‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i / Hawaiian Language


‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i / Hawaiian Language

The Wong Family

Kerry Wong was sitting in his mother’s house one day, relaxing and flipping through a copy of Honolulu magazine, a slick city monthly. He stopped when he turned to a feature story with the title “Can Hawaiian Survive?” Although part-Hawaiian himself, Kerry was oblivious to his heritage, and the blunt headline needled him. His father had been Hawaiian Chinese, but Kerry wasn’t even sure about the origin of his native middle name, Laiana. He spoke English. Always had. At Iolani, a private Episcopal school in Honolulu, he had studied Shakespeare and Faulkner. He went to the University of Colorado, earned a business degree, returned home, and decided to demolish buildings for a living. On weekends, Kerry played softball and drank beer with his friends. They spoke English. Everybody did.
The magazine article about the dire state of the Hawaiian language, and the struggle to keep it alive, stirred him. The article made it clear that Kerry’s two-year-old son, a mixture of Hawaiian, Chinese, and Caucasian ancestries, was growing up in a Hawai‘i where the native language was fifteen hundred people away from extinction. But the article described a newly opened preschool where everything was conducted solely in the Hawaiian language. The founders believed that when intellectually pliant keiki (children) were “immersed” in Hawaiian, they would learn to speak and think in the language, ensuring its survival. The new, bilingual generation would then become men and women who could see and feel as Hawaiians, and could pass on to others the language--and the culture inextricably bound to it.
In one quick read, Kerry Wong’s life was changed. A sturdy man, intense by nature, thoughtful and articulate as a result of a good education and inspirational mother (a schoolteacher), the thirty-one-year-old laborer became a bulldozer determined to push his family into Hawaiian-language fluency. Kerry asked his wife, Jalyne, to look into the new preschool. Jalyne, twenty-five, had grown up in a family that spoke Hawaiian. She already knew about the immersion program--had known about it since before their son was born. And she also knew that she wanted their boy to attend it. But she hadn’t mentioned any of this to Kerry because she knew her husband wouldn’t be interested.
“I’ll tell you something. That’s true. I wasn’t at all,” remembered Kerry. He was sitting on his in-laws’ länai, talking while Jalyne served beef stew, rice, beer, and juice with a laugh that warmed the chill January night. “I didn’t listen to Hawaiian music. I didn’t go to watch hula. . . . Right after that article, my attitude changed slowly, [but] when we went, we went all the way overboard. . . . [I have asked myself] why didn’t I do this ten years ago, fifteen years ago? Why wasn’t I interested in [Hawaiian language] then? I don’t know the reason. . . . Through Iolani and through Boulder, I never really was motivated. . . . Most of the time I was, ‘I’ll get by. I won’t fail. The main thing I pass.’ . . . I didn’t think about the future. . . . I don’t really understand why we did this [now]. We just did. It’s just that I felt--the language is going to die.
“I’ve changed a lot. I’ve noticed my wife has, too. We’ve changed our attitudes towards a lot of things. . . . [Learning] is whole different thing. I woke up and said, ‘Hey, I want to learn.’ It feels good to learn. It’s something I’ve become addicted to now. Maybe I’ll be able to instill that in my son so he won’t have to wait ten years until after he graduates from college before he starts learning something.”
In June 1987, Kerry and Jalyne enrolled their son, Lincoln Lāiana Wong, in Pūnana Leo O Honolulu (the language nest of Honolulu), the school that had been the focus of the revelatory magazine article. Within a year, Lāiana was fluent in Hawaiian. Within two years, Kerry and Jalyne had learned enough Hawaiian at night school to almost keep up with their son. Within five years, Jalyne became a teacher at Pūnana Leo, and Kerry returned to the university, earned a master’s degree in linguistics, started work on his doctorate, and began teaching Hawaiian to undergraduates. In the process, the Wongs committed themselves to ka ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, the Hawaiian language, and joined others in the community who were also rallying to save it.
The Wongs’ new friends called Jalyne by her middle name, Lilinoe (the Hawaiian goddess of the mists), and Kerry by his, Laiana, the name his father had given him. Kerry had always thought Laiana meant Leonard, because that was his father’s name. Later, a teacher explained that Laiana was the Hawaiian way of pronouncing Lyons. Before Kerry passed the name on to his son, Lilinoe’s family asked her uncle what the name Laiana really meant. According to Hawaiian tradition, names must be carefully chosen, and the family wanted to make sure the boy’s middle name would bring him good fortune, not ill. Lilinoe’s uncle grew up speaking the language. He would know. “His Hawaiian seems to run deep, with ancient roots,” Kerry said. “It’s something I can’t really understand. He broke the name down into syllables and gave us this meaning: ‘The infinite vision of light reflecting the warmth of the sun.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s fine with me and that’s what we’ll give to Lincoln as his middle name.”
