“E ola mau ka olelo Hawai’i” (long live the language of Hawai’i) is the motto for all children and teachers who are associated with the Punanaleo and Kulakaiapuni Hawaiian Language Immersion Schools throughout the state of Hawaii. Growth and success of this program can be traced to the same success in other countries in preserving their native languages which at one time were almost extinct much like here with the Native Hawaiian Language. The culture began to revive its ancient practices and now grows to blend with contemporary times.
There is a concern that this program will not benefit all children because some of them will have difficulty adjusting to two ways of teaching at the same time. However, Immersion schools continue to be of great demand and spread across the state. Hawai’i should definitely support the spread of immersion language schools to provide more opportunities for the students to learn and preserve the language and culture of Hawai’i. Immersion schools in Hawai’i are successful because the organizers first studied the immersion schools that had already existed in other countries.
Immersion schools are defined as places of education where a student is totally immersed in an inherent language but learning the courses and classes of a conventional program. The Maori language of New Zealand was in jeopardy so immersion schools began (May, Hill and Tiakiwai) In New Zealand and between the 1930’s and 1960’s, the number if Maori that could speak in their native tounge dropped from about 96. 6 percent to only 26 percent (“Bilingual Education in Aotearoa”). There was a whole generation of Maori who didn’t know how to speak their language.
This led leaders to fear that Maori would become a dead language unless serious efforts to revive the language and encourage more people to speak Maori again. Their serious efforts to educate by immersion programs began in 1980’s (May, Hill and Tiakiwai). This was also the case in Canada when many of the “First Nation” tribes were beginning to realize that their customs and language were on the very edge of disappearing. Over the last 20 years many school systems across the country have taken research very seriously and started language immersion programs in the elementary level (Redbord and Sachetti).
For instance, Fairfax Country Virginia currently offers immersion programs in Spanish, Japanese, French and German at 13 different elementary schools (‘Language Immersion Programs”). Based on approximate judgment by the Indigenous Language Institute though more than 300 indigenous languages existed in United States in the 19th century, only 175 exist today (Ng-Osorio and Ledward). All the numerical fact clearly prove that immersion schools are very valuable in cultures that are on the edge of disappearing because their language has not been practiced.
In consequence of that, Hawai’i began to follow their footsteps by establishing their own schools and following the success of others already in existence. History of Hawaiian Language Immersion Schools began in 1980. In 1984 the first pre-school was eastablished in Kekaha, Kauai in August (“History aha Punana leo”). In the following years schools were established in Hilo, Hawai’i, and Honolulu (“History aha Punana leo”). This was a result of Hawaiian Language studies increasing at the University of Hawai’i Hilo level to 27 students (Warchauer).
Practitioners and educators got together and formed the Punana Leo Schools to save the nearly extinct language (Kamana and Wilson). The name “Punana Leo” means the “Nest of Voices” (Kamana and Wilson). It was chosen because the function on the school was to serve as a nest where the children are fed the Hawaiian Language much as a young bird would be fed by its mother (Redbord and Sachetti). Students of all races who attend the Punana Leo are treated equally and will be nourished by Hawaiian language. The formation of Punana leo was the most important language initiative from pre-school and K-12 education (Warschauer).
The immersion schools in the elementary levels are now helping the enrollment at the University level (Warschauer). Hawaiian elders that were concerned about the language becoming obsolete contacted educators and a good plan was formed. It’s easy to see that the schools are really gaining in popularity and that the students are progressing in the use of the language. The nest of voices is a perfect name for the program because the young students go on to a higher level and eventually teaching others how to speak the Hawaiian Language.
Evidence shows that the practice of an inherent language is extremely important to the spirituality, realities and history if the culture. Language is a historic practice, and it tells the stories of the ancient culture, ceremonies, protocol, poetry, song and dance. Hawai’i is a great example of this when people see the hula or listen to the chanting. To understand the hula and the chant better, the student needs to understand the language first. They should know the commands and the words of the song or prayer. Hawaiian language immersion schools teach many phases of the language.
