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Code Switch: Saving The Endangered Hawaiian Language


It's Columbus Day, or as it's also becoming known around the country, Indigenous Peoples' Day. And to mark the occasion, our next story is about the fight to save an indigenous language - Hawaiian. Just a few decades ago, Hawaiian was in danger of dying out. There were only about 50 native speakers under the age of 18.

From NPR's Code Switch podcast, Shereen Marisol Meraji takes us to Hilo on the big island of Hawaii.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: If you ever have the chance to visit Ke Kula 'O Nawahiokalani'opu'u's campus, 400 kids will greet you outside school grounds with chants in Hawaiian...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Chanting in Hawaiian).

MERAJI: ...And speeches in Hawaiian.

IPONO VALENTI: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: In this speech, high school junior Ipono Valenti (ph) relates their journey to learn their indigenous language to an ancient Hawaiian story about the goddess of hula, Hi'iaka, who took a journey of her own through a forest, home to a treacherous monster that she eventually defeated.

IPONO: (Speaking Hawaiian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: Once you walk onto campus, you'll see bulletin boards in Hawaiian and teachers instructing their students in science and math...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: ...In Hawaiian.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hawaiian).


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: No one's allowed to speak English during school hours. That includes everyone from the janitors to the principal.

KAUANOE KAMANA: (Speaking Hawaiian). I am the principal of Ke Kula 'O Nawahiokalani'opu'u.

MERAJI: When Kauanoe started to learn Hawaiian as a second language, she was in college. It was the late 1970s, and back then, there were only about 50 native Hawaiian speakers under the age of 18. Hawaiian was in danger of dying. According to the Linguistic Society of America, the fate of a language can change in one generation if it's not being taught to kids.

Kauanoe wasn't taught Hawaiian growing up. She says she was told, to be successful, you spoke English and English only. But Kauanoe and a few other second-language Hawaiian speakers made it their life's mission to change that.

KAMANA: And we had to hurry up because time was working against us. We were, like, a hundred years late, you know?

MERAJI: A hundred years late because in 1893, a U.S.-backed coup overthrew Hawaii's Queen Liliuokalani. Soon after, use of the Hawaiian language was completely banned in government and schools. Hawaiian children were beaten and belittled for speaking it. But in the early '80s, Kauanoe and a small group of Hawaiians decided to open a Hawaiian-language-only preschool.

KAMANA: And we were all second-language learners. And some people say, well, you know, that's not native fluency. But for us, that's what we had, you know? You work with what you have.

MERAJI: And it was hard work. They had to develop curricula in Hawaiian for toddlers, which didn't exist. They had to create new words because they didn't exist - words like granola and computer. Hawaiian hadn't been used as an everyday language in nearly all of Hawaii for almost a century. And on top of all that, they had to find families who'd be willing to participate in this Hawaiian-language-only preschool experiment.

KAMANA: So for the majority of the families who signed up at the beginning, they became speakers in the course of being together. And then they became teachers.

MERAJI: They needed teachers because when that first group of preschoolers was ready for kindergarten, they started a kindergarten. And when it was time for first grade, they made a first grade and so on until they reached 12th grade. Kauanoe's son was a part of Nawahi's very first graduating class in 1999. And although Hawaiian was Kauanoe's second language, she made sure it was his first.

KAMANA: The language is always the core of what Nawahi is about - always, always. It cannot be anything else. Everything else comes after.

MERAJI: Kauanoe says Nawahi is more than an immersion school. It's a way to keep the Hawaiian language alive.

CHANDRA ROY-HENRIKSEN: Now, when these languages die out, with them dies out the culture, the traditional knowledge.

MERAJI: Chandra Roy-Henriksen is the chief of the Indigenous Peoples and Development Branch at the United Nations. And she says, right now, around the world, there are 2,680 indigenous languages in danger of dying.

ROY-HENRIKSEN: It's also part of the world's heritage that we're also in danger of losing.

MERAJI: And that's why the United Nations declared this year, 2019, the international year of indigenous languages. This past spring, the U.N.'s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which is an advisory body to the U.N., urged the United Nations and its member states to make the international year of indigenous languages a decade.

ROY-HENRIKSEN: One year is not enough. It's - just shines a torch light, but you want to have a huge spotlight on this issue.


MERAJI: Back at Nawahi on Hawaii's Big Island, three boys blow into conch shells to mark the end of the school day - for the kids.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The pencil is on the table. How do we start? (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: On Thursday nights, school's back in session for their parents. Nawahi has four levels of Hawaiian to help parents who want to learn their indigenous language. This is Level 1. They're learning how to ask where something is and how to answer that question. Where's the pencil? The pencil's on the table. Where are my soccer cleats? Your cleats are in the garage - basic things kids might ask at home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So find a partner. Each one of you comes up with three questions.

MERAJI: There are about a dozen adults in Level 1 this evening. Most are fathers.

MITCHELL PIERS: (Speaking Hawaiian) Mitchell Piers (ph).

EARL KEIWI: Oh, my name is Earl Keiwi (ph).

MERAJI: What brings you to class?

KEIWI: I live the Hawaiian life, but I don't talk too much Hawaiian. So I'm just grateful that they have this class for us parents so we can pick up and learn along with our kids.

PIERS: Because I'm outnumbered at my house.


MERAJI: Who else is outnumbered at their house? Are you outnumbered, too?

TAI MAKANUE: My name is Tai Makanue (ph). I'm a father of two children. And along like Mitch, I'm outnumbered at home. You know, my oldest one - he's way more advanced 'cause he's already in (speaking Hawaiian) - the first grade. And then he's always correcting me. He go, no, that's not correct. You're not saying it. So I always go back to English.

MERAJI: These guys are learning Hawaiian way later in life. Tai and Earl are in their 40s, and Mitchell's in his late 50s.

Do you feel like it's changed you in any way, learning more Hawaiian?

PIERS: I guess Hawaiians have a very deep culture. It helps you reconnect.

KEIWI: For me, it brought me, I guess, closer to the land, to the people. My grandma was pure Hawaiian, but she felt like I needed to learn English.

MAKANUE: They look down on you guys if you guys learn the language. It wasn't, I guess, popular, you could say, like how it is now.

MERAJI: The popular language-learning app Duolingo added Hawaiian to its roster of languages in October of last year. And it's really hard to get a good handle on what the numbers look like today, but one study estimated there are more than 5,000 fluent Hawaiian speakers under the age of 18. The leaders of the language revitalization movement in Hawaii told me there is still so much more work to be done, and they're not going to stop until Hawaiian is spoken everywhere in Hawaii, just like English is.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News, Hilo, Hawaii.

CORNISH: And for more on this story, check out NPR's Code Switch podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World All Things ConsideredMorning Edition
Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.