Both Jalyne and Kerry had been given their Hawaiian names in the 1950s, well before academics and others began adding kahakō (macrons) and ‘okina (glottal stops) to Hawaiian words to clarify pronunciation and understanding. The use of kahakōand ‘okina was popularized in the mid-1980s, on street signs and in printed material, after a decade of Hawaiian cultural activism known as the Hawaiian Renaissance. Then, in 1986, Hawaiian community leaders and scholars persuaded state legislators to revoke an eighty-eight-year-old law prohibiting the use of Hawaiian as a primary teaching language.
The prohibition had been enacted in 1896, after the forced deposition of Queen Lili‘uokalani and the seizure of her government by a band of pro-American businessmen. Although Hawaiians had spoken their language for at least fifteen hundred years, it took less than a century to almost completely destroy its vitality.
The process began in 1820 when Congregational missionaries arrived from New England to spread the word of God throughout the Sandwich Islands and to transform the “pagan” kingdom into a Christian one. Six years after their arrival, the missionaries had created a written “Hawaiian language,” an orthography that borrowed five vowels and seven consonants from the English language to convey phonetically what the missionaries thought they heard the Hawaiians saying. The Calvinists designed reading and writing rules to standardize the island dialects and eliminate some of the regionally distinctive consonant sounds that the people used interchangeably, such as t for k, d and r for l, and v for w.
Even before missionaries published the first Hawaiian Bible, in 1848, King Kamehameha II approved the teaching of the written language, wanting his people to acquire through reading and writing the same knowledge--and power--that the foreigners had. Literacy was a new concept for Hawaiians, who historically memorized their lore and passed it on in an oral tradition of chant and song. Many Hawaiians embraced the learning with the same enthusiasm they showed for the foreigners’ god and hymns. Schools opened throughout the islands, and by the 1830s most Hawaiians could recite the alphabet and read words. The more literate among them published chants, traditions, discourses, and histories in their own Hawaiian-language books and newspapers. Over the years, these documents accumulated in archives, libraries, and family trunks and became important resources for the cultural rediscovery a hundred and fifty years later.
As more and more foreigners journeyed to Hawai‘i, more haole took up positions administering the kingdom’s business and political affairs, seeking access to island markets and goods. English became more than a status language for elite Hawaiians; soon, fluency was a prerequisite for dealing with the demands of outsiders and the new laws and treaties created to accommodate them. Missionaries learned Hawaiian and helped Hawaiians learn English, but most of them segregated their own children in English-only schools. Many of these haole students went on to become business leaders in the islands’ emerging agricultural economy and, as pro-American businessmen, worked to secure their Hawai‘i ventures through the American annexation of Hawai‘i. This eventually came about in 1898, five years after the overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani. English became the official language for the provisional, interim government, which passed a law prohibiting the use of Hawaiian in schools. Under the new government, most teachers ridiculed children who spoke Hawaiian; children were beaten or forced to recite one hundred times, “I will not speak Hawaiian,” sometimes while holding a heavy stone in the air for emphasis. Teachers went out of their way to call on students’ Hawaiian-speaking parents and warn them that they were depriving their children. Consequently, Hawaiian elders discouraged their children from learning Hawaiian or being Hawaiian. Youngsters lapsed into the pidgin used by Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino immigrants. As native expression and native pride withered, real estate developers replaced old Hawaiian place names, rich in legendary meanings, with new ones designed to attract home buyers. Ka‘elepulu (the moist blackness) became Enchanted Lake; Pu‘uloa (the long hill) became Pearlridge; Pu‘u Keahiakahoe (the fire of Kahoe Hill) became Castle Hills.
By 1986, when the state legislature legalized the use of Hawaiian in schools, 30 percent of the state’s entire student body had some Hawaiian ancestry, but only 5 percent of the students in the University of Hawai‘i system were Hawaiian, and of the total number graduating, only 2 percent were Hawaiian. From that group, 1 percent pursued graduate studies. The Hawaiian language was spoken by about one thousand Hawaiian elders, plus a few hundred people on Ni‘ihau (a privately owned island off Kaua‘i that has resisted most government intrusions) and students who had learned the language at the university. Most hula masters and Hawaiian musicians who performed Hawaiian chants and songs either memorized them or used crib sheets during performances.

