Hawaiian Immersion:
Revitalizing a Cultural Heritage

The ACIE Newsletter, May 1999, Vol. 2, No. 3

By Emily 'Ioli'i Hawkins, Associate Professor in Hawaiian Hawaiian and
Indo-Pacific Languages and Literatures, University of Hawai'i at Manoa



Fourteen years ago the Hawaiian immersion movement in Hawai'i was initiated. It began primarily as an effort to forestall the language's imminent death predicted by observers due to the graying of most native speakers. Between 1898 when the language was banned from classrooms and 1987 when that restriction was lifted, a highly literate population of Hawaiian speakers was reduced to a few elders and a small community on Ni'ihau, a privately owned island. Through the immersion movement, Hawaiians have begun to reverse this linguistic and cultural erosion and to create an educational program more closely based on Hawaiian values. Tangentially, this movement has re-energized all aspects of Hawaiian culture and has become one of the cornerstones in a cultural and political resurgence of Hawaiians.


Paticipants at a teacher training institute.


Many Americans don't realize how profoundly the Hawaiian culture has been affected by the dominant American culture. Tourist industry images of hula, lei-giving, and surfing foster a mistaken view. As with other indigenous groups, Hawaiian cultural alienation is manifested in high dropout rates, high prison rates, and poor health. Consequently, with language at the very soul of all culture, the impact of the immersion movement has been much greater than originally hoped for.

The growth of Hawaiian immersion over the past decade and a half is impressive. There are now 1,798 children in immersion classes from preschool to twelfth grade in 43 schools across the state. The impact of the program, however, extends far beyond these students and their teachers. Families are intimately involved with immersion programs. For example, at the twelve Punana Leo preschools, all parents must serve the needs of the school, whether it be simple classroom cleaning or helping in the production of Hawaiian language resources. Parents who don't speak Hawaiian are required to attend language classes held at the preschools. In contrast, within the state's public school K-12 classes, such involvement is not required, although it is encouraged (all K-12 schools in Hawai'i are public, preschools are not). Members of the Hawai'i State Board of Education have recognized that such a high level of parent involvement is desirable for all educational programs.

The entire community, including non-indigenous residents, has been energized by the immersion movement. Teenagers and adults, inspired by hearing young children communicating in Hawaiian, have swelled enrollments in high school and adult language classes. Hawaiian language use has expanded in the public sphere in response to popular demand. Programs aired in the Hawaiian language and about Hawaiian culture are now a part of television's regular broadcast schedule.

Early evaluations of student performance on standardized tests are very positive, with Hawaiian immersion students competing equally and above the general average for Hawai'i's school children despite the lack of formal study of English. Equally important to the community is the development of the Hawaiian values of cooperation and respect for traditional knowledge within these children.


Kualono mountain.


Because more and more Hawaiians are learning and using their language, hula teachers can now give instruction in Hawaiian, and students learn about their heritage through an integration of language and culture. Canoe clubs can cheer, call out commands, and focus reflection in the Hawaiian language. But more importantly, the immersion movement has led to the question, "What is the Hawaiian way of organizing and analyzing the universe?" As long as the culture needed to be ex- pressed through English, the intimate thought process that only language reveals was being lost. This became very apparent when materials were being produced for immersion classrooms. In the initial rush to provide children with Hawaiian resources, all sorts of books were translated, but soon translators and teachers alike were questioning whether some ideas were inconsistent with a Hawaiian world view. As a result of the need for articulating this world view, the Hawaiian community has entered into further discussions and research.

Another important observation was the need for resources to be written from the perspective of the students and teachers. A Hawaiian history text that had been translated from English was soon modified to speak from a Hawaiian perspective. This need to reflect the indigenous culture is one of the areas which differentiates heritage immersion programs from others that adopt and subsequently translate the local English-language curriculum.

With maintenance of the culture in mind, it was also decided that English would not be introduced until the fifth grade. Through high school the only subject consistently taught in English is English Language Arts. Although English may not be the language spoken in the classroom, many of the texts used in the middle and high schools are still available only in English. Teachers and students discuss their English readings in Hawaiian.


Insufficient Hawaiian-language resources and the lack of certified, highly proficient teachers have been impediments to growth of the immersion program. There are native-language speaking teachers at only one K-12 site. A majority of the 95 immersion teachers are themselves Hawaiian language learners whose teacher development took place in English at the University of Hawai'i. These same teachers are responsible for producing the resources which students use on a daily basis, supplemented by materials from the 'Ahahui 'Olelo Hawai'i, the 'Aha Punana Leo, and the University of Hawai'i.

To meet the ongoing needs of teacher training, a few options currently exist. One such example is the Immersion Teacher Training Project of the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, which has been holding summer institutes for the past three years. For three to four weeks, preservice and inservice participants study cultural, pedagogical, and computer topics while fully immersed in Hawaiian. In addition, the U.H. College of Education initiated an immersion cohort two years ago in response to the need for immersion teachers to do their observations and practice teaching in Hawaiian. Students in the program also complete some of their coursework in the Hawaiian language. A third professional development alternative for immersion teachers is the University of Hawai'i at Hilo teacher preparation program. This program began in the summer of 1998 at the Hawaiian language college, Ka Haka 'Ula o Ke'elikolani (web site: http://www.olelo.hawaii. edu). Previously, in-service workshops for immersion teachers were held at this site.

This year the first immersion classes to complete the K-12 sequence graduate from two sites. Their aspirations are as varied as those of students graduating from English-language schools. Some will choose to continue their education at the Hawaiian language college and others will go to English-speaking colleges and universities. Hawaiian language educators recognize that the degree of language proficiency which these young people have developed is limited by the proficiency of the teachers and materials to which they have been exposed. The primary challenge that now faces Hawaiian immersion is to prepare teachers and material developers whose superior proficiency in the language and deep cultural foundations will serve as bountiful resources to future students.

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