The Hawaiian language: A revitalization success story

hula dancer feet

In honor of the United Nations Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development on May 21, we’re highlighting the Hawaiian language and the revitalization efforts that saved it from the brink of extinction.

Hawaiian, a member of the Polynesian language family whose closest relatives include Marquesan, Tahitian and Māori, suffered many blows after the arrival of the Europeans at the end of the 18th century, including widespread stigmatization and even prohibition in schools. As a result, by the early 1980s, only a few hundred speakers remained.  A small group of Hawaiian educators began a plan to revitalize the language by focusing their efforts on the best chances the language had for survival: the keiki (children) of Hawaiʻi.  They decided to create the Pūnana Leo (language nest, lit., nestlanguage, voice) preschools, Hawaiian language immersion schools for children that relied heavily on involvement from parents and community members to stay afloat.  The first Pūnana Leo was established at Kekaha, Kauaʻi in August 1984, with subsequent schools opening in Hilo, Hawaiʻi and Honolulu, Oʻahu the following year.  This started a revitalization movement that has been extremely successful, serving as a model to other ethnic communities in similar straits. According to the 2011 census, the number of native speakers of Hawaiian had risen to about 2,000 out of a reported 24,000 fluent speakers.  The ʻAha Pūnana Leo has been one of the leading organizations in the Hawaiian language revitalization movement, and there are now a number of immersion schools and programs throughout the state.  In the University of Hawaiʻi system, Hawaiian language classes are offered at all 10 campuses and the number of second language speakers continues to grow.

Like all languages, the Hawaiian language and Hawaiian culture are inextricably linked.  To preserve the language is to preserve the culture. Hawaiian language revitalization efforts have not only saved a human language from extinction (a triumph for linguistic diversity and a boon for language researchers), but it has also helped a new generation of Hawaiians feel pride and connection with their culture.  If you’re interested in learning more about Hawaiian culture and language, you can find many useful resources online.  Here are some of our favorites:

Aha Pūnana Leo – An organization dedicated to Hawaiian language education and a major force in the revitalization movement

Ni’ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation – The fascinating story of Ni’ihau, the so-called Forbidden Island that visitors can only see via guided tour and the only island where Hawaiian is the dominant language

The Center for Hawaiian Music Studies

Note: This fall we will be releasing Passport Hawaiian, a course for those travelers who want to get a deeper understanding of Hawaiʻi through its language.