language. Today, the rhythmic, fluid
sounds of Hawaiian are used proficiently by more than 2,000 children.
"It's important because I'm the only one in my family who speaks Hawaiian,"
said Leiali'i Lee, a 10th-grader at Nawahi, one of 23 immersion programs in the
state. "I can make a difference and I can revive my language."
While fluency is still rare - just 1 percent of the state's 180,000 public
school students attend immersion programs - Hawaiian words are commonplace
around the islands, from vowel-filled town names such as Ka'a'awa and Aiea to
popular fish like mahimahi. There's a weekly radio news report in Hawaiian.
Tourists often are greeted in the language even before stepping off the plane.
Hawaiian is finding its way into more books and Web sites.
And it is taught as a foreign language at many island schools, public and
The immersion schools carry this teaching further, of course.
Nawahi, which has nearly 200 students from preschool through 12th grade, was
founded in 1994 as a laboratory school affiliated with the University of
Hawaii-Hilo. Students are taught Hawaiian traditions and culture, such as
growing sweet potatoes, building canoes and understanding the land.
The school has succeeded despite financial and political challenges, and
skepticism about educating in Hawaiian, the only indigenous language in the
United States that is an official state language.
Although about half the students are from low-income families, the school boasts
a perfect graduation rate, with 80 percent moving on to college, well above the
statewide average for public schools.
A visit to Nawahi reveals its formula for success: small classes, a
family-oriented environment and teachers dedicated to rescuing the Hawaiian
"If you're not successful, I'm going to make you successful. That is my
responsibility," said teacher Hiapo Perreira, who in 2002 became the first
person in the country to receive a master's degree in Hawaiian and who is now in
the University of Hawaii-Hilo's new doctoral program.
"If my dream were to come true tomorrow ... every Hawaiian would know Hawaiian,"
Student Akala Neves, a junior who hopes to attend Harvard or Stanford, explained
why that's important: "If you know who you are, you're confident and you don't
have to be afraid. ... This school teaches us we can compete with everybody."
In the tiny school library, besides the portraits of royalty, there are dozens
of framed pictures of the students' families. "We don't want to do bad because
our grandparents are watching," said Lee, the 10th-grader.
Books are in Hawaiian, including many originally in English. With very few
children's books available in Hawaiian, parents paste translations on top of the
English text. So, for example, Shel Silverstein's popular book, The Giving Tree,
becomes O Kumula'au Aloha.
Critics say students could be held back by learning a language that's not
"viable" in today's world. But school officials say Nawahi students have
exceeded peers in standardized English tests. Studies have also suggested that
highly bilingual students tend to have higher cognitive abilities.
"What people don't realize is that we speak English. Right after we leave this
campus, it's English," Akala said. "When we go home, we speak English.
So we have so much English."
State Sen. Clayton Hee, a longtime supporter of Hawaiian language programs, was
encouraged to speak only English while growing up, like many other Hawaiians.
"The assumption, 'To be educated, you must speak English,' is a fallacy,"
said Hee, a former educator and state Office of Hawaiian Affairs chairman.
He finally learned Hawaiian in college and now uses it proudly and often.
"It gave me a sense of identity. It gave me a sense of pride," he said.
Still, Hawaiian is far from being saved.
"It's still very close to being dead," said William "Pila" Wilson, one of the
founders of Aha Punana Leo language program and chairman of the Hawaiian program
at the University of Hawaii-Hilo. "A language is dead when children are no
longer speaking it. Once children stopped speaking Hawaiian, especially to each
other, we knew it was going to end."
With extinction looming elsewhere, a resuscitation movement began in the 1970s.
In 1978, Hawaiian was re-established as an official language of the state.
In 1990, the federal government adopted a policy of recognizing the right to
preserve, use, and support indigenous languages.
Today, as hula and Hawaiian music spread beyond the islands, even non-Hawaiians
are picking up the language. About a fifth of the students at Nawahi have no
Hawaiian blood, such as blonde, freckle-faced freshman Kemele Lyon.
"The reason I love to speak Hawaiian," she said, "is because I think it's the
most beautiful language I have ever heard, and every sentence is like poetry."
Lyon also knows how to use traditional plants as medicine, play ancient games
and pound the taro plant into poi.