How Hawaiian Came Back From the Dead
A legacy of colonialism nearly wiped out the language and its culture. These immersion schools weren’t having it.
HILO, Hawai‘i—When Herring Kekaulike Kalua was a child growing up on Hawai‘i’s Big Island, his parents spoke mostly in their native language, ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. English had long been the official language of government in the islands, mandated in schools and other public spaces. But Kalua’s family favored the soft vowels of Hawaiian, rejecting the harder consonants of English while they fished, hunted, and grew taro, customs their ancestors had passed down for generations.
That ended about 60 years ago when Kalua’s father Samuel declared that Hawaiian was kapu—forbidden—in the family. Samuel, who had only a middle school education, panicked when his son started skipping class because his teachers insisted he use English. Samuel worried his son would fall behind and forfeit his future. Quickly and quietly, Hawaiian disappeared from Kalua’s childhood.
But where the language was once banned it’s now protected by the law, and a thriving network of schools aims to promote it. Today, three of Kalua’s 13 grandchildren attend public language-immersion schools where subjects are taught in Hawaiian until about fifth grade, at which point English is gradually introduced. Designed to revive the fading language, these institutions began spreading across the state three decades ago, resulting in what many consider the most successful revival of an indigenous language in North America. More than 18,000 people statewide speak Hawaiian, according to the Hawai‘i State Data Center, out of a total Native Hawaiian population of about 142,000. The increase is partly the result of a growing community of immersion graduates who have brought the language back into their homes.
Efforts to revitalize the language began in the mid-1980s when a network of private Hawaiian immersion preschools called ‘Aha Pūnana Leo (the language nest) successfully lobbied the state to reverse the colonial-era ban on the language. In 1987, the Hawai‘i Department of Education began its own network of public Hawaiian language-immersion schools, called Ka Papahana Kaiapuni. Today, 15 traditional public schools and six charter schools educate some 2,000 of the state’s public school students in Hawaiian.
While the popularity of Hawai‘i’s immersion schools is growing, the decision to enroll children there can be difficult. Because classes are delivered in Hawaiian, some worry their children will struggle to compete in an English-dominated job market. These schools must survive in a country and economy that runs on English, one that expects its students to meet uniform standards of learning in uniform ways. For this reason, the benefits of Hawaiian immersion schooling don’t always register on the metrics through which America increasingly judges educational success.
Test scores and job competitiveness aren’t the only things at stake. Elsewhere in the United States, public immersion schools are a popular option for parents who want their children to learn languages that are crucial to the global economy, like Spanish or Chinese. But Hawai‘i’s language-immersion schools carry a heavier burden: Can a marginalized community repurpose an institution that was used to subjugate them?
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In 1893, a group of American businessmen staged an illegal coup, overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy and installing a provisional government, against the advisement of President Grover Cleveland. Three years later, Hawaiian was banned from all public schools, a move that foreshadowed attempts in the continental U.S. to forcibly assimilate Native Americans in boarding schools, where the use of Native languages was forbidden. The Hawaiian law remained on the books for nearly a century, through the islands’ annexation as a U.S. territory in 1898 and its integration as the 50th state in 1959. School officials reportedly threatened to fire teachers if they spoke Hawaiian to students. Teachers, in turn, punished children for speaking the language, even striking them with rulers. Under pressure, Native Hawaiians like Kalua’s father began discouraging the use of their own language—the insidious goal of colonialism come full circle.
The language withered. By the early 1980s, fewer than 50 people under age 18 could speak Hawaiian fluently, according to state expert’s estimates.
Kalua’s daughter Kamomihoohiki—Kamomi for short—never learned Hawaiian. Several of her cousins and one brother studied Hawaiian in college, however, and became involved in ‘Aha Pūnana Leo. The family didn’t speak Hawaiian at home, but Kamomi’s daughter Nahuluwenaokamomi—she goes by Nahulu—wanted to learn Hawaiian like her cousins. “She was so adamant at an early age,” says Kamomi. In 2008, as Nahulu approached kindergarten, Kamomi and her husband visited the two Hawaiian immersion charter schools in their area.
Kamomi’s mother-in-law protested, saying the Hawaiian-only program would limit Nahulu’s education. She and her husband had their own fears, too: How would they help their daughter with schoolwork? How do they learn the English? Are they going to be able to survive outside of school? Kamomi remembers thinking. She now blames the worry on “Western-world thinking.”
Kamomi’s husband, Ricky, who is Portuguese, Filipino, and German, had similarly mixed feelings. “A job in Hawaiian language is not guaranteed,” says Ricky. “So it’s better they learn to adapt to English.” Both Ricky and Kamomi work for the state. Yet Ricky thought immersion schooling would offer Nahulu and her younger sister a crucial opportunity to learn their native language. The Hawaiian people, he says, have been treated unfairly, and in a small way the immersion schools help remedy the abuse.
