It was early morning. Waves slapped against the sides of a double-hulled canoe as it cut sleekly through the water.
The canoe, propelled forward by a group of high school students, streamlined through a stretch of ocean in which three Hawaiian islands were visible at once — Molokai, Maui and Lanai.
The high schoolers, students at a Hawaiian language immersion charter school called Nawahiokalaniopuu, were sailing from Oahu to the Island of Hawaii — a two-day trip.
Kawehi Housman, who was 16 years old at the time, stood on the deck and looked on as the rising sun streaked across the ocean. It was her turn to sail.
“I had this weird aha moment where I felt connected to my ancestors and was in awe,” she recounted about the experience. “It was like I went through this time change kind of thing where I just felt everything at once.”
Housman described it as a spiritual moment — one in which she realized she has a responsibility to give back and bless the next generation of Hawaiians.
Several years later, now a recent BYU-Hawaii graduate, Housman is doing exactly that. She is currently undergoing an intensive teacher training program in which she is training to become a Hawaiian Language Immersion teacher. She will lead her first class come August and plans to teach at Nawahiokalaniopuu — the same school she attended as a child.
As for why she decided to become a Hawaiian immersion teacher, Housman, who double majored in Hawaiian studies and elementary education, credits her own experience going through an immersion program.
The sailing trip was part of that program. Hawaiian Language Immersion schools incorporate Hawaiian culture into almost every aspect of education. Housman’s particular school embarked on cultural, hands-on activities each Friday.
Stationed in Kea’au, Puna on Hawaii Island, Nawahiokalaniopuu is a full immersion K-12 school also known as a Hawaiian Medium school, meaning everything is taught through the Hawaiian language.
Housman explained that this meant everyone from janitors, teachers, administrators and gardeners had to speak Hawaiian if they were on school grounds.
Which, she said, was helpful because their efforts to learn the Hawaiian language never competed or clashed with English curriculum.
The Hawaiian Language Immersion program
There are currently 23 Hawaiian Language Immersion schools set up around the state, seven of which reside on Oahu, seven on Maui, three on Molokai, two on Kauai and four on the Big Island. Three of the eight islands don’t yet have immersion programs of their own, however one is uninhabited, another is private, and the other has an extremely small population. Still, the Hawaii Department of Education is currently trying to find a teacher to teach there.
View Interactive Map of Hawaiian Language Immersion Schools in a full screen map
The majority of these schools are unlike Nawahiokalaniopuu in that their programs don’t include the entire student body. Rather, a small percentage of the students go through their school’s Hawaiian Language Program, if one is even offered at all.
Hawaiian Language Programs are a part of a new effort to revitalize the Hawaiian language after it very nearly died out in 1896 when American businessmen illegally annexed Hawaii as a U.S. territory and banned its teaching from every school and public function.
Back then an estimated 400,000 to 800,000 native Hawaiians spoke the language fluently. Now there are less than 9,000, according to the UCLA Languages Materials Project.
Activists fought hard to lift the ban prohibiting the Hawaiian language from being taught in schools and officially won in 1986.
Officials established two public Hawaiian immersion preschools, called Pūnana Leo, one on Oahu and the other on Kauai. The programs were deemed a success, and parents lobbied that their children should be able to continue with it in kindergarten. K-12 programs gradually followed one by one shortly after.
Housman’s mom was one of the first Hawaiian Language Immersion teachers. Unlike many of the students who go through the program, Housman could speak a little Hawaiian prior to entering a Pūnana Leo as her mom had spoken it to she and her siblings at home.
She stressed the impact the program has had on her life.
“After the overthrow and language being banned, a lot of Hawaiians have been misplaced,” Housman said. “My identity is a very strong part of who I am and because I know who I am, I know what I can do and I know why I am important and that is why Hawaiian immersion programs are important. The next generation needs to know who they are, they need to know why they are important and they need to know how much change they can do.”
