International group meets at UH Hilo to discuss expansion of indigenous language immersion programs

There was record attendance at this year’s He ʻŌlelo Ola Hilo Field Study—the majority native peoples or those working with endangered native languages—from Okinawa, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Alaska, Minnesota, New Mexico and other U.S. states.

By Anne Rivera.

Large group stands for photo on steps of Hawaiian language college.
Group photo of indigenous language experts from around the world attending the 2017 He ʻŌlelo Ola Hilo Field Study, on the steps of Hale’ōlelo at the UH Hilo Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language. Photo by Zoe Coffman, click to enlarge.

The Hawaiian language is more than just words—it is an experience, it is food, it is music, it is dance, it is a culture and way of life.

Larry Kimura
Larry Kimura

“Food, music, and dance all come with the language—they can’t be separated,” says Larry Kimura, associate professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo .

Kimura shared his views earlier this week at this year’s He ʻŌlelo Ola Hilo Field Study event. The two-day conference was buzzing with people from around the world who are working toward revitalizing indigenous languages. All were engaged in celebrating the growth of the Hawaiian language in particular—a model to the world—and discussing the next steps in furthering Hawaiian language revitalization and spreading it across all of Hawai‘i.

He ʻŌlelo Ola Hilo

He ʻŌlelo Ola Hilo is a field study hosted each year at UH Hilo for an international group of indigenous language specialists. It allows attendees to experience firsthand the efforts being made to revitalize the Hawaiian language using Hawaiian as the medium of formal education from the infant toddler level all the way to college degrees.

This year’s field study was held on Feb. 28 and March 1— it is considered a field study because the Hawaiian language process cannot merely be discussed, it must be seen in action.

For this 5th conference, there was record attendance, the majority native peoples or those working with endangered native languages, from Okinawa, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Alaska, Minnesota, New Mexico and other U.S. states. Registration was closed after 165 people signed up.

The theme of this year’s He ʻŌlelo Ola Hilo Field Study is ʻO Ka ʻŌlelo Ke Kaʻā O Ka Mauli, Language Binds Us To Our Cultural Identity.

Each year, field trip attendees visit and partake in the closest immersion school, ʻAha Pūnana Leo, which is located near UH Hilo. Immersion schools include students from infant level to high school level and currently encompasses 21 sites with 3,000 students—these students are educated in the mother tongue of Hawai‘i.

Students walk, sit, chat in lobby of Hawaiian language building, UH Hilo.
Attendees break for lunch during the He ʻŌlelo Ola Hilo Field Study conference, March 1, 2017, Hale’ōlelo, UH Hilo Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language. Click to enlarge.

During this year’s two-day event, in addition to ʻAha Pūnana Leo, the group visited Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu kindergarten–high school Hawaiian immersion program, and the UH Hilo Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language degree programs (undergraduate, graduate and doctoral) and Hawaiian immersion teacher licensing program Kahuawaiola.

“Our K-20 program is in our language but it’s not only about the language itself—it’s about education through our language,” says Kimura.

The first full fledge Hawaiian immersion school started in 1985. According to Kimura, the third generation of Hawaiian speakers are beginning to attend these schools—theses students are born and raised with Hawaiian language in their homes through at least age three to four, which makes them the new native speakers.

“Linguists have determined that it takes at least three generations to reestablish a language and bring it back to life,” Kimura explains. In order to keep the language alive, he says, it must be included in the home not only in the school.

Display of books.
A table of Hawaiian reading materials on display during the He ʻŌlelo Ola Hilo Field Study conference.

Expanding immersion to the collegiate level

Kalamakū Freitas
Kalamakū Freitas. Photo by Anne Rivera.

Students who have graduated from these immersion schools, like Kalamakū Freitas, are wanting to pursue baccalaureate, master and doctoral degrees.

However, the inclusion of curriculum taught in Hawaiian stops at high school.

“We want them to be strengthened as they come to our university system and having courses taught in their medium language of Hawaiian achieves that,” says Kimura.

The next goal of the Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language is to continue Hawaiian medium education on the collegiate level.

When this immersion process is carried out at the collegiate level it encourages graduates to get more involved in university course work that goes beyond just learning the native language of the Hawaiian people—but also majoring in other areas and pursuing a career or profession that uses Hawaiian as the primary language.

“This college is really beneficial for people who are interested in learning the Hawaiian,” says Freitas, an office assistant at the college. “We try to maintain the original foundation of the language which is more traditional but necessary.”

Freitas has noticed an increase in how many people speak Hawaiian regularly outside of the education environment which he says is part of the “uniqueness” of Hilo. He says the college plays a large part in the revitalization process which is why it “attracts so many outsiders” because they want to see what is being done.

Kimura explains that in 1896, during the regimes that overthrew the independent nation of Hawaiʻi, abolishing the Hawaiian language as a medium of education was set into law. It wasn’t until 1986, when the Pūnana Leo families petitioned the state legislature to allow Hawaiian as a language of instruction, that the 1896 law was removed from the state statutes and the first Hawaiian immersion public schools were started in 1987.

“Education is the first step toward revitalization and we are using the same system that took it away to bring it back,” says Kimura

Expanding immersion

According to Kimura, there is unprecedented efforts at preserving native plant and animal species and the preservation of the language should be handled with the same urgency and energy.

“We don’t want to reestablish our language just to have it die because we are not cultivating the environment for it to flourish,” he says.

Hawaiian is being incorporated into the everyday life via media sources and education. One of the influences from the Hawaiian language college is spreading awareness about the language through technology. The ultimate goal is to incorporate Hawaiian language into general education courses in the university system.

There are hurdles and challenges that still block that pathway, and understanding the traditions and how to include them in the modern world is one of them.

The He ʻŌlelo Ola Hilo Field Study conference has yielded positive responses and stimulated an array of questions ranging from types of scholarships to training and curriculum to funding.

“The thing we’re teaching and the things we’re doing cannot be found online and reused elsewhere,” says Kimura. “What we do here is special to Hawai‘i.”

This unique and proactive approach to bring back a piece of the Hawaiian culture is not only fundamental in the growth of the Hawaiian people but it reestablishes the ‘uhane or spirit of the islands.

This story has been updated with more detail about the events of 1896, 1986 and 1987 that impacted the use of Hawaiian language as a medium in education.


Anne Rivera (junior, communication) is a public information intern and Zoe Coffman (senior, art) is a photography intern in the Office of the Chancellor.

-UH Hilo Stories

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