The revival of the Hawaiian language, which was at one point nearly extinct, is now being used as a model for how other indigenous languages can be revitalized.
Advocates of endangered languages gathered at the University of Hawaii at Manoa this month for the fifth International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation. The conference included a field study of Hawaiian medium language schools — public schools where the curriculum is taught entirely in Hawaiian — in Hilo, Hawaii, to see what lessons can be applied to saving other languages. Advocates came from Okinawa, Japan; Singapore; Australia; New Zealand; Canada; and several states, according to the University of Hawaii.
“The Pūnana Leo preschools continue until today based on the simple rule: If you speak only in Hawaiian to the children, they will begin to speak it back to you,” Larry Kimura, associate professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, told NBC News.
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“When the [state Department of Education] allowed its first two probationary ‘Hawaiian immersion’ sites, the department was very frank in stating that they had no qualified teachers and no Hawaiian curriculum to support the program," he added. "The Pūnana Leo responded that we would take up that responsibility."
Hawaiian was banned in the state’s schools in 1896. The language nearly died out, according to the Hawaii Department of Education, and in 1978 it was made one of the official languages of the state, leading to changes in Hawaii's education system. The first Hawaiian medium schools were established in 1985.
“The Pūnana Leo preschools continue until today based on the simple rule: If you speak only in Hawaiian to the children, they will begin to speak it back to you.”
According to Kimura, it takes three generations of native speakers to reestablish a language; Hawaii is now seeing its third generation of new Hawaiian native speakers — defined as children who are raised with Hawaiian at home until they are 3 or 4, he said.
After graduating 17 classes of students from K-12 Hawaiian medium schools, enrollment continues to rise, with some of those graduates now sending their own children, according to Kimura. Advocates now want to take the next step and expand Hawaiian medium education to the university level.
The education system goes beyond just language immersion, Kimura said, and also incorporates Hawaiian educational philosophy.
“A more appropriate term perhaps is Hawaiian medium education where we can expand our own Hawaiian education philosophy and knowledge foundation for learning so it is not only about revitalizing our language but our language also connects us to a life force of well-being as a people,” he said.
A bill is currently advancing through the Hawaii state legislature to expand educational opportunities for Hawaiian speakers by offering general education courses at the university level in Hawaiian in addition to English.
“Our bill regarding our concern that the College of Hawaiian Language take the lead in offering general education courses in Hawaiian, moved out of the House Committee on Ocean, Marine Sciences and Hawaiian Affairs today,” Kimura said Tuesday. “The bill has already moved through the Senate Committees so now the process continues to several more stages.”
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