During the late 1980s, the future of the Hawaiian language seemed to depend almost solely on Pūnana Leo, the preschool that used the immersion technique introduced to Hawai‘i from Aotearoa, the country better known as New Zealand. Native Polynesians, or Maori, perpetuate their language through village-based preschools where no English is spoken. Within a few months of enrollment, Maori children are able to speak and understand Maori, despite the prevalence of spoken English in their country.
To make the concept work in Hawai‘i, organizers of Pūnana Leo, mostly parents of the students, had to find Hawaiian speakers willing to teach for minimum wages--in a preschool they could not afford to build. They needed Hawaiian-language children’s books that did not yet exist, and which they could not afford to publish. In Honolulu, the parents found two native speakers from Ni‘ihau and a third whose grandmother was from Ni‘ihau. In 1985, the Kalihi and Moanalua Church donated space for the school, and friends helped tape Hawaiian words into English-language books. Twenty students were enrolled the first year, and the school’s minuscule income required that parents perform eight hours of chores each month. Parents who could not speak Hawaiian had to attend once-a-week classes.
Pūnana Leo was just the beginning. Parents realized their children could lose Hawaiian fluency after they left the preschool and entered kindergarten in the public schools. They began a lobbying effort to persuade the state Department of Education to establish a Hawaiian-language elementary school program, thereby continuing the work begun by Pūnana Leo, and to give credibility to ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i as an official language of the state. Enough sympathetic officials supported the idea to overrule opposition from superintendents who had already tried (unsuccessfully) to stop a related program that placed Hawaiian elders in the schools to teach native concepts and values.
The Department of Education initially established two schools in 1987, each with a kindergarten through first-grade program and another class for second-graders. The department then sought funds for additional schools and grade levels, and its goal for 1999 was seven immersion centers across the state, offering Hawaiian through high school. English is introduced as a teaching language for some subjects by the fifth grade.
Support structures for speakers of Hawaiian are growing. Hundreds of students are now enrolled in Hawaiian-language classes. A few radio shows are broadcast in Hawaiian, and computer users can access Leokï, an electronic bulletin board. But the complexity of perpetuating ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i becomes apparent after visiting the Wongs. Laiana and Lilinoe, their son Lāiana, and his younger brother, Kumuhonuaikauēokalani, live with Lilinoe’s parents, the Kealohas, just off the freeway in central Honolulu, on a narrow side street in the district known as Kapālama. The place name refers to an enclosure made of lama wood that was a protected area for chiefs.
The chiefs and their enclosure are long gone from Kapālama. The Kealoha home is squeezed between two others, all pinched into a neighborhood crammed into the urban sprawl that is Honolulu. Inside the family home, the walls are covered with mementos and photographs of children, family, and friends who over the years have passed through the house. In back, on the covered lānai, a barbecue, refrigerator, and cafeteria table stand ready for any family and friends who might stop by.
Here, Lilinoe extended the aloha implicit within her family’s surname. Smiling, she served more juice and beer while young Lāiana ran around, sputtering and singing in a steady stream of Hawaiian and English, two languages he mixed freely to convey enthusiasm for that year’s favorite video, Ghostbusters. His father relaxed on a bench, his hair still speckled with paint from the day’s construction job.
When the Wongs applied for Lāiana’s admission to Pūnana Leo, more than a hundred children were waiting for the twenty spaces at the school. Pūnana Leo enrolled Lāiana because his mother had grown up listening to her uncles, grandmother, and great-grandmother speak Hawaiian. Two of her brothers studied the language in college, and her mother played Hawaiian music. Pūnana Leo prefers family exposure for its children, to reinforce and encourage the use of Hawaiian.
After their son was accepted into the program, Lilinoe helped her husband to realize that they needed some immersion of their own to keep up with Lāiana. They both attended night school Hawaiian-language classes, where the first year was a headache of grammar and vocabulary study. They practiced by speaking with Lilinoe’s uncle, their son, his teachers, and with a language support group.
“When we don’t know how to explain things to him, we have to find out, and that pushes us to look for more knowledge,” the boy’s father said about their first year with the language.
“I’ll be painting or something, and it doesn’t take too much brain power, and . . . I just go into my head, you know, think of a situation and try to think of it in Hawaiian. That’s what I tried to tell some guys too, and they say, ‘Well, how you do it?’ I say, ‘Well, either you just go to talk to people over the course of years or try to talk to yourself or think about it yourself.’ I look at things and instead of thinking about them in English, think in Hawaiian. Look at your pants. Instead of saying ‘pants’ to yourself, say ‘lole wāwae, lole wāwae.’ Leg clothes. Try do that with objects around you and eventually you’ll get used to knowing those objects with a new name, not an English name but a Hawaiian name. . . . We had to get over being embarrassed speaking Hawaiian. ’Cause, you know, at first, you don’t know that much. . . . That’s a very big block. If you can get by that block, you can learn.”