Housman pointed out that the Hawaiian Language Immersion program has evolved over time. When she started school, it was in the early stages of development. She recounted the way her teachers would cut and paste Hawaiian words over books, because there just weren’t any materials they could use.
Today, she said, there are published books in the Hawaiian language, which is a big step in the right direction.
But progress is slow and resources are limited.
Teaching at a Hawiian Language Immersion school
Ahulani Wright has been a Hawaiian language immersion teacher for fifth and sixth grade at Hau’ula Elementary School since 2013.
Wright described her job as more than just teaching reading and math. She said it’s about keeping the Hawaiian language alive — something that could be gone forever if people don’t take the responsibility of passing it on.
A group comprised of community members, teachers, administrators and students kicked off Hau’ula Elementary’s immersion program in 1998. There was just one small class at the time, but the program continued to grow over the years as more teachers joined.
Now, 20 years later, the school’s Hawaiian Language Immersion program fills six classrooms, employs six full-time teachers and hosts over 100 students. Wright estimated that only 10 percent of those students have a parent who also speaks the language.
The majority of program participants’ only exposure to the Hawaiian language happens at school. Regardless, Wright said she knows the parents are proud that their children are learning what they never could.
Like Housman, the students at Hau’ula Elementary go on frequent field trips to the ocean, the mountains, fish ponds and taro patches — places with cultural significance.
“It’s not just learning facts,” Wright said. “It is trying to go back and learn the way that their ancestors did. It is kind of a spiritual thing too I think, to be connected to their ancestors, to the ‘aina — their land.”
However, there is no educational curriculum written in the Hawaiian language, making immersion teachers’ jobs especially challenging.
Wright said she often wakes up at 4:30 a.m. each day to create the day’s lesson.
Hawaiian immersion teachers have to either create or translate the entirety of their curriculum, she explained, making for a ton of work outside of the classroom because the material just isn’t available in print.
Hawaiian Language Immersion teachers also have less people to collaborate with. The entire effort is so new, Wright said, adding that sometimes teachers just don’t know the answers.
Wright said she thinks the state Department of Education wants to help, but just doesn’t know how because the majority don’t speak Hawaiian.
Wright emphasized that she loves what she does despite the shortcomings of the educational system.
As for those unanswered questions?
Wright said she feels like everything has a spirit in Hawaii and the connection she feels with her ancestors helps her and other Hawaiians find answers. It’s a spiritual experience.
“I see how much children in our program grow and how much they love what they do. They really absorb the things that we teach them and I know they are going to be great Hawaiians when they grow up,” she said.
What the Office of Hawaiian Education does
Things have gotten better for the Hawaiian Language Immersion program recently — four years ago the state Department of Education created the Office of Hawaiian Education to cater to the program’s unique needs.
Wright said Hawaii is in the middle of a teacher crisis even in English-language schools, but there are even less instructors who can speak the Hawaiian language.
One way the Department of Education has helped counter this is by allowing Hawaiian language speakers to become teachers by offering them a temporary teaching permit before going through the typical teacher training to receive their license. This means native speakers can start teaching without their license as long as they are taking formal teacher education classes at the same time.
The Office of Hawaiian Education also pushed standardized testing in the Hawaiian Language and Wright said they now are able to administer yearly assessments for grades third through eighth. Five years ago there wasn’t even a test written in Hawaiian.
Kalehua Krug, an educational specialist at the Hawaii Department of Education and head of the Office of Hawaiian Education, has played a considerable role in the recent push to increase the Hawaiian Language Immersion program’s breadth of resources.
The office was built in 2014. Krug was working at a teacher training program at the University of Hawaii in Manoa at the time, but felt compelled to take an administrative role because the Department of Education did not seem to support the immersion system.
Even now, he said, the office is in the midst of a battle to regain funding, because the Department of Education more than halved the $800,000 they received in 2008. Now, the office receives about $340,000 a year despite growing enormously since the birth of the new program.
