Revitalizing the Hawaiian language

The podcast story “Meet the last native speakers of Hawaiian” is a fascinating story about how to revitalize a language that almost (but not quite) went out of existence. The story of Hawaii and the Hawaiian language probably shares some elements in common with the story of many Native American languages and nations/cultures/tribes. The story of Hawaii is interesting because, despite the efforts to squelch the language from existence, there still remain pockets where the language is still spoken. Similar to the story of Myaamia, a concerted effort by community-based linguists and collective support from the community was crucial. The efforts are successful in that many kids grow up knowing how to speak Hawaiian because they go to Hawaiian-language primary schools. With the basic step solved, the next-step problems take their place.

The tricky aspect, now, is that many of the language revitalization efforts are aimed at kids on the larger islands, where the language was eliminated. The island with the last remaining native speakers is smaller, remote, less technologically advanced, and thus there is no connection with the speakers of the larger islands, who also are much more numerous. So the new speakers have an accent influenced by American-English sounds, and they are coining new words for old concepts based on English words. The disconnect between the two groups of speakers is a hindrance to reconciling the problem, although the remoteness of the native speakers is also what has kept the language alive all this time.

One way to preserve the rustic way of life of the native speakers, which is probably an asset in the long-term, while still introducing the linguistic examples of their speech to the new learners, is to create native speaker-staffed language immersion schools on the bigger islands. Maybe the schools could be planned out by the language researchers and activists, but the presence of native speakers alone is enough to be the example needed for new students. And it would be important to preserve quality, even if it means fewer students at a time can attend. The point is to let new learners know that there is a level of language proficiency above what they already get by default from school, and to make such opportunities more easily attainable while still maintaining an authoritative stance of what better proficiency looks like. Making the program immersive would be important, too. Just an idea.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s