Lilinoe’s uncle, who grew up speaking Hawaiian, did not help much. “He used to laugh at us when we first started because he said, ‘Oh you folks sound like you’re three years old!’ which is normal when you start learning a new language.”
“At first I was very limited,” Laiana said. “Now I can carry on a conversation and say basically what I want and have it understood, and I can understand what people are saying to me. At that point I am happy, but I’m not going to stop there. I have a long way to go.”
“I’ve decided to go back to school,” said Lilinoe, who gave up her job at the Honolulu Pet Clinic to teach at Pūnana Leo. “I never thought I was capable of going to college. . . . [But that has changed] in being around these Hawaiian-language teachers, the Hawaiian language itself, and seeing the need [for more] teachers.”
“She had no confidence,” Laiana said. “She didn’t think she was going to be able to do it. . . . Now she has confidence through the Hawaiian language. . . . Maybe other Hawaiians, through Hawaiian language, will gain confidence, a positive attitude toward things. If they now can say, ‘In the English world I never would have made it. Now I got something through the Hawaiian world. Maybe I got a shot. Maybe I can make it.’ Not everybody is an athlete. Not everybody is capable [of achieving what] we consider success. But as we open up new avenues, and you open up avenues that hit close to home, you’ll be surprised what good things that can happen, and people’s attitudes towards them and motivation factors will change drastically.”
In 1989, about eighteen months after the family began the language immersion program, Laiana suffered a brain hemorrhage. Doctors told him he would never work construction-demolition again. During his recuperation, he visited the Pūnana Leo children inside the cinder-block walls of their school at the Kalihi and Moanalua Church and made a decision to return to the university, improve his Hawaiian, and become a teacher.
Except for the sounds of a fifteen-hundred-year-old Polynesian language issuing from the children’s mouths, Pūnana Leo O Honolulu resembles many O‘ahu preschools, with a carpeted area for songs and sharing; shelves for blankets, books, and toys; and small tables and chairs for learning and meals. The children’s lunch pails and T-shirts advertise Barbie and Mickey and Donald, Hulk Hogan, and the New York Giants.
Two of the school’s original teachers, Lolena Nicholas and Ipo Kanahele, grew up speaking Hawaiian on Ni‘ihau. The third, Ululani Chock, had been raised on O‘ahu by her grandmother, who was originally from Ni‘ihau, and during the summers Ulu went to Ni‘ihau to visit her relatives there. When the teachers spoke to the children, words flew out in the accelerated Ni‘ihau style, but the children didn’t seem to have difficulty understanding. Instead, they challenged the teachers to keep up with their energy.
As the children napped, the Ni‘ihau teachers sat outside and talked quietly. In English, with a stranger, they spoke in a humble, almost reserved, manner that transformed into smiles as soon as they returned to their first language. Ulu was happy to share in either language, mostly because her English is as fast as her Hawaiian and she loves to talk. She learned English because her father could not speak Hawaiian, which “came during the years when I was growing up [with my grandmom].”
People in Ulu’s household never stopped speaking Hawaiian, and after graduating from high school in Wai‘anae on O‘ahu, Ulu went to work at Paradise Cove, a nightly commercial lū‘au for tourists, where she greeted visitors and wove hats. When she heard about Pūnana Leo, she interviewed for the job even though the pay was low, and she became a teacher.
“I enjoy working with kids. I like to see more children speaking the language. Really, because when I was growing up you hardly heard anybody talking Hawaiian. . . . That was kind of boring because you only have you yourself and you have nobody to communicate with. . . . But now, there is so much people speaking it. Everywhere you turn. Sometimes you don’t even know. . . . My grandma says, ‘You see, you cannot gossip about anybody anymore [in Hawaiian] because you never know.’”
Ulu knew she could earn a better salary if she went to college and got a degree that would enable her to teach for the state Department of Education’s immersion program, but instead she opted for preschool education classes at the community college. “I’ve been wanting to go back to school, but in another way I’m kind of afraid because if I leave it’s only going to be two teachers here at Pūnana Leo, and it’s kind of hard to find teachers for preschool. [When we first started] we had a lot of university students, but they didn’t last very long. . . . We don’t know why. . . . I don’t know if the kids are too wild for them or what, but we’re still here. I guess they are afraid, because we speak it fluently and some of them are just learning it, and they come here and then they hear us talk and they get shame, like: ‘Oh my God . . . these people talk too fast for us.’ Because we talk really fast among ourselves, and they just sit there and they watch us. ‘Oh you guys are speaking too fast, can you slow down?’ . . . We can’t. That’s our natural way of talking.”