Krug, who learned the Hawaiian language in college, said he wants to change the way the government and the people see its value.
Research shows that Hawaiian students are more likely to show up and engage in school when they are able to connect with their culture, Krug explained.
“I don’t think saving the language does anything if it doesn’t shift or improve the current status of people,” Krug explained. “We believe one of these solutions is language acquisition and then teaching (youth) through a cultural lens — trying to attach language to education and make it more meaningful.”
Krug said their efforts to secure more funding have to be strategic and careful. Though officials from the Office of Hawaiian Education have begun conversations with the state Legislature, the bulk of negotiating needs to start within the Department of Education.
He explained that things are already somewhat terse and precarious between the state government and Hawaiians.
“If we show up at the Legislature it looks like a media fiasco between Hawaiians and the system so we’ve been trying to move more towards re-establishing the funding,” Krug said. ”As the funding returns, we will take that as a sign of support from internal administration that we can start using that funding to run newspaper ads and get more out into the community in a more official capacity.”
He explained that they would like to expand the Hawaiian Language Program and make it as accessible to students as possible, but until funding is restored this just isn’t possible.
Krug said state education officials must first desire to increase enrollment. He said it could do this fairly easily by sending letters to parents from the state superintendent’s office, but it’s not a priority for them.
The Office of Hawaiian Education doesn’t currently have the capacity to push the administration into doing anything it isn’t ready to do, he explained.
Despite the varying challenges, Krug said he has a vision for what he wants the future to be like for his people. He recognizes that any true language revitalization effort will outlast his lifetime.
Krug said he wants to lead the shift from English best practices to cultural teachings based on what Hawaiian children actually need. The government and the system need to value this.
Ultimately it is about survivability and sustainability, he explained. The youth need to learn how to interact with their land and heritage, and in doing so will interact better with one another.
“Cultural beliefs to me are the strongholds or these bracing steps on the precipice on our society’s survivability, especially on an island,” Krug said. “We are running out of water, out of food, 85-90 percent of what we eat comes from outside — if anything happens to that a cultural language knowledge and historical wisdom of my people here will, in essence, allow us to survive in times of struggle.”
Why indigenous languages like Hawaiian are dying out
The Hawaiian language is not the only indigenous language that has been nearly pushed into extinction.
According to Mark James, a professor at BYU-Hawaii specializing in foreign language instruction methodology, there are somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 languages currently spoken on Earth — many of which come straight from the heart of the Pacific Islands.
The issue is that 96 percent of the world’s population only speak about 4 percent of these languages.
This means the majority of languages are at risk of extinction, James said citing global powers, disease, modern convenience and colonialism as some of the biggest threats.
“It’s just really difficult to live isolated from the rest of the world today — that used to be possible, now it takes government force to actually protect people from the rest of the global world,” he explained. “It’s easy to swallow up small populations that speak a certain language.”
The reality is that indigenous languages are dying out quickly and few things can be done to save them, James said.
He cited Easter Island as an example; the majority of people there were removed from the island and brought to the South American coast to work as slaves in the 1860s. The older people, the guardians of both culture and language, either didn’t survive the journey or slavery and now Easter language is a mere shadow of what it was 150 years ago, he said.
“That would be relevant to Hawaii, where 80 to 90 percent of the population was wiped out within 100 years of the discovery of the islands,” James said. “You have fewer speakers and they are less capable of defending their culture, their practices and their languages because of their relatively fewer numbers.”
Colonial power, disease and destruction combined with the forces of public education from the colonial power begins to gradually hegemonize people’s minds, he explained. Pretty soon parents become convinced they shouldn’t speak their native language at home anymore — rather they should be pushing some language of the future, whatever that may be.
“There aren’t very many people who can actually withstand that kind of pressure and there are very few cases where a dying language has reversed, revitalized and reestablished –Hebrew being one,” James said.
Why people should care about linguistic diversity
Most people are convinced that biodiversity matters, according to James. The question is whether or not the metaphor transfers well to linguistic diversity.