It’s not only about speaking, but also it is about how they use the language in their lives. Children entering the program can do so early as the age of three (“Aha Punana Leo”). Hawaiian becomes their primary language, and the foreign language becomes English. They quickly learn the initial language and will eventually become acquainted with their secondary language as they go on through the school and upper grades. For better or for worse, children learn far more from other kids than from any adult (Chen). Sending a child to an immersion school has a huge advantage for the fluency in a foreign language (Chen).
This may be because when they first enter the immersion program, each student knows nothing about the language, but when the teacher begins to direct them, the kids use the language with each other and even outside of school. The language actually becomes a toy for them, and they have fun with it. Having the opportunity to not only speak the language but truly “understand” the language means that the whole culture comes back to life. Language is the backbone of the culture, and if the language is taken away, the culture will breakdown. There are some disadvantages that surface in the immersion schools.
Elders that can speak the language do not have the college degrees to teach, so teachers fresh out of college are put into the classroom. Also, students who may have learning disabilities do not have the special educators there to help them. This means that the student will be slower in the learning process and actually become weaker at both the inherent language and English at the same time. This of course means that the child suffers while attending the school. A child with ADHD or ADD is already handicapped and since there are no qualified special educators to help them, they fall behind.
Immersion schools also have a great disadvantage because there is no space for them to open up a school. They always have to beg for space and will often open up in spaces that are meeting rooms or churches and sometimes public education schools that have vacant classrooms. The immersion program in Maui starts in a Wailuku pre-school. From there students go through Paia school, Kalama Intermediate and King Kekaulike High School in order to complete their education from pre-school to 12th grade entirely in Hawaiian. Financing is hard to get so parents always have to work harder to raise money for the schools by doing fundraisers.
Sometimes the fundraisers will go on for the entire year, and all the time that the child is enrolled in the school. The parents work so hard that there are many who give up because they cannot commit to the many hours that it takes to keep their child in the school. Disadvantages are clear, but as the system grows with its popularity the enrollment gets bigger, so do the improvements to the system. The disadvantages are disappearing, and the benefits are starting to outweigh the disadvantages. Opposing views are heard from educators and parents.
There is concern that students from multi-culture backgrounds will adapt only to the immersion culture/language and forget about their ethnic backgrounds (Chen). Parents want their child to appreciate all sides of their roots and not only one segment. The experience of the teacher is also questioned by the parents and school boards that approve the formation of new immersion schools. They will take anybody graduating from college and put them into the classroom to new curriculum with little training. Since the immersion system is pretty new, it is bound to have some doubters and disadvantages but the future looks bright.
The school system is constantly growing and so is the experience of the teachers. There are now 21 immersion schools in the state of Hawai’i (Vorsino). Since 188, there is a constant demand for more schools and larger classrooms (Vorsino). The elders and parents are very proud of their children as they learn the language of their ancestors while also learning the English language to become a bilingual person. But, the student also grows with the language since they have a much better understanding of who they were , who they are, and who they want to become (“Aha Punana Leo”).
There is a high rate of graduates from immersion schools who go to college and then go back to teach kids in immersion school systems. So, these new teachers are already experienced in the immersion system and they already know from their own experience what was missing and what is needed to make the school a success. This means that their contribution is immediate and the students benefit from this. The school system is learning from its early mistakes during its information and special education help is present. Extracurricular activities are also on the increase.
Anuenue Immersion School on the island of Oahu has an interscholastic football team that speaks only in Hawaiian (Conklin). The students are very proud of their accomplishments. Elders are not considered to be teachers, but used as consultants to improve even more the curriculum and also explain the life style of the language. At one time the language of Hawai’i was illegal to be spoken and taught in public schools until 1984. Speaking the language became rare and almost impossible to hear except when there was a Hawaiian song, or a Hawaiian story.
Even then pronunciation and grammar was not being practiced which meant the language was only “words. ” Immersion schools have helped to bring the culture if Hawai’i back to life again. Hula, chant, song, conversation, healing methods etc. are all part of a living language that is preserved by the practice of the language. The renaissance of Hawai’i is alive and well because of immersion schools, the State of Hawai’i should absolutely provide more opportunities for the children of Hawai’i in all races, and not only Hawaiian child to contribute to the future of the islands by having a chance to attend a Hawaiian Immersion School.