Teaching at Pūnana Leo was sometimes difficult for Ulu. “Before, I never had blemishes on my face; now look at me. I go home all stressed out. We’re teachers, mothers, nurses, fathers. We’re everything. From seven to five. When they leave Pūnana Leo, they are with their parents two to three hours; then they go to sleep.”
Ululani continued to teach because, as she said, “I like kids. Period. . . . I accomplish something when I see the kids speak. I feel real good about myself ’cause I say, ‘Gee, I taught these kids Hawaiian.’ Imagine that I taught these kids Hawaiian and they all speaking Hawaiian today. I can share my language with them, the younger generation.
“We have a lot of ears opening, but people have to be strong so that the language can continue for a lot more years. . . . I hope the language is not like a fad, to where [people] all get excited, . . . learn the Hawaiian language, and then, after that, it just disappears; they are not interested anymore.”
Before Lāiana graduated from Pūnana Leo, in 1989, the Wongs planned to have their son continue improving his fluency through the state Department of Education’s immersion program, the Kula Kaiapuni Hawai‘i. The DOE initially set up the program in rural Keaukaha, a predominately Hawaiian community near Hilo on the Big Island, and at Waiau Elementary School, in the midst of the suburbanized central plain on O‘ahu.
By 1994, 134 students were commuting to the Waiau campus from all over O‘ahu to learn Hawaiian. Although more than seven years old, the state’s program continues to be a novelty for visiting educators. One spring day, Waiau welcomed a group of teachers from American and Western Samoa, teachers who wanted to see the immersion program in action--they were considering the program for Samoa, to support the Samoan language. The group was ushered into teacher Alohalani Housman’s portable classroom, where kindergartners had just finished pledging allegiance to the American flag in Hawaiian. The kids’ valentines shared wall space with homemade educational posters and other posters from Disney and Sesame Street, modified for ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i with Hawaiian words taped over the English texts. On the chalkboard, smiley faces grinned next to the names of students who had performed well, and frowning faces scowled beside those who needed improvement.
As the children sat in their chairs, Alohalani asked them if she could speak English with the visitors. Then she explained to the Samoans that seven of her twenty students had arrived at Waiau from Pūnana Leo already speaking Hawaiian. The rest of the class, she said, could not. Alohalani explained how, as time and lessons passed, peer pressure encouraged the other thirteen children to use Hawaiian words; by spring, most of them were motivated to speak Hawaiian.
The Samoan group moved on to a reception in the library, where thousands of English books filled the shelves. The library in the Hawaiian classroom has slowly grown since 1989, when it consisted of thirty-five books, most of which were translated from English, with Hawaiian words taped in place.
At the reception, the visitors met Lilinoe Ka‘ahanui, the other immersion teacher, who had learned Hawaiian at the university while becoming certified to teach high school. The Department of Education had waived its elementary education study requirements for Lilinoe because it needed a teacher at Waiau. In the beginning, the shortage of Hawaiian speakers was so acute that when Lilinoe or Alohalani got sick, no substitute teachers were available.
The principal at Waiau then was Diana Ka‘apana-Oshiro. As at other schools, the students called Diana by her last name--Mrs. Ka‘apana-Oshiro. Their respect was mixed with an equal amount of affection. Diana expressed a warm motherly concern for her brood and at the same time conveyed the expectation that loitering was not allowed. Diana has Hawaiian ancestors and she cared about the program’s success, but she told the Samoan visitors that the shortage of Hawaiian-language teachers would continue to be a problem for at least five years. Eventually, there should be enough certified teachers, but even then, Diana suspected those new teachers might face another challenge: By the time the first-graders of 1989 become sixth-graders, they may be more fluent than new teachers fresh from the university. And the school needed more books to challenge the students’ rapidly expanding Hawaiian vocabulary.
Diana also pointed out the problem of language teachers invariably interpreting and translating differently. She anticipated a standard for editing new Hawaiian textbooks, especially for science, which uses words that have no current translation in Hawaiian. She presented an example: Should the word galaxy be incorporated or translated into Hawaiian? Different combinations of Hawaiian words will yield the concept of galaxy, but someone has to decide what the standard will be.
Elders who still speak Hawaiian might be able to help, except that many immersion children speak the language differently than some küpuna, most of whom learned their Hawaiian at home, as an oral language. The formal system for Hawaiian-language education had been dismantled, Diana pointed out, in 1896.
Before the Samoan ladies left Waiau, they went to the classroom where Lilinoe Ka‘ahanui was in charge. The children said good-bye to their guests with a chant and a Hawaiian song as Lilinoe strummed an ‘ukulele. The Samoan ladies shared some of their own songs with the children.