He thinks it does. There are reasons scientists and linguists are convinced that preserving languages is vital to human advancement.
“Linguists would say they want to preserve as many as possible because every time they discover a characteristic which is universal across languages we learn something about how the human brain operates or prefers to organize or view the world,” James said. Multilingual people are often more sensitive and intuitive to the people they talk to than their monolingual counterparts, he added.
The question is whether governments can be convinced, he said. Without government involvement, programs like Hawaiian Language Immersion schools aren’t going to be enough to save a dying language.
Governments have access to money and money can be used to leverage media, which convinces people the value their native languages, he said citing websites, games and television programs as examples.
“If you can’t get major players like Beyonce or whoever to come on board and sing or perform in more than one language, then being multilingual isn’t going to be cool. If you can’t make it cool, relevant and fun then you aren’t going to be able to convince the young people to get onboard,” James said. “It all comes down to money and willpower.”
What being a parent to a Hawaiian Language Immersion student is like
Kamoa’e Walk, a Hawaiian Studies professor at BYU-Hawaii, has been closely tied to the immersion schools since their inception.
He and his wife were already on what he described as their own path to use the Hawaiian language in their home when the program became available to the public.
At this point immersion schools were sparse and the closest was over an hour and a half away from their home in Hau’ula, but they still enrolled their children.
Walk’s wife is a Hawaiian immersion teacher at Kahuku High, a school on Oahu’s North Shore, and he advocated for the immersion program’s expansion.
“For my wife and I, it was part of a larger picture of us wanting to use language as a means of reconnecting to our cultural heritage to our kupona — ancestors — and continuing the legacy that they left for us,” Walk said. “But it’s been challenging.”
He explained that his children struggled going to school at first. They recognized that they were a minority at their school. The majority of the other kids opted not to go through the program, instead shuffling through the larger, widely accepted English curriculum.
They recognized that the world outside of their classroom largely did not speak Hawaiian, Walk said, though eventually their trepidations shifted to pride once they realized how this helped them connect to their cultural roots.
Like Wright and Krug, Walk said lack of curriculum was another challenge.
“If we had the money and the resources and the bodies to say ‘hey we need 100 people to come in and develop curriculum,’ we might be able to do that, but those 100 people would be coming out of classes and then we wouldn’t have teachers,” he explained.
One of the issues is that the Hawaiian language is in the early stages of revival. Most Hawaiian Language Immersion teachers are second-language learners who learned from second-language learners, and so on and so forth, Walk said pointing out that Hawaiian is no longer intact like it was 100 years ago. This creates problems even of itself.
He recalled moments in which he and his wife debated withdrawing their children from the program and homeschooling them instead. In the end they chose to push through it, and Walk said they are glad that they did.
He pointed out that one of the best parts about the immersion program is parent involvement. Parents want to be engaged in their child’s education because it is their culture too, Walk said.
Whether immersion programs are enough to save the Hawaiian language
Walk believes immersion programs are not enough to save the language — not even close. Efforts need to begin with the entire family.
“I look at it as not just a revival of language, but a revival of Hawaiians,” he said. “We’ve carved out that niche right now and now we need to go back and look at how we can support the families better in acquiring the language and using the language as the primary language in the home.”
Long before the Department of Education approved the Hawaiian Language Immersion program, there was trepidation from the community about Hawaiians, Walk said, pointing out the legal and political issues tied into this ranging from the illegal overthrow in 1893 to the lack of funding in immersion schools now.
“I think in some respects it is a political movement, but it was not based on a political movement. I don’t think it is a language movement either although language is involved in it and culture is involved in it too,” Walk said. “This is a movement about people — Hawaiian people, native Hawaiian people, kanaka maoli, whatever you want to call it — its about us helping ourselves to become better people, better citizens and so forth.”
Having seen how the immersion program plays a role in his children’s lives and in his own, Walk said he knows his language is worth fighting for. He plans to continue doing so.