But reviving Hawaiian is also about resuscitating the values embedded in it. Kamomi’s eyes fill with tears when she discusses her inability to fully experience hula. Without understanding the Hawaiian-language songs and chants tied to it, dancing hula like memorizing a song in a foreign language: You know the words but the meaning is muddled. “I learned chants. I learned dances. Nothing makes sense,” Kamomi says. She wanted her daughter to forge a deeper bond with such native traditions.
In kindergarten, Nahulu enrolled in Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo, a charter school in Keaukaha, minutes from her grandfather Kalua’s childhood home. Nahulu picked up the language easily and thrived at the school. When the couple’s second daughter Apoleihikiula, or Apolei, was ready to start school, the couple enrolled her at the immersion school, too.
An inability to speak Hawaiian “makes me feel this little,” Kamomi says, pinching her thumb to her index finger. In the immersion schools, Nahulu and Apolei would never feel bound to the language of their oppressors. Instead they could stand tall, unapologetically Hawaiian.
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On a warm day in early December, a class of fifth-graders at Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo scattered across the wide courtyard. Their teacher, Kaaka Swain, had sent them on a scavenger hunt. They were looking for plants with traits similar to limu, or algae. A trip to the ocean had been canceled, so Swain was improvising.
Apolei, 10, wore her long brown hair in a ponytail, accented by a single strawberry blonde highlight. She set off with her group, speaking in a rapid hum of Hawaiian. They crouched at the trunks of trees, examining grass, leaves and roots, scribbling notes and taking pictures on an iPad. Swain, known by students as Kumu (teacher) Kaaka, yelled reminders to the class from under the shade of a wide tree. Apolei glanced at Swain and, seeing that she was busy across the yard, quickly held out an iPad and snapped a selfie with her friends.
In many ways, classes at Hawaiian-language schools resemble a typical school: Kids shuffle between classes, take notes, get homework, complete projects. But many immersion programs put a special emphasis on learning outdoors, stressing Hawaiian values that encourage a reverence for the land.
Like all public school kids, immersion students take standardized tests—a point of contention because until recently, they were offered only in English. As a result, hundreds of parents at the state’s immersion schools started a local “opt-out” movement, years before the idea of opting out was popularized among parents in the continental U.S.
At one immersion charter school, Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u Iki (Nāwahī for short), parents refused to allow their students to be tested in English, causing the school’s state ranking to drop. In 2015, the middle school division of Nāwahī ranked 48th of 49 middle schools across the state despite the fact that the school graduates 100 percent of its high school seniors and sends 80 percent of them to college. (The school’s charter extends through eighth grade; its high school students are technically enrolled at Hilo High School, a traditional public school, but they take immersion classes at Nāwahī.)
Most students at Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo, Apolei’s school, take the test in English starting in third grade—before formal English language instruction begins. Last year, just 25 percent of students at the school earned proficient scores on the language arts test.
Nahulu, now 12, remembers struggling with English vocabulary words on the tests. “It’s good to test in English,” says Nahulu, since college and jobs will demand fluency. But “they should have one where … you can also read it in Hawaiian and answer it in Hawaiian.”
Parents insisted the tests were unfair and weren’t reflective of their children’s ability to learn in either language, and studies prove them right: Students who learn in a language other than English experience no long-term setbacks in developing language and literacy skills in English.
So for years they demanded the state provide its standardized test in Hawaiian. In 2003, the state paid a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit to translate its test—but the result was an exam containing words not used in the immersion schools and lacking local context. Then, for several years, the schools used a “portfolio”-style test, designed in Hawaiian, until in 2011 it was deemed unsatisfactory under No Child Left Behind. So the state went back to the old test. Following its adoption of Common Core educational standards, the Hawai‘i Department of Education got a federal waiver last year to pilot a new test designed by experts at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, for immersion third- and fourth-graders—a test that immersion parents hope will make sense.
But testing is just one hurdle. Immersion students requiring special-needs services, like speech language pathologists, often must work with district personnel who only speak English. Staffing is particularly challenging at the high-school level. At ‘Ehunuikaimalino, a public K–12 immersion school in Kona, administrators have struggled to find enough high school teachers who are proficient enough in Hawaiian and certified to teach advanced subjects. High school teachers also struggle to convince students to speak in their native language, particularly as English-dominated social media increasingly consumes their lives.
And then there’s the curriculum itself. One morning at Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo, teacher Mahealani Lono’s high school social studies students worked from a study guide written only in English. Lono spoke Hawaiian to the students, but they replied almost entirely in English. With increasing exasperation, Lono reminded them to speak ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. Lono says finding quality high-school curricula written in Hawaiian is difficult. Translating worksheets and other materials takes a lot of time, yet asking students to read in English and then speak in Hawaiian is a “hard crossover.”