After class, Lilinoe described a recent field trip to see John Waihee, then the state’s Hawaiian governor, at the Capitol. “My children are very confident. They think of themselves as very special. One student (a second-grader) pulled the governor aside and said to him in English, ‘Just like you I’m part-Hawaiian, and I want you to know I’m not stupid. I am the future. The Hawaiian language will die if we don’t speak it now.’”
Lilinoe regularly hugged her Waiau children, and she carried on a respectful relationship with them. She had them vote on whether they wanted to use lined or blank paper, and she remained positively attentive all through the long day. With no Hawaiian-language aides to take over for her during breaks and recess, Lilinoe put in a nonstop day, every day, and went home exhausted. She recalled a particularly awful school day when she felt sick and miserable, and her students knew it. “They were on their best behavior. They whispered to each other. I was just shocked. They were real sensitive.”
With committed teachers like Lilinoe and Alohalani, with supportive parents and enthusiastic government officials and bureaucrats, the future of Hawaiian immersion should be secure, but it isn’t. An influential daily newspaper editor voiced the fears of many people when he asked in a column whether Hawaiian immersion was the “first step towards a separated society like that of the French in Canada, the Catholics in Northern Ireland or the Indians in Fiji . . . with the same tinderbox potential?”
The fear resurfaces whenever the Department of Education has to beg for money from the state legislature. In 1989, the department needed an additional $521,000 to develop new immersion books, add classes, and hire Hawaiian-language teachers for Maui, Kaua‘i, and for the third grade at Keaukaha and Waiau. Immersion parents followed the relevant appropriation bills through the House and Senate committees and discovered their representatives had eliminated funding for increased immersion and for teaching materials. Senators had attached an amendment to their appropriation bill requiring government immersion funds to be matched by those from other sources--possibly from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (the state agency created to watch over native affairs), or from the private Bishop Estate, whose assets maintain the private Kamehameha Schools for Hawaiian students.
The budgetary politics angered the parents, and they organized a lobbying excursion to the Capitol. Chaperoned, the children visited Joseph Souki, then chairman of the House Finance Committee. He told them, “We must appreciate that we are Americans first.”
Representative Souki’s implication that the children should initially learn English infuriated the parents, who sought help from Hawaiian activists. Native students from the university painted protest signs, scheduled a demonstration, and notified the press. Parents, children, and supporters carried the signs through the state Capitol rotunda, held a press conference, visited politicians’ offices, and spoke with the governor--in Hawaiian.
Governor Waihee later told a radio station that he understood the simple words, “But when they started to explain their mathematics lesson to me in Hawaiian, I got lost. . . . I didn’t dare speak to them back in Hawaiian, because I was afraid these little children would start to correct my pronunciation. It’s really quite embarrassing.”
The demonstration and lobbying in 1989 eventually proved successful, but the process drained the parents--many of whom did not understand how politicians make decisions or why anyone would question the appropriateness of the funding request. How, they asked, could legislators not know anything about Hawaiian immersion or a $521,000 line item in a $4.8 billion budget that was being considered for the fiscal year?
Their frustration surfaced during a meeting in April that year at the Waiau school, where twenty parents showed up to discuss the legislative problems and the upcoming evaluation of the immersion program.
When Waiau parents get together, whether for meetings or barbecues, they usually speak English, except when talking with their children; then those who can, speak Hawaiian. Diana Ka‘apana-Oshiro estimated about half of the immersion parents are dedicated to fostering the Hawaiian language. “Some parents don’t have time to learn the language. . . . Those parents find it difficult to check the homework. They have no idea what their children are doing.”
The parents who have time to care, however, care passionately. At a meeting with the immersion program’s evaluator, one parent, a Hawaiian-language instructor at an O‘ahu high school, said, “We are really very proud of our children, our teachers, and our curriculum. There are a lot of needs, but it’s a success, and we’ll do anything in our power to keep it going.”
Another parent confessed that his daughter speaks Hawaiian in public. “School stays with her twenty-four hours a day. Teachers have done a tremendous job. She wants to come to school. She wants to learn. She finds it very, very enjoyable to be with kids who are so close-knit.”
