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Hawaiian Language: Dead or Alive?

Olelo Hawaii: Ke Ola Ka Make?


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The Keawe ohana carries on the musical tradition of Autie Genoa, as well as the Hawaiian language.

photography by matt mallams

The Waikiki Beach Marriott is hardly a hotbed of linguistic revolution. Even on Thursday nights, when the Keawe ohana keeps alive the traditional repertoire of its late matriarch. Auntie Genoa Keawe sang at the Moana Terrace every week into her 89th year, and her presence remains. From a portrait hanging on the small stage, she beams out at the crowd as her son Gary Aiko plucks his bass, granddaughter Pomaikai Keawe Lyman holds forth on ukulele and vocals, and niece Momi Kahawaiolaa accompanies on guitar. (Alan Akaka, not related to Aunty Genoa, serves as MC and steel guitar impresario.)

The crowd of 60 or so includes dazed tourists, drifting up from the beach or down from their rooms, as well as a coterie of local fans and a smattering of former Islanders, paying homage.

The show follows the usual script: the quartet is decked out in matching dresses and aloha shirts, Akaka keeps up a practiced patter and the standard songs go out—“Papalina Lahilahi” for the hula dancers, “The Hawaiian Wedding Song” for the honeymooners and “Alika” for the regulars.

The Hawaiian music, Hawaiian lyrics, Hawaiian mood—are all faithfully rendered. But is anyone speaking Hawaiian? Not on stage, and not in the audience.

Then the youngest generation of the Keawe clan takes the spotlight.

Lyman’s two daughters dance “Sophisticated Hula.” Her two sons dance “Boy from Laupahoehoe.” This is all just a warm up for 4-year-old Enosa’s rendition of “Ka Uluwehi o ke Kai.” The Edith Kanakaole composition recalls the joys of gathering seaweed on a sparkling sand beach. Enosa knows every single word. And I don’t mean he has memorized them. He knows them.

All four siblings, like thousands of other fledglings across the Islands, are products of a steadily growing Hawaiian-language, immersion-school system. They have been happily gathering up Hawaiian words in the same way that Kanakaole and her clan once gathered limu kohu—not just since they started to sing, but since they started to talk.

If the Hawaiian language has come back from the dead, or at least the seriously moribund, these might be the poster children of its resurrection.

Pomaikai Keawe Lyman (center) has made sure that her children can speak Hawaiian fluently.

The Great Comeback, Or, Come part-way back

Thirty years ago, in 1983, a group of Hawaiian-language scholars met at Hokulani Cleeland’s house on Kauai to discuss the dismal state of the indigenous tongue. Their own informal survey showed that fewer than 50 children under the age of 18 then spoke the language fluently.

When children stop speaking a language, the language dies. (And languages are dying at a scary rate. Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say nearly half will disappear in this century. Today, we’re losing about one every two weeks.)

So the group at Cleeland’s house focused on children. Using a promising “language-nest” model out of New Zealand, they started a preschool in Kekaha, then started some on other islands. Using manaleo (native speakers) from Niihau and elsewhere, they created an immersive environment for preschoolers and offered support to parents willing to learn the language themselves and use it at home.

Student by student, family by family, school by school, the language nests focused on Hawaiian sentences and fostered Hawaiian values. When the fledglings were ready for elementary school, the group lobbied for elementary schools. When the elementary school graduates were ready for middle school, it lobbied for middle schools. When the middle schoolers needed high schools, it demanded those, too.

The Kauai group started a movement. The nonprofit corporation it founded, Aha Punana Leo Inc., grew from a startup to a $5 million enterprise. Today there are 11 preschools and 20 state-funded elementary and secondary schools. Private-school behemoths Kamehameha and Punahou—late to the language party—have added Hawaiian for “foreign-language” credit.

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