[lg policy] What I’ve learned from Hawaii’s language revitalization movement

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Feb 15 12:28:21 EST 2018

 What I’ve learned from Hawaii’s language revitalization movement
by Keala Carter <https://intercontinentalcry.org/author/keala-carter/>February
14, 2018

The Hawaiian language revitalization movement had humble beginnings: a
dying language, native speakers who didn’t recognize the urgency, and next
to no funding. But what the movement lacked in funding resources or
stature, a committed circle of academics offered in a combination of vision
and commitment that silenced their critics and established a legacy. Today
ha’aha’a, or “humility,” remains a fundamental lesson to students at
Hawaiian immersion schools, while the availability of Preschool – PhD
education exclusively in Hawaiian is held up as a model for native language
revitalization around the globe.

William “Pila” Wilson was part of the early cohort of academics in the
seventies and has, in every sense of the phrase, walked the talk, from
raising his children in an exclusively Hawaiian-speaking household, to
building the ʻAha Pūnana Leo or “nest of voices” immersion school system.
Pila has educated government leaders about the return on investment that
supporting native language immersion has demonstrated (both raising
graduation rates and lowering suicide rates) in some of the most remote
areas with limited resources.

As a Native Hawaiian with a strong interest in evidence-based policy
making, I’ve been amazed by the data on native language immersion and
student success. With a desire to understand the why and the how, I asked
Pila to explain the connection between native language learning student

Young learners at ʻAha Pūnana Leo. Photo: ʻAha Pūnana Leo
Language roots the tree of culture

Pila broadened my understanding of language from only the spoken and
written word to include behavior as well as “how you hold yourself; treat
others. How you act.” So that in the learning of the Hawaiian language, the
curriculum in immersion schools weaves in cultural norms such as expressing
respect and deference to your elders, *mālama i ka ʻāina* (to care for and
live in harmony with the land) and what it means to live a *pono* or
righteous life.

He also underscored the bond that speaking the same language creates, even
when it seems you have nothing in common; if a person speaks with a dialect
or uses a phrase that reminds you of home, familiarity is established and
the wall between you shrinks.

“Language is important as a lens, but it also connects you to a base that
goes back generations and generations that allowed the civilization to
develop,” said Pila. Just as the high manifestations of language in song
and poetry are important for a cultural identity, so are the low
manifestations such as chatting on the porch with neighbors and making an
effort to pronounce the Hawaiian words in your vocabulary correctly. The
everydayness of people speaking to each other in their native tongue is
necessary for the higher forms of language to have cultural resonance.
Just as language is dynamic, so are the students

Another common misconception I realized I had given at least partial
credence to was the impression that graduates from Hawaiian immersion
schools were voting as a bloc in controversial disputes such as the TMT
telescope on Mauna Kea and the stalemate over federal recognition. But Pila
made the subtle point that the Hawaiian identity of students participating
in immersion programs is very much intact, and so these students are less
likely to need to rigorously defend what it means to be Hawaiian.

“If they are going to school in Hawaiian language the connection to
language and culture is still very alive.” On the other hand, “…the person
who is away from something tends to want to identify with it more than the
person who has never been apart from it.” This exchange made me stop and
question the public narrative that has linked pedagogy in Hawaiian
immersion schools with the repatriation movement in Hawaiʻi, creating an
unfairly weighted stereotype that immersion students are to blame for the
recent protest movements in Hawaiʻi. Pila went on to give examples of the
many and diverse paths that graduates of Hawaiian immersion schools follow,
from doctors to construction contractors, policy advocates to artists.

“It is not a monolithic group,” he emphasized. Students represent a wide
spectrum of political ideologies including opposing sides of well-known
Hawaiian issues. They are not taught what to think but they are taught,
partly by the very existence of the immersion schools, “…to be engaged and
given a sense of agency.”

Some of the explanation for the modern or Western-leaning pursuits of
immersion graduates is reflected in the constant evolution of language
itself: “Language changes and culture changes, and even if you revive a
language, you are not going to have the same culture that existed ages ago.
It’s always changing.”

In that way, graduates of immersion schools are armed with the tools for
success in any career path of their choosing, from livelihoods that seem
more traditional, such as farming or navigating, to working in a laboratory
or reading for the bar. Most of all, they are instilled with a curiosity
for the world around them and a desire to participate.
Get to know your personal family history

In my family and the vast majority of other families in Hawaiʻi, there is a
story of the blending and sharing of cultures where everyone seems to be
mixed blood or *hapa*. I mentioned to Pila that I felt uncomfortable only
celebrating the ancestry of one of my grandparents while neglecting my
proud Portuguese and Chinese grandmothers and he warmly agreed: “It’s not
Hawaiian to ignore the other cultures that have long been a part of Hawaii.”

Pila detailed how ʻAha Pūnana Leo has been experimenting with the layering
of languages whereby students can learn to read and write Hawaiian by using
kanji characters (characters used in Japanese and Chinese writing). And as
complex as that initially sounded to me, it’s also an ingenious way to pay
tribute to the blended ancestry that is typical in the islands. As he
explained: “You cannot look at things, even language, in isolation. They
need to be placed in context to be relevant. That is why learning Hawaiian
through the lens of Japanese characters can be more of a reflection of the
localness of Hawaii. In this way you’re not denying part of your
background, you are building onto it.”

In response to my challenge that learning Hawaiian as a language has felt
to me like an all or nothing endeavor – either you spend your formative
years in immersion and develop a mastery or you are hopelessly limited to a
handful of Hawaiian words and don’t know where to start, Pila was quick to
respond saying: “You don’t have to do full immersion to add onto your
knowledge of Hawaiian. Practicing hula, making music, celebrating the
culture. Everyone can play a different role and we are probably stronger
playing diverse roles in the revitalization … the most important thing is
to preserve what we have and add onto that. Stay conscious, keep
interacting with the language.”

The best place to start, recommends Pila, is close to home: “Connect to
your family first. Ask them about Hawaiian words.” And in so doing, he
said, you will ground the learning of Hawaiian language in your own
personal story.

Since the day of our conversation, I have had Pila’s wise and earnest words
returning to me again and again. I see now that I can weave my Hawaiian
consciousness into the other areas of my life. I don’t need to be in
Hawaiʻi, working for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, to be Hawaiian. I can
carry it with me. Whether I’m living in Mexico City or negotiating trade
policy, my perspective will always be influenced by the lessons of my
elders and the place I come from.

The author with her kanaka grandpa


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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