As they sat in their children’s chairs at Waiau, discussing immersion issues, Robert Snakenberg asked if he could speak. Robert’s ancestors were Caucasian, but when his family moved to Hawai‘i from the mainland, when he was fifteen, a native family adopted him. They named him Lokomaika‘iokalani and helped him learn Hawaiian. “Loko” became a language teacher and was one of the first teachers in Hawai‘i to offer Hawaiian to his high school students. After that 1976 debut, he moved on to administer the education department’s Hawaiian studies program. At one time he had questioned whether the state should develop an immersion program, but later he became a vocal proponent for it. Loko knew that most immersion students thrive in school because their parents believe in education and encourage the children. “You go in the regular public schools and see how many Hawaiian kids are out there reading,” he told the parents. “It’s not a whole lot, because they are not getting reinforcement from home. . . . These kids in this immersion program are getting into the whole idea of reading and enjoying it.”
Then Loko introduced an issue that concerned the parents more than the budgetary skirmish. Although peer and parental pressures encourage the bilingual children to focus on Hawaiian during the school year, English-speaking peers influence them to neglect the language after school and during summer vacations. They surf, play piano, and swat base-runs in English, which is also the language of their comics, Baby Sitters’ Club books, and Saturday morning cartoons. English dominates the fun in their life; Hawaiian is the hard-core curriculum. “What are we going to do,” Loko asked, “if they begin to lose their enthusiasm? A lot of this has been parent-generated enthusiasm because we want to see the next generation of kids speak fluent Hawaiian, but as they grow up in this modern American situation, that may not be a high priority for them. How are we going to deal with that when the time comes?”
Laiana Wong had voiced a solution to the dilemma months before on the lānai of the Kealoha home. “I want a lot of people to be able to speak Hawaiian, so [my son Lāiana] doesn’t feel like an oddball, that there’s something’s wrong, something’s different about him. They get to that age they don’t want to be different. You want to be like other people. You copy. . . . And if he’s speaking Hawaiian and everyone else is speaking English, he might not feel good about himself. So we have to keep supporting him, showing him that we are into it too, we can do it too, and it’s a good thing that he’s doing.”

The native-language students and teachers on O‘ahu--from Pūnana Leo through the university--gather together each year for a weekend of fellowship. The retreat is similar to ones held on the neighbor islands, and in April the Wongs drove out with their son Lāiana to Camp Erdman on the north side of the island. A cold, wet wind kept everyone inside, bundled up in sweaters and jackets, where they focused on speaking Hawaiian as they made ti-leaf lei, shared hula and songs, and participated in the pā‘ani ‘imi‘imi (scavenger hunt), Pā‘ani Nïnau (College Bowl), and other games.
The Wongs discovered that some of the high school and university students could speak Hawaiian, but as with most beginning language students, their phrases were basically memorized responses. Hawaiian did not flow from their hearts, as it did from young Lāiana, who ran away with his Pünana Leo buddies, impatient with the older students’ English-to-Hawaiian computations.
Most of the older students cared enough to try, though, despite the shortages of teachers and materials, despite counselors who advised students to study Japanese because there are “no opportunities” in Hawaiian, despite those students taking Hawaiian just to satisfy a “foreign” language requirement. Laiana and Lilinoe Wong focused on those teenagers who really wanted to learn and speak Hawaiian better.
Students at the Mānoa and Hilo campuses of the University of Hawai‘i can enroll in the largest Native American language program in the United States. The university also has the nation’s highest number of Native American language majors, partly because the state is willing to pay Hawaiian-language translators, teachers, and textbook writers.
At the Hilo campus, students can learn to chant in Hawaiian and write poetry and literature. Hale Kuamo‘o ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i--the campus Hawaiian-language center--develops math, science, social studies, and language arts materials for the state’s immersion program. Faculty members formulate ways of teaching Hawaiian syntax and orthography. They found, for instance, that if they use Hawaiian images (such as the tentacles-of-an-octopus pattern) they can convey Hawaiian grammar better than with the conventional sentence diagrams used in English. A Hilo faculty member also coordinates the production of pretaped Hawaiian-language radio programs that can be broadcast by stations throughout the islands. Another professor tapes video lessons for children. And the Hilo language center also offers state immersion teachers Kāko‘o Kaiapuni Hawai‘i seminars to show them how to teach from a Hawaiian viewpoint so the children will learn Hawaiian concepts instead of translated Western ones.
One seminar, subtitled “You Are What You Eat,” directed Hawaiian elders to take the teachers (many of them urban born and raised) around the Big Island to collect ‘opihi (limpets), catch ‘o‘opu fish, build an imu (oven) to cook these and other native foods, and then eat everything in a traditional feast. Immersed, even briefly, in Hawaiian cultural practice, the instructors are better able to help their students see the world as Hawaiians, so the culture and language will have a better chance of resonating as one.
Government efforts to perpetuate the language have the secondary effect of encouraging those individuals who teach ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i within hālau hula, who write Hawaiian poetry and song, and who organize important ceremonies such as the governor’s inauguration and the reinterment of Hawaiian remains discovered during the excavation for a hotel on Maui. No longer are these activities culturally isolated.
