Hawaiian Tots Learn Native Tongue

Preschool that offers `immersion' instruction takes lead in efforts to save ancestral language. EDUCATION

KALENA HONDA is three years old. Like thousands of other American children, he's on his way to preschool by 7 a.m. But when Kalena gets to school, his teacher greets him: ``Aloha kakahiaka, Kalena. Pehea mai nei 'oe i keia la?''

``Maika'i, Kumu Lolena,'' Kalena smiles.

From then until his parents pick him up at the end of the afternoon, Kalena will hear and speak nothing but Hawaiian. He is one of about 80 children on four islands in Hawaii who attend preschool at Punana Leo - the Language Nest.

Begun in 1984 with a single school on the island of Kauai, the program takes a language-immersion approach. But instead of learning a genuinely foreign tongue, the part-Hawaiian tots speak the language of their forebears, who voyaged 2,500 miles in sailing canoes from southern Polynesia to settle Hawaii in AD 200.

The Hawaiian language - and the culture hinging on it - is on the brink of extinction, says Larry Kimura, a Hawaiian-language professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a founder of Punana Leo. He estimates that only about 1,000 native speakers remain - and that includes 200 on Niihau, the privately owned island that is the last self-contained community of full-blooded Hawaiians.

Mr. Kimura had watched the number of speakers dwindle faster and faster since he began teaching in 1972. But in 1982, two Maoris, who had started the highly successful Kohanga Reo schools in New Zealand to save the Maori tongue, challenged a group of Hawaiians to do the same. Kimura and six others committed themselves to the project. In 1985-'86, Kauanoe Kamana, a Hawaiian language instructor at the University of Hawaii, Hilo, took a year's leave from the university to organize the preschool.

Immediately the group ran afoul of public school regulations written at the turn-of-the-century forbidding the use of Hawaiian as a medium of instruction, and so were cut off from any possible state funding. Following the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, Hawaii had become a republic seeking admission to the United States. The English-only mandate furthered the cause.

``It was a sure blow,'' Kimura says, ``although it took decades of effort and money to wipe out Hawaiian. Now we ought to be putting equally conscious effort into restoring the language.''

Why? Language is the foundation of a culture, its way of thinking, its mode of expression. Pieces of a civilization may survive the death of a language, but such a ``relic culture'' is merely an insignificant curiosity.

Loss of language is reflected in the sad social statistics on Hawaiians: at the bottom educationally and economically, at the top in crime, disease, and suicide.

Punana Leo supporters believe resurrecting Hawaiian could help turn those figures around. And Punana Leo plays an important part in the Hawaiian cultural resurgence that has grown tremendously in the last two decades, taking many cues in social and legal matters from the Native American movement on the mainland.

Punana Leo follows language-immersion precedents not only from fellow Polynesians in New Zealand, but also from the Navajos of the Southwest US and the Mohawks of Quebec.

Honolulu's ``Language Nest'' looks like any other preschool. Little children arrive early so mom and dad can get to work. They carry Peanuts or Garfield lunch boxes. The morning is filled with counting, stories, playtime.

The only thing out of the ordinary is the language. ``We just use it,'' says teacher Lolena Nicholas, a former Niihau resident whom school organizers recruited. She completed a community college program in early education before she began teaching in 1985. ``New children, especially, will talk to us in English,'' she says. ``We listen, but we answer in Hawaiian.''

``The younger the child, the faster he picks it up,'' says teacher Ipo Kanahele. ``Within a couple of months, the kids are speaking fluently. The older children help a lot.''

Indeed they do. Calisthenics are led by five-year-old Alohalani Ho. ``'Ekahi! 'Elua! 'Ekolu! 'Eha!''

``One! Two! Three! Four!''

``Hana hou!'' Alohalani calls out. ``Again!''

The children are much more intent on jumping jacks than on saving their language. But their elders are looking ahead. As soon as Punana Leo was under way, funded by tuition and donations, leaders pushed to change state rules prohibiting public instruction in Hawaiian.

In the fall of 1987, Hawaii's statewide public school system opened a pilot Hawaiian-language immersion program for kindergarten/first grade at one school in Pearl City, just outside Honolulu, and another in Hilo on the island of Hawaii. This past year, second grade was added. Third grade is slated for next year. The plan calls for the program eventually to run through sixth grade, with some instruction in English beginning in fourth grade.

Without public-school support, the Language Nest would be futile. The preschoolers would lose their fluency within a couple of months even if their parents speak Hawaiian at home, Kimura says.

About a third of the children in the public-school Hawaiian immersion program are Punana Leo graduates. Parents of both preschoolers and older children participate in weekly Hawaiian-language classes themselves. And parents as well as Punana Leo board members volunteer countless hours developing teaching materials - no texts have been printed in Hawaiian since the 19th century.

KA'UMEALANI WALK has one child at Punana Leo in Honolulu and two in the public school program. Because neither school is close to home, she ferries her youngsters every day through more than 20 miles of rush-hour, commuter traffic. It's worth the driving time and the effort she's put into learning her language herself, she says. Like most Punana Leo parents, neither she nor her husband are native speakers. Learning Hawaiian and speaking it in their home has solidified Hawaiian values for the Walks.

``You have to learn who you are or there will be unrest inside,'' she says. ``When you go through the regular school system, you learn from a Western point of view. If there is one thing of worth we can give our children, it's the language and culture of their ancestors. They can face life without thinking always of having no land and no language.

``If there is one thing we can do to save our language, it's to take it into our homes. We will forever be in debt to Punana Leo for doing something about a dream instead of sitting around saying, `Too bad Tutu - grandma - isn't here.''

To critics, Punana Leo is still a long-shot dream started by University of Hawaii professors ``with their heads in the clouds.'' But now there are more than 100 children on the waiting list for the 20 slots at the Honolulu school alone, and more and more parents are pressuring the board to open schools in new locations. Public officials are beginning to understand that kids climbing a jungle gym, shouting in Hawaiian, are far more than just cute.

As state Department of Education superintendent Charles Toguchi, a Japanese-American, puts it:

``I've always believed Hawaii is made up of people from many backgrounds. We should all be proud of our roots. It's important for any cultural group to remember its heritage, but Hawaiian is different from any other language. We don't have it anywhere else but here.''

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