New class: UH Hilo linguistics professors mentor international students who already speak their own indigenous languages

In new linguistics class, international students who are already highly fluent native speakers can now study their indigenous language and formal writing systems from an academic perspective.

By Leah SherwoodPhotos by Raiatea Arcuri.

Standing in gardens for photo: Chelsea Pedro, Scott Saft, Fa‘afalea‘i Siliva, and Yumiko Ohara.
From left, linguistics student Chelsea Pedro, Professor of Linguistics Scott Saft, linguistics and anthropology student Fa‘afalea‘i Siliva, and Associate Professor of Linguistics Yumiko Ohara. The students are enrolled in a new course on indigenous languages that gives students a platform to study their own indigenous languages in depth with the guidance of linguistics faculty. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

A new linguistics class at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo gives international students who are already highly fluent native speakers the opportunity to study their indigenous language and formal writing systems from an academic perspective. To enroll in the class, students must have fluency in one or more indigenous languages such as Navajo, Chuukese, Central Alaskan Yup‘ik, and Samoan—the exception is fluency in Hawaiian language because there is a comprehensive ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i program at UH Hilo for those students. The new course, Elementary Indigenous Languages (LING 133), satisfies one of the course requirements for earning a Certificate in Contemporary Indigenous Multilingualism.

This semester the class is taught by Scott Saft, professor of linguistics, and Yumiko Ohara, associate professor of linguistics, who are longtime professors in the program, which is housed at Ka Haka ‘Ula o Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language.

Saft says the linguistics department is strongly motivated to mentor students who speak indigenous languages. “We want to encourage those students to explore the structures, the vocabulary, and all aspects of their own language, with the hope that they may become more interested in their language and more interested in teaching others their language,” he says, adding as an example that he has previously mentored a student from Minnesota who speaks Ojibwe.

Ohara says the class is unique because it gives students a platform to study their indigenous languages in depth with the guidance of linguistics faculty. “There are so many students who speak Polynesian and Micronesian languages here, but until now there was not a class for them to showcase their skills or to use their knowledge,” she says.

Linguistics students Chelsea Pedro and Fa‘afalea‘i Siliva are taking the class this semester.

Chelsea Pedro: Doing pioneering research of the Sonsorolese language

Chelsea Pedro
Chelsea Pedro. Photo credit: Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

Pedro, a linguistics major, grew up on Koror in the Republic of Palau. She is Sonsorolese but speaks differently from her parents, who grew up on Sonsorol in the Southwest Islands of Palau.

“I grew up in a small village called Echang in Koror, where most Sonsorolese reside,” explains Pedro. “My parents, on the other hand, grew up on the island of Sonsorol. My parents and I speak Sonsorolese, but because I grew up out of the islands, our knowledge of the language is not the same.”

Pedro considers herself somewhat fluent in Sonsorolese, a language that she estimates to have about 500 speakers. “I was taught the main Palauan language in school,” says Pedro. “A lot of Sonsorolese want to revitalize the language and use it more, but it is only spoken in the community. It is not used in school, only English and Palauan are used.”

As part of her studies, Pedro often checks with her grandparents to help identify words, for example, the names of body parts. Ohara says this is because the students use what they know, “but they are learning more about their own language and increasing interaction with other family members.”

This past summer in Palau, Pedro completed a government-sponsored internship. Although there was no official internship position related to linguistics, Pedro managed to organize a language attitude survey among 200 Sonsorolese speakers between the ages of 18 and 40.

“I find it interesting that there is not a lot of study on Sonsorolese,” says Pedro. “Not a lot of people speak fluently. Nowadays my generation mixes it with English and older people do not like that, but when I went back they were willing to help me preserve the language. They find that it is fading or dying.”

She further explains that educators are willing to help teach the language in schools, but they face a lack of institutional support and resources.

Saft says there is minimal linguistic scholarship in the Sonsorolese language, and Pedro’s UH Hilo research is the start of something larger. “What Pedro is doing is pioneering,” he says.

Fa‘afalea‘i Siliva: A desire to preserve Samoan heritage and identity for future generations

Fa‘afalea‘i Siliva
Fa‘afalea‘i Siliva. Photo credit: Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

Siliva, a linguistics and anthropology major, is from the villages of Nua, Se‘etaga, and Taputimu in American Samoa. She has maintained an interest in languages since childhood, when she found she was able to easily pick up words in foreign languages.

Siliva recalls meeting graduates of the UH Hilo linguistics program at home in Samoa. The UH Hilo alumni spoke so positively about professors Ohara and Saft that she changed her decision to go to school on the mainland and chose UH Hilo instead. “This is where I want to go,” she remembers saying.

Her study of the Samoan language is motivated by her desire to preserve Samoan heritage and identity for future generations.

“For young people, we mostly use colloquial language, but Samoan also has respectful ways of speaking; we do not speak to elders and friends in the same ways,” explains Siliva. “We create a code language, slang, and I feel like we are drifting away from the traditional ways by always using the everyday language, and the other form of the Samoan language is fading.”

“There are times when the Pacific Islanders students gather together and we teach each other things like basic greetings,” says Siliva. “I feel like sharing our languages is one way to connect with one another and make friends.”

Fa‘afalea‘i Siliva and Chelsea Pedro.
From left, Fa‘afalea‘i Siliva and Chelsea Pedro. Photo credit: Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

Photos by Raiatea Arcuri, a professional photographer majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance at UH Hilo. 

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