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Akaka commemorates ‘Month of the Hawaiian Language’


U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka made the following remarks this week in the Congressional Record:

I rise today in celebration of the Hawaiian language. February is designated as the ‘Month of the Hawaiian Language’ by the State of Hawaii. Speakers and students of the language use this time to foster and promote Hawaiian through festivals, spelling bees, and speech and debate competitions where the Hawaiian language is the primary medium.

Since the first official designation in 1994, February has been a celebration of the Hawaiian language in Hawaii. However, this modern renaissance happened only after the Hawaiian language came close to extinction, and the people of Hawaii fought to preserve it.

In 1896, following the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, English was named as the primary language of instruction in Hawaii’s schools. As a result, students who spoke Hawaiian were subject to physical punishment or public humiliation.

As Native Hawaiian families struggled to assimilate with the increasing Western presence in Hawaii, parents gave children non-Hawaiian first names. Families who carried Hawaiian family names adopted Western surnames to avoid a Hawaiian identity. Parents stopped teaching their children Hawaiian, and maintained English-only households.

This was a sad chapter in Hawaii’s history, but fortunately, today, thanks to the effort of many Hawaii residents, political and community leaders, and educators, the Hawaiian language is thriving.

In 1978, the Hawaiian language, also called ‘Ōlelo Hawaii by its speakers, was declared one of the two legal languages of the State of Hawaii. In 1984, the first Hawaiian language preschool was established, Aha Pūnana Leo. Three years later, Hawaiian language immersion expanded to include kindergarten through grade 12, and today, students can study the Hawaiian language from preschool through their doctorate studies.

Use of the Hawaiian language is not limited to its fluent speakers. Those who live in and visit Hawaii use Hawaiian words and phrases in their everyday vocabulary, whether they are Native Hawaiian or not. Towns, roadways, schools, and parks bear Hawaiian names.

Island residents commonly give each other directions using the words mauka – meaning towards the mountains, or makai – meaning towards the ocean. A waitress might ask you if you are pau, or done, with your meal before she clears the table. You might tell her it was ono, or delicious.

Some of the more commonly used words, including aloha and mahalo, are known well beyond the shores of Hawaii. I probably do not have to explain that mahalo means thank you, or that aloha is a greeting that conveys warmth, love, and affection and is used to both welcome someone and wish them well.

The Hawaiian language is thriving in our modern society and it remains relevant as technology evolves around us.

The iPhone and Google’s homepage are just two instances where the Hawaiian language can be selected as an option in language settings. Developers of the popular website, Wikipedia, borrowed the Hawaiian word wikiwiki, meaning speedy, for its name.

Travelers through Honolulu International Airport are greeted every half hour with a public announcement first in Hawaiian, followed by its English translation.

Local television reporters and weather forecasters consult with language experts on Hawaiian pronunciation. One of the morning news shows features a segment produced entirely in the Hawaiian language. Cable subscribers receive a channel featuring Hawaiian language reporting.

The Hawaiian language is engrained in our daily lives in Hawaii, and is important to all of Hawaii’s people. I am extremely grateful for the efforts made by kupuna, our elders, as well as language and cultural educators, to preserve the Hawaiian language.

According to the University of Hawaii at Hilo, there are approximately 7,500 people learning the Hawaiian language today, from preschools, institutions of higher education, and community programs. Parents are again raising their children to speak Hawaiian.

While there is an increasing interest in the Hawaiian language, this is still just a small percentage of the population of the State of Hawaii. I applaud the State for designating February as the “Month of the Hawaiian Language” and bringing awareness to the need to perpetuate our language so that future generations may learn the language of their ancestors.

E ola mau ka Olelo Hawaii! Long live the Hawaiian language.

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