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Hawaiian Language Benefits All

By Puakea Nogelmeier

Editor’s note: Puakea Nogelmeier is a professor of Hawaiian language at UH-Manoa, where he’s taught for 30 years. Born in San Francisco and a resident here since age 18, hula introduced him to Hawaiian language, and learning has been his life’s work. His voice is heard on TheBus, on Hawaiian-language tours of Iolani Palace and in various documentaries about Hawai’i.

Iwant to be angry at Bob Jones for his April 24 diatribe about wasting money on Hawaiian language as something that’s more decorative than functional. Instead, I’m resigned that mind-sets like his get a lot of media time. Like many, he reflexively believes that English, all by itself, is good enough for everyone, everywhere. Just speak it loudly and clearly and surely everyone will understand. It will provide everything we need to know, and there’s no point in supporting all that other babble, because a language getting subsumed is “natural.” English is empowered to subsume.

But I question the “naturalness” of that process here, where Hawaiian is the one language that perpetuates Hawai’i’s essence to the benefit of everyone, speakers and nonspeakers alike.

Some see the “renaissance” of Hawaiian as a passing fad, like some retro fashion or restored artifact preserved for display. It’s actually the resurgence of a living language far older than English. It’s exciting that any language has been moved from the brink of extinction, and Hawai’i’s rebound is actually a world-class victory so far, despite many with a subsuming mind-set. Fortunately, Hawaiian didn’t get brought back from the dead, but got a boost of interest while there was still a lively population of elders to guide its continuity. Hawai’i still had some 3,000 fluent speakers in 1970, and now there are maybe 20,000 with some ability to use and understand Hawaiian. Few are native speakers, but everyone learned from them.

These 20,000 are not all hotel greeters and classroom teachers, but are business leaders, urban planners, politicians, social workers, farmers, parents, children and church folk. They invested themselves because Hawaiian language increases their knowledge base, whether for work, home or play, in ways that enrich their lives here in Hawai’i. Many, maybe most, are Hawaiian, but certainly not all. Not me; I’m “haole maoli,” but Hawaiian language lets me see our world with layers of information that Bob Jones will never sense. Whatever field, the language adds to the abilities and builds the toolkit. Any second language adds depth, but knowing some Hawaiian language in Hawai’i is like having X-ray vision or a sixth sense. For Hawaiians, it’s often a visceral connection to ancestry; for others, it adds grounding to this place. Hawaiian should be on the “desirable qualifications” for every hire here, whether for CEO or building maintenance. That’s how useful it is.

For all of the rare-in-the-world success that Hawaiian language revitalization has achieved in four decades, only a fraction of it has been paid for by public funds. For every dollar that’s ever been spent on teacher salaries, school rooms or curriculum, 10 times that has been expended from the pockets or personal schedules of people who dedicated their lives to making sure Hawaiian wasn’t erased by the sweep and force of English dominance. The kupuna who gave all of their golden years to learners and the teachers who create lessons from scratch are the tip of the iceberg. Unlike other places where government support of indigenous efforts is now the norm, most of the investment in Hawaiian language and culture always has been a people’s project. Hawaiian is the foundation of Hawai’i’s unique identity and knowledge base, not a useless adornment to a place with nice geography. That mind-set loses everything that makes these Islands so special. Money spent on keeping Hawai’i connected to its past and present isn’t hush money to assuage and entertain the natives, it’s an investment in Hawai’i’s continuity.

Hawaiian was once the common language for all people here, Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike. Many learned or used English and other languages for trade and governance, but Hawaiian was the language of the land. Hawai’i’s high literacy in the 1800s documented, in Hawaiian, knowledge and insight that spanned from a stone-age society through a very modern little kingdom and into American domain, and the resurgence of Hawaiian allows us to tap into that body of information once again. Be thankful for 20,000 with some ability to get access to or understand that historical information. The science community – anthro, eco, sea and farm-folk – are excited with what’s coming to light from this native-language repository, the largest in the western world. They share the historians’ enthusiasm for this wave of reconnection.

More than 100 years of the American melting pot here hasn’t yet made Hawai’i quite like anywhere else in America. Notice? What keeps Hawai’i unique is the deep foundation of history and culture that emerged right here. Though Hawai’i has absorbed new peoples, languages and traditions, it continues to maintain its own ever-changing and incomparable nature. The language keeps that foundation solid and helps to make sense of it today. Hawaiian language illuminates Hawai’i, making the past accessible, the present richer and the future possible.

If the $56 million works to keep Hawai’i more than just an outpost of American culture with nice weather, then that money, and the maybe half-billion dollars’ worth of people time that keeps being invested, is well worth the effort. Double that figure wouldn’t be enough to do justice to the value we, every single person in Hawaii, get back from it.

I want to be angry at Bob Jones for not seeing that, but I’m resigned that he just hasn’t got it yet. puakea@hawaii.edu