Following a Path to Fluency

Educators on the Big Island of Hawaii are successfully rebuilding fluency in the Hawaiian language. A new report shows how tribal colleges and Native communities on the mainland can replicate their work.

By Paul Boyer

Celebrating graduation at Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani, the College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii-Hilo

Nearly every tribal college teaches at least one indigenous language and many make a semester or two of language study a graduation requirement. Despite this work, however, most of these languages continue to lose speakers. Even some languages widely spoken twenty or thirty years ago—such as Crow and Navajo—are now considered threatened.

The crisis of language loss suggests that more needs to be done. However, the path forward is not clear, especially for small tribes with limited resources. Some Native leaders wonder if it is even possible to reverse language loss.

However, a model of success does exist. In Hawaii, a group of parents, teachers, and community activists created a unique language-centered education system that is now training its third generation of fluent Hawaiian speakers. Their work is bringing the language back to life.

In this system, children can attend preschool “language nests,” move seamlessly into elementary and high school programs where all instruction is in Hawaiian, and continue their studies at Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani, the College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, where Hawaiian is not only taught, but is also the medium of instruction.

The success of Hawaii’s approach is recognized within Native communities on the mainland. Yet some feel their model cannot be replicated. Hawaii has a relatively large Native population that shares a common language. Additionally, Hawaii’s language revitalization work is supported by the state and its higher education system. In contrast, most reservations on the mainland have small populations, limited resources, and little or no support from state educational systems.

Acknowledging the differences, William “Pila” Wilson and Kauanoe Kamanā nonetheless argue that Native communities on the mainland can implement many aspects of the Hawaii model and, further, that tribal colleges can play a key role in this effort. Wilson is professor of Hawaiian language, Hawaiian studies, and linguistics at Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani. Kauanoe Kamanā is director of UH-Hilo’s Hawaiian medium education laboratory school, Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu.

In a new report commissioned by Native Science Report as part of its Voices of Language project, Wilson and Kamanā explain how their work can be applied to a small reservation in the American heartland.

“Our experience is that such a model can serve as a base from which language can spread in families and schools in a small community context such as exists on a reservation,” they write.

Multiple efforts are underway in Hawaii to teach and revitalize the language. The report focuses on Wilson and Kamanā’s work on the Big Island, where, as a young couple in the 1970s, they set out to learn Hawaiian and raise their children as fluent speakers. Working with a small group of like-minded parents, they helped establish the first preschool language nests and pushed public schools to provide instruction through Hawaiian.

Today, it’s normal to hear parents speaking Hawaiian to their children in stores

In 1978, Wilson was recruited to develop a Hawaiian Studies program at UH-Hilo. He made his acceptance contingent on being allowed to make Hawaiian the language of instruction in that program. In other words, students would not only study Hawaiian, they would complete their undergraduate degree in Hawaiian.

Their work, supported by other efforts in the region, led to development of a comprehensive preschool to graduate school education system that now allows children to learn the language, learn through the language, and build communities of fluent language speakers. “The movement is now well into its third generation with proficiency in Hawaiian spreading out in ripples,” they report.

“When our college program began in the 1970s, there was not a single child speaker of Hawaiian in the Hilo area,” they write. Today, “it is normal in Hilo to hear parents speaking Hawaiian to children in stores and for others to use many Hawaiian words and phrases in their English.” The Hawaiian language, according to the state, has become the most widely used language other than English in their community.

Wilson and Kamanā believe tribal communities, with the support of tribal colleges, can see similar results. What is needed, they say, is a comprehensive and integrated approach to language instruction.

The first step is development of an independent, non-profit preschool language nest where young children are introduced to their ancestral language and build a foundation for fluency. Priority for enrollment, they propose, “should be given for children already speaking the language and children of students of the [tribal college] language program.”

The authors also emphasize the importance of building a cadre of skilled teachers. Knowledge of the language is not a sufficient qualification for teaching, they argue. Instead, the complex task of language instruction should be entrusted to highly trained second language speakers with teaching credentials. For this reason, they generally recommend against using elders as language instructors.

Tribal colleges can help train teachers by expanding their language curriculum. To replicate the UH-Hilo’s “Language Skills” program, tribal colleges should offer at least five contact hours of language instruction per week, preferably for four years. Additionally, tribal colleges should invite knowledgeable, fluent speaking elders to teach content courses (focusing on traditional skills, the arts, philosophy, and other subjects) in the local language. This provides opportunities for students to practice their language skills.

Coordination and community-wide cooperation is another aspect of the Hawaii model that can be reproduced. The authors advocate development of an “independent non-profit focused solely on language revitalization” to help develop and guide a tribe’s work. Tribal colleges can help establish such an entity.

Success required obstinance and, at a certain point, an unwillingness to compromise

Wilson and Kamanā emphasize that their accomplishments were hard won. “Every effort we made to develop a P-12 Hawaiian medium educational system was opposed by the educational mainstream.” Their work required “parental intransience and a refusal to have their children be educated through English.” When necessary, parents moved their children to different sites for learning and boycotted standardized testing until it was offered in Hawaiian. Success required obstinance and, at a certain point, an unwillingness to compromise.

This work has not yet fully revitalized the language or eliminated threats to its survival. But these Hilo-based programs demonstrate that it is possible to reliably produce a sizeable number of fluent second language speakers. Above all, the Hilo model shows how much can be accomplished when parents, educators, and community-based organizations work together.

Carty Monette agrees. Writing in the report’s foreword, Monette, retired president of Turtle Mountain College, a tribally controlled college on the Turtle Mountain Reservation of North Dakota, argues that language revitalization is a critical, yet unfulfilled, part of the tribal college movement’s mission. He urges tribal colleges to find inspiration in the Hawaii example. “Rather than wonder whether it is too late for tribal colleges and tribes to act, it is instead the right time to ratchet up language revitalization efforts.”

“In other words,” Monett asserts, “the time is now.

Paul Boyer is editor of Native Science Report.

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