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Hawaiian Language Gains Legitimacy at Harvard

After nearly three years of advocacy, Harvard University has officially recognized Hawaiian as eligible to fulfill students' language requirements.

“We’ve realized that this has been less about getting college credit and more about seeking institutional validation for our beautiful language, this unique worldview,” wrote Harvard sophomore Kaipo Matsumoto, one of the students who fought for inclusion of the language, in an essay in the online publication, Civil Beat.

The formal push began in 2012 when Leshae Henderson started her freshman year and sought to be given credit for her high school Hawaiian. At that time, Harvard said it was unable to find a university affiliated person to create and give a language proficiency exam.

Matsumoto joined Henderson at Harvard the next year, also having years of high school Hawaiian study under his belt. The Kamehameha Schools grad was also the first in his family in four generations to speak Hawaiian. But at Harvard, he also was told he couldn’t use it to meet the school’s language requirement.­­

The two students teamed up and argued their case based on a similar case in the 1980's that had since been forgotten, in which a student was allowed credit for four years of high school Hawaiian.

Last month, the school finally allowed the students to take a Hawaiian language proficiency test made by a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The oral test was administered via Skype, under the supervision of Harvard’s Linguistics Department.

Matsumoto hopes their victory paves the way for other indigenous languages at Harvard, noting the Native American language of the Wampanoag, on whose land Harvard was built, has yet to be officially recognized to fulfill the school’s language requirements.

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