The lack of a strong curriculum in the upper grades causes Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo’s enrollment to thin at the high school level, according to principal Olani Lilly. Last year, just 25 students were enrolled. In late May, school officials announced they would temporarily suspend the high school program, pending a redesign effort.
Students often leave before the upper grades for schools with more sports teams or more modern facilities. When they pitch themselves to prospective students, in other words, language isn’t the only factor holding immersion schools back.
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Despite their early qualms, Kamomi and Ricky have been impressed by their daughters’ educations at Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo. But Ricky always figured the girls would eventually transfer to his wife’s exclusive alma mater, Kamehameha Schools. Kamehameha, which gives preference to Native Hawaiian students in admissions, routinely sends students to top colleges. The school emphasizes Hawaiian culture, but the classes are taught in English. Backed by an $11 billion endowment, Kamehameha doesn’t confront the same budget constraints faced by Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo and other public schools. Students there have ample access to sports teams, books, technology, college readiness counselors, and advanced courses.
When Nahulu reached fifth grade, the family faced a choice. It was her last opportunity to apply to Kamehameha Schools’ Hawai‘i Island campus, which accepts students in kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grades, for middle school. The family had to decide between a prestigious, well-resourced program and a movement that had gifted their daughter her language.
Nahulu was happy at Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo. In Hawaiian-language classrooms, she’d learned to predict weather patterns based on the shape of the clouds and how the moon impacts agriculture. The sisters had learned to read, write, and do math in Hawaiian. A normally soft-spoken Apolei had begun to find her voice.
Nahulu took Kamehameha’s rigorous entrance tests in the fall of her fifth-grade year, earning below-average scores but acing the interview. At that point, she’d only had English instruction for one year. She was accepted and started sixth grade at the private school in the fall of 2014.
At Kamehameha, Nahulu was required to take remedial math classes her first year. But she’s made the principal’s list each of the last two years. Her mother credits that accomplishment to Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo’s commitment to teaching kids how to learn, not simply absorb facts.
The differences between the two schools are stark. “They’re teaching me more things than my old school,” says Nahulu, specifically mentioning her advanced math class. But at Kamehameha, Nahulu says she learns mostly from textbooks and lectures, making it difficult to retain the information. She misses the frequent field trips of her old school.
The most obvious change is that Nahulu speaks English for most of the school day. While Kamehameha encourages students to learn and use their native language and offers Hawaiian language classes, most of Nahulu’s friends speak only in English.
This trimester, the cafeteria has a table devoted specifically to Hawaiian. “If you sit at this table,” Nahulu explains, “you have to speak Hawaiian.” Nahulu appreciates the opportunity to practice, but many of her friends, even those who speak Hawaiian, avoid the table. “When you have friends, you don’t want to do something they [can’t],” she says.
Nahulu’s younger sister, Apolei, took the entrance exam for Kamehameha last fall and was wait-listed. Though Apolei loves Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo, Kamomi plans to enroll her younger daughter at the private school if she’s admitted.
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Hawaiian was declared an official state language in 1978, 19 years after the islands were fully admitted to the United States. But the language’s speakers still struggle to have their native tongue recognized. In 2014, a state representative, after speaking in Hawaiian during a legislative session, was asked to behave “in a respectful manner.”
But at the family level, at least, the immersion schools can be transformative. Kamomi no longer worries that her family will never reclaim the Hawaiian language. Her husband studied the language briefly in college, and, with his daughters’ help, can now pick up small parts of their conversations in Hawaiian. The kids believe speaking the language is their kuleana—their responsibility. Nahulu speaks thick Hawaiian Pidgin (a creole of Hawaiian, English, and other languages spoken by immigrants on sugar plantations) with her friends and family who can’t speak Hawaiian. But she says she thinks mostly in Hawaiian and prefers it that way. That’s one major goal of Hawaiian immersion education, a victory worth celebrating no matter what classroom the children find themselves in.
Last fall, Kamomi anxiously quizzed Apolei after her Kamehameha interview. The admissions official had asked her what the private school could do for her; Apolei flipped the question, quickly becoming the interviewer.
She wanted to know if she’d be allowed to work outside in the lo‘i—taro patch—or clean fishponds. Both are activities built into Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo’s science curriculum. Maybe, she thought, she could bring some ideas from her immersion school with her. “I don’t know what your school can do for me,” she told the Kamehameha admissions official. “But what can my school do for you?”
The school has certainly done a lot for her family. These days, her grandfather Kalua wells up as he watches Apolei and Nahulu speak in Hawaiian. “It takes him back,” Kamomi says, “to that time where that’s all he knew.”
Tomorrow’s Test is a weeklong series looking at the challenges, tensions, and opportunities as the United States shifts to a majority-minority student population in its public schools—a milestone the country as a whole will reach within the next generation. It is a collaboration with the Teacher Project at Columbia Journalism School, a nonprofit education reporting fellowship.
Read more from Tomorrow’s Test.