updated 3/25/2005 9:46:42 AM ET 2005-03-25T14:46:42

“E heluhelu kakou,” Nako‘olani Warrington tells her third graders — let’s read together.

But there’s no need to translate at Ke Kula Kaipuni o Anuenue, a public immersion school where all instruction for the 350 students is in the Hawaiian language.

The school represents a turnaround for the native language, which appeared to be fading away 20 years ago. A 1983 survey estimated that only 1,500 people remained in Hawaii who could speak it, most of them elderly.

Today there are probably 6,000 to 8,000 Hawaiian language speakers throughout the state, most of them under 30, said Kalena Silva, professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii-Hilo.

Everyone knows a little bit of Hawaiian, even visiting mainlanders. “Aloha” has become an almost universally recognized greeting and expression of love. “Mahalo” often subs for “thank you.”

But there’s less understanding of the state motto — “Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono” (the life of the land is preserved in righteousness) — or the name of the state fish — humuhumunukunukuapua‘a.

“Before, people would hear me speaking Hawaiian to someone and ask what language I was speaking,” said Leilani Basham, coordinator of the Hawaiian language program at the University of Hawaii’s flagship Manoa campus. “I don’t get that anymore.”

When Silva joined the UH-Hilo faculty 20 years ago, only 10 students were majoring in Hawaiian studies and Hawaiian language. That number has grown to more than 100, he said, with some students from the mainland and from Germany and Japan.

Silva, who also is director of UH-Hilo’s Ka Haka ‘Ula Ke‘eliikolani College of Hawaiian Language, attributes the greater interest in learning Hawaiian to community efforts dating to the early 1980s. He said parents and Hawaiian language instructors wanted to make sure the language remained strong on Niihau, a privately owned island populated exclusively by Native Hawaiians.

As a result, Hawaiian is the only indigenous language in the United States that showed growth in the 2000 census, said Verlieann Leimomi Malina-Wright, vice principal of Anuenue school. About 200,000 of Hawaii’s 1.2 million people are of Native Hawaiian ancestry.

Official state language
Hawaiian is recognized, along with English, in the state Constitution as an official state language. Some lawmakers want to require that Hawaiian be used on government signs and in government documents, although two bills on the matter have stalled.

The language already is spoken in the islands in a variety of ways. Ceremonies usually include a chant or prayer in Hawaiian, and Hawaiian music with lyrics in the native language are making people more aware. There even is a new Hawaiian music category for the Grammy Awards.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin publishes a Sunday column in Hawaiian, and a Honolulu radio station has a daily newscast in Hawaiian and a “Hawaiian word of the day” segment.

Most U.S. colleges recognize Hawaiian and allow it to fulfill students’ language requirements, Basham said.

The public school immersion programs began in 1987 with 16 students at two sites in Honolulu and Hilo.

“We now have 19 sites, not including four public charter immersion schools,” said Keoni Inciong, the state Department of Education’s specialist for the Hawaiian language immersion program.

Instruction from kindergarten through fourth grade is in Hawaiian, with English introduced in fifth grade. And while some secondary texts are in English, instruction is in Hawaiian, Inciong said.

Most of the students are of Hawaiian ancestry, but it’s not a requirement, and the majority come from English-speaking homes, he said.

“When we started in 1987, the main focus was on perpetuating the Hawaiian language,” Inciong said. “Now we have the equal goal of a quality education, with emphasis on culture, traditions and values.”

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