While all this happens, native enrollment in the university system is increasing. Hawaiian scholars are publishing English translations of older Hawaiian-language materials so a broader audience can learn what native authors wrote a century ago. And poetry, stories, essays, and speeches written in English express the challenge--and the meaning--of being a modern Hawaiian to those who cannot speak ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i.
More and more people are trying to learn. About seven hundred are enrolled in the Hawaiian Language Department at Mānoa, where native language courses became so popular by 1989 that the university did not have enough professors to teach the students and still develop new books and learning programs. Earlier that year, when his brain hemorrhage had forced him to abandon his demolition job, Laiana Wong decided to enroll at the university to study Hawaiian language and linguistics. His wife left her job at the pet clinic to teach preschoolers at Pūnana Leo and take childhood development courses at Honolulu Community College. Their income came from her salary, Laiana’s federal scholarship for native students, and his work translating and later teaching Hawaiian to undergraduates. During his first semester, a language mentor got him a job researching turn-of-the-century Hawaiian-language newspapers. He reeled through the microfilms, looking for stories that could be used in immersion textbooks, because no one had time to write new stories. Whether the words were English or Hawaiian, Laiana read slowly, the stroke having impaired his vision. Laiana identified another kind of impairment. “I used to think, ‘Man, reviving the language should be easy. If people were interested in the language, they should all feel the same way and we could just get together and start working.’” But his involvement with immersion had shown him that, while many people want to perpetuate the Hawaiian language, they follow different paths to the same goal. “As a result we have problems.”
At the time, there were differences between the university’s language scholars at the Hilo and Mānoa campuses. What materials should be translated? Who should translate them? How should they be translated? How should they be taught after they have been developed into textbooks? Problems continued with some Department of Education officials who complained that inadequate curriculum, funding, and staff would handicap the immersion students and their ability to learn English. The bureaucracy delayed funding for translations because of copyright concerns and then hired Hawaiian-language translators, teachers, and substitute teachers whose level of fluency was considered inadequate by some immersion experts.
Sam No‘eau Warner, Laiana’s instructor at the Mānoa campus and one of the Pūnana Leo founders, said, “Every step of the way of the program has been a fight.”
When a state Board of Education committee discussed expanding immersion for all subjects through high school, a Honolulu newspaper reported that an assistant superintendent for instructional services, a Filipino, had questioned whether the immersion program had enough “intensity and quality” to teach the students to become “contributing citizens, productive citizens in a competing world.”
“What has ninety years of the Department of Education done for Hawaiian kids?” No‘eau Warner asked him during the meeting. “Hawaiian kids are alienated, not doing well. . . . What we want for them is that they be competent, confident in themselves, motivated. That is what will make them competitive in this world.”
No‘eau teaches other people how to speak and read Hawaiian, but he maintains that he will always be a student of the native language, as will his students. “The real life of the language is in these kids [learning Hawaiian], and their kids. We can never be native speakers.”
No‘eau regarded Laiana Wong as his best student in fourth-year Hawaiian, but for Laiana, the studies were frustrating. He wondered if his Hawaiian would ever become mature enough to match his sons’. At that time, he and Lilinoe felt they were still speaking to the boys as a child would speak. They recognized the need for young Lāiana and his brother, Kumuhonuaikauēokalani, to have more opportunities to hear adults speaking Hawaiian fluently and confidently so they could have adult role models for their language development.
Laiana and Lilinoe usually speak English to one another. “We try [Hawaiian], but it’s difficult,” for a lot of reasons, Laiana said, though he was not sure why. Perhaps because English avoids confusion that can lead to misunderstandings and bad feelings or because it feels awkward with someone who knew you before Hawaiian became part of your life. “One of my friends hit the nail on the head. Your relations [with your wife] started in English, and you kind of go back to that. . . .
“Some people would consider me fluent [in Hawaiian], but there’s just no way,” Laiana said. “I could get by in a conversation, but there’s so many times where you have to stumble and think in English first and translate it into Hawaiian, even to the point of using English words. . . . I couldn’t hold this kind of conversation, like I am having with you, right off the top of my head, in Hawaiian.
“The [old] Hawaiians . . . recalled ‘ōlelo no‘eau, wise sayings and . . . Hawaiian ideas [in their conversation], and they recalled stories from many, many years ago, and they used that in their conversations to emphasize a point, and it was all that metaphoric speaking. I think to myself, ‘Well, I’d like to be like that one day.’ But when? When is that one day? Many years from now, maybe. It’s just such a slow process now.”

The Wong Family: `Olelo / Language