IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

When Larry Kimura was young, the Hawaiian language was dying. Now, it thrives.

Kimura, known as the "grandfather" of the Hawaiian language, helped start preschools that teach in Hawaiian.
Image: Larry Kimura
Larry Kimura, an associate professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, is known as the "grandfather" of the Hawaiian language.Courtesy Scott Nishi/University of Hawaii

To commemorate this year’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, NBC Asian America will be interviewing a series of community pioneers, from a Korean-American musician who found mainstream success in the ‘60s to an academic credited with helping revive the Hawaiian language and the “Chinese Bardot.

These individuals have witnessed the history of the U.S. These are their stories and their hopes for the future.

When Larry Kimura’s grandmother would shoo him away as a child so the adults could talk, he obeyed — for a moment. Eventually, he would sneak back to eavesdrop on his great aunts and uncles — all native Hawaiian speakers — as they told stories.

He didn’t always understand the words, Kimura recalled, but he was entranced by the rhythm.

There was nothing Hawaiian being taught in school, yet we lived in Hawaii and had Hawaiian music and Hawaiian ways and customs. I thought that was strange.

“I think it’s a very melodic language,” Kimura, now in his 70s, said of the Hawaiian language. “You would hear a lot of vowels; a roundness, not sharp and jerky. Fluid, almost musical.”

Concerned as a child that Hawaiian — which was banned as a language of instruction in the state’s schools in 1896 and became an official state language in 1978 — would become extinct, Kimura became an educator and advocate for the language, co-founding ʻAha Pūnana Leo, a nonprofit that opened the first Hawaiian-medium preschools in the 1980s.

Decades later, Hawaiian’s revival is used as a model for other indigenous languages. Kimura, who is known as the “grandfather” of the language, is now a professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and is the chair of the Hawaiian Lexicon Committee, which develops new words as needed for the language.

In an interview with NBC Asian America, Kimura discusses the uniqueness of Hawaiian language and culture, a new Hawaiian “renaissance” amongt youth, and the future of Hawaii.

When did you become aware that the Hawaiian language was something that needed to be saved?

I attended Kamehameha School, a private K-12 school that only children of Hawaiian descent could attend, so I was looking forward to really learning the language, and learning other Hawaiian things.

The school turned out to teach the exact opposite. They taught us how to be industrious men and women and learn to speak the English language well; I even had to take a speech course because my English wasn’t perfect. There was nothing Hawaiian being taught in school, yet we lived in Hawaii and had Hawaiian music and Hawaiian ways and customs. I thought that was strange.

I was growing up in the territorial days where the political movement was to move Hawaii to become a state. So there was this belief that all of us should grow up speaking English and try to be good Americans, to get educated and live the American Dream.

I noticed that my classmates at the school weren’t proud to be Hawaiian. And then Pearl Harbor was bombed, and it wasn’t just Hawaiians being ashamed of being Hawaiian; it was everyone being ashamed of being ethnic, of not being American enough.

Image: Larry Kimura
Larry Kimura co-founded ?Aha P?nana Leo, a nonprofit that opened the first Hawaiian-medium preschools in the 1980s.Courtesy of the University of Hawaii

My family never felt negative toward being Hawaiian, but I would listen to my elders as they talked about Hawaii not being Hawaii anymore; that it was changing. This was both a good and bad thing in their eyes, and they mourned the next generations –– my generation –– because in becoming American, we would be missing out on our Hawaiian ways, on the language.

They knew the language was dying with them. I really committed to learning then.

A lot of cultural nuances are captured in that culture’s language. What are some key aspects of Hawaiian culture that are contained within the Hawaiian language?

There are three words I can think of in Hawaiian that hold some of the culture’s most important values.

One of these is “mauli,” which is being used more and more now, and is roughly defined as the spirit of life. If I look out my window right now, I can see lots of plants. All of these plants are different and living, but they’re also all existing together. Mauli isn’t just living, but living in an identifiable, cultural way, and participating in life.

We also have “ea,” which is just two vowels, but these vowels communicate something big: the power you have within yourself to do things. It suggests that we need to recognize that power and use it. This word also applies to sovereignty –– in other words, you don’t have to wait for a law that says you can speak Hawaiian. You can speak Hawaiian now; you have that independence.

And there is “mana,” which is power, but power you cannot attain unless you work for it. If your pedigree is from the gods, you are born with some form of mana. But for most of humankind, one earns mana through earnest work.

You were able to open the first Hawaiian medium preschool in the '80s to revitalize the language on an institutional level. Have you been able to track these preschoolers progress over the years?

Image: Larry Kimura
Larry Kimura at the library stacks at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.Courtesy Claudia C. Hagan/University of Hawaii

Yes; we get to know the children well and stay in touch with their families. We now have 12 preschools throughout the state, and we also now have several generations of what we call the “new native Hawaiian speakers.”

Parents who were originally part of this movement by enrolling their children in our programs are now grandparents; these children became fluent as second learners, entered the university system, and are now parents themselves, raising their children with the language. We estimate there are about 500 children, now adults, like that.

Not only are we regenerating new native speakers, but there is a common case we see where one of these grown children marries a non-Hawaiian speaker, but is adamant that they raise their children speaking Hawaiian, so their spouse ends up becoming fluent themselves.

How have you seen the Hawaiian identity and general attitudes towards the Hawaiian identity shift over the years?

More recently there’s been a period of reawakening or renaissance, where all things Hawaiian, such as our language, are becoming a topic of interest, especially among young people.

People began noticing our tendency to go with the flow of the mainland and asked, “Why? Why do we always have to look outside?” We have to look at ourselves; we have standards, so we should be promoting those. People started to look into how the Hawaiians got here.

I don’t want to say it’s a slow process; it’s a gradual process. That’s how evolution works. It’s not a quick instant change, but change over time. But this evolution of language is strong. When people begin to reconnect to the language, it has a very strong take within that person where they become committed to it, and there’s no turning back.

What are your hopes for Hawaii’s future?

There needs to be lots of creative things done by our new native speakers that can move our language into other arenas of use, to make it stronger, so we can have a bilingual state in Hawaii — I’m not saying 50 percent English and 50 percent Hawaiian speaking, but that it has legal and social acceptance. I think the legal part comes later, because the social part, being a part of the community, a family, our island way of being, is more important.

We have an advantage in Hawaii because of our small size and because of the impact of so many different nationalities being imported here, whether they came voluntarily or not, that forces us to deal with each other. You can run up into the mountains, but the mountains don’t go on forever. You go up, and eventually have to come down on the other side of the mountain and face everyone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow NBC Asian America on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.