Hawaiian Schoolchildren Speaking Language of History...


The students gather outside their classroom door and chant an ancient Hawaiian poem: "Ku mai nei au i ka halau loa a 'i."

They respectfully tell their teacher of their desire for learning and ask for permission to enter the place of instruction.

The teacher answers, "Au mai e na Lehua a," or "Come forth, my young Lehua blossoms," and the eager students file into the classroom.

This scene repeats itself each school-day morning at seven public schools across Hawaii where hundreds of elementary schoolchildren are taught exclusively through the Hawaiian language.

The program began 10 years ago when a group of native Hawaiian parents saw their language disappearing as older speakers died, and they looked to the next generation to revive it.

The parents started their own preschool in Hilo, on Hawaii Island, where their children would be taught exclusively in Hawaiian. They called it Punana Leo, or nest of language.

"We're not just teaching them Hawaiian; we're teaching them through Hawaiian," said Kauanoe Kamana, a Hawaiian studies professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, and one of the original parents involved.

"People who think English is the key to all success are very narrow-minded," she said. "You need to know English, but it is not the essence of all knowledge.

"We've been educated using the English language for the past 100 years and it has not improved our academic performance as a people."

Children of Hawaiian ancestry routinely score the lowest on standard tests among all other ethnic groups in the Islands.

At first, volunteer teachers and parents instructed the classes using donated materials.

They later won the support and financial backing of the state Department of Education, which gradually established Hawaiian language immersion programs through the eighth grade in seven public schools around the state.

About 1,000 students are registered for the immersion classes for the fall and the Department of Education recently approved extending the program through high school.

"It's a miracle that our children now are speaking the Hawaiian language," said Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, whose 11-year-old daughter, Punihei, has attended a Hawaiian immersion school in Honolulu since preschool.

Hearing Punihei speak the language she thought would one day be lost "makes my heart sing," Kame'eleihiwa said.

At the program's inception, some lawmakers and educators questioned the value of an education through Hawaiian where English is taught an hour each day as a second language.

They feared the students would lag behind their counterparts in writing and articulating in English.

But Hawaii School Supt. Herman Aizawa said the students in the all-Hawaiian classes are performing as well or better than students in the same grade level taught in English.

The Department of Education evaluates a test class of Hawaiian language immersion students each year in basic core areas such as reading, comprehension and mathematics, said administrator Anita Bruce.

The evaluations show that the students have kept pace with their English-schooled counterparts, Bruce said.

Results of recent Stanford Achievement Tests taken by sixth-graders who have participated in Hawaiian language immersion since preschool point to a reversal in the trend of lower-than-average test scores for native Hawaiians.

According to results of the tests administered last year to sixth-graders at Keaukaha Elementary School, 100% of the Hawaiian-educated students scored average or above on the math portion while only 66% of the students in all-English classes scored as well.

For the reading portion of the test, 66% of Hawaiian-educated students scored average or above, compared to 52% of the English-educated students.

Aizawa says the success of the program can be attributed to the strong commitment and involvement of the parents.

"If the students get the support of the parents at home--it does not matter what school they go to--they will be successful," he said.

The Hawaiian language is worked into the curriculum of other public school students through kupunas, or Hawaiian community elders who spend a few hours a week in the classroom sharing their language and culture with students.

The revival of the Hawaiian language has not been confined to the state's elementary schools.

Enrollment in Hawaiian language and culture classes at the University of Hawaii's main campus in Honolulu has risen to nearly 1,700 students from just 700 five years ago, with hundreds of others on a waiting list, said Emily Hawkins, department chairwoman for Hawaiian language.

The Hawaiian language immersion program in the elementary schools is partly responsible for the large increase, Hawkins said, because graduates in Hawaiian language and studies are finding jobs teaching Hawaiian in the schools.

But the largest interest in learning the language can be seen in the general community.

"A lot of people are coming to Hawaiian studies as a way to keep up with their culture," Hawkins said.

Just a decade ago, only about 1,000 people, mostly historians and elders, spoke Hawaiian fluently.

Today that number has more than doubled in the wake of a cultural revival that has touched young and old alike.

"It's my language, the language of my ancestors, my culture; if nobody continues it we'll lose it forever," said Hiapo Perreira, a 19-year-old major in Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii. He is one-fourth Hawaiian on his mother's side.

When Perreira's mother was in school, students were punished for speaking Hawaiian in the classroom.

About 20% of Hawaii's population can claim some Hawaiian ancestry. In 1979, Hawaiian was declared the state's official language, along with English.

A state law established in 1896, three years after white business leaders overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy, prohibited speaking Hawaiian in the schools. It was not overturned until 1986.

Hawkins says the students may have some or no Hawaiian blood but they all "think of themselves as tied to this place, to its beaches, its mountains, whatever."


The state's Office of Hawaiian Affairs produced a television commercial showing people of all ages speaking Hawaiian, with English subtitles, encouraging viewers to learn the language.

The commercial generated more than 300 requests for information about how to sign up for classes, said OHA culture specialist Pikake Pelekai.

When a Honolulu public radio station began broadcasting a daily newscast in Hawaiian, even listeners who did not understand the language tuned in because they liked the way spoken Hawaiian sounded, said the station's news director, Scott Kim.

Hawaiian comes from the same Polynesian ancestral language as the native languages of Tahiti and New Zealand, said Hawaiian language professor Pila Wilson.

"It's a very melodious language that uses only seven consonants and five vowels in making all of its words," Wilson said.

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