The Challenges of Starting a Hawaiian Language Study Program

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So, as you probably noticed from my Walkabout page, I’m on the verge of starting a new project of learning the Hawaiian language. This is interesting because Hawaiian Language learning opportunities are much different than other languages. It also comes with some unique challenges that I thought were worthy of sharing here on the blog.

A quick background on the Hawaiian Language

You may or may not realize that the Hawaiian language was almost extinct. After Hawai’i was annexed by the United States (illegally — but that is a discussion for another day) there was a strong push to force it out of use. Children were forbidden from speaking it in school and it was taken out of use in public settings.  An entire generation grew up with no knowledge of the language. Fortunately the kupuna (elders) of Hawai’i kept it alive (sometimes in secret) and when the Hawaiian cultural renaissance took place in the 1970s, which coincided with (and included) the launching of the maiden voyage of the Hōkūleʻa (click here if you don’t know what that is) many people started learning and teaching the language again. Today there are hundreds and thousands of kids all across the islands enrolled in Hawaiian immersion programs and growing up fluent in Hawaiian. It is actually pretty awesome and I feel fortunate to have lived on Moloka’i where, outside of Niihau, the highest number of people, per capita, speak Hawaiian than any other island. But, because of the challenges that the language has suffered here in its home territory, it has made the language somewhat problematic to study.

Challenges of Learning Hawaiian

This list is by no means exhaustive. I mean, how can it be? I haven’t actually started learning Hawaiian yet so I’m sure more challenges (and opportunities) will present themselves to me as I progress on this journey. But, I thought I would share a few of the challenges that I’ve noticed and a few things I will be doing to overcome them and get started with my upcoming study of the Hawaiian language.

Hawaiian Language Challenge #1: A Lack of Online Resources

Normally if I were going to take on a language learning project I would start by signing up for one of the Innovative Language podcasts, or finding a Pimsleur lesson series, or getting a language tutor on However, those resources just don’t really exist for Hawaiian. There are no vast online YouTube channels brimming with instructions on Hawaiian or examples of Hawaiian conversations. (There are some, but not like other languages such as Japanese or Spanish.). As a result, Hawaiian is a language that, currently, is difficult to learn solely through online resources. I’m hoping that in the future that will no longer be the case. Who knows? Maybe this website and my YouTube channel will help in that regard. It will also probably help me become more resourceful with language learning resources that I do come across.

How Iʻm overcoming the challenge

I have found a few smatterings of resources, and my plan to overcome this challenge is to set up a list of all the resources I find here on Walk the  I hope it helps future Hawaiian language learners by having access to them all in one location.

Hawaiian Language Challenge #2: Hawaiian is not a Daily Language

With the exception of a very small population of people in specific parts of Hawai’i (Moloka’i, Niihau, Waianae, Waimanalo, etc.) you are hard pressed to find people who use Hawaiian in their day to day use. In fact, even though Hawaiian is one of the two official languages of Hawaii (the only state with more than one official language), when someone does use the language in an official capacity (such as when Samuel Kaleikoa Kaʻeo used it in court earlier this year) it can be seen as unusual.  If this is a truly one of the official languages of Hawaiʻi, then there should be more opportunities to see it used in all levels of Hawaiian society. So, the other challenge, even for those who live in Hawaii, is finding people who actually speak the language to practice with. It isn’t like moving to China where everyone you see can speak Chinese. Because even those people who are fluent in Hawaiian, generally only speak English when they are out and about in public, even if they might speak it at home, or with other Hawaiian-speaking friends. Long story longer, Hawaiian hasn’t reached the level of saturation required for it to be the lingua franca of Hawai’i. Someday, perhaps, but not now.

How Iʻm overcoming the challenge

My plan to overcome this challenge is to make connections with people I know who do speak Hawaiian and try to find others whom I can practice with. They are out there — I know it. I just have to find them. Fortunately, I have some friends on Moloka’i and a few here on Oahu, who speak Hawaiian and can help me locate others. So, while I won’t be able to use Hawaiian to order Squid Luau at a restaurant, or ask the clerk at Whole Foods to direct me to the dinosaur kale, I might still be able to find opportunities to speak it.

Hawaiian Language Challenge #3: Lack of Good Study Materials

This is sort of an addendum to #1, but along with the lack of online resources, there are also not very many good books to learn Hawaiian. I would say there are probably two or three textbooks that most people learn Hawaiian from. I have two myself that I picked up, but like any initial efforts into cataloging and teaching a language, they aren’t necessarily super easy to follow. I get it though. It is expensive to make a textbook, and it is not the best investment when the potential student base for the language is so small. This isn’t German or even Swahili, where hundreds of thousands of people want to learn. There are probably not even a hundred thousand people in the world who speak Hawaiian, so the market is limited. There are also only a few texts in the Hawaiian language and only a few bookstores (maybe two) on Oahu where you can find them. I’m not going to be able to pick up the Harry Potter series in Hawaiian (Edit: Okay, apparently Iʻm completely wrong about that). I am pretty happy they made a Hawaiian language version of Moana, though, and that it is being distributed to schools across the islands. Can’t wait to get my hands on that! 🙂

How Iʻm overcoming the challenge

My way to overcome this challenge is to get all the study materials I can, regardless. I happen to know of a great Hawaiian-focused bookstore, Na Mea Hawaiʻi, so I’m going to go there and see what I can find. Children’s stories, fables, whatever I can get my hands on. Again, this is just about being persistent and going out into the community, utilizing my social network, and getting the resources I can. But more than that, I’m going to make sure to catalog them all here so that the list can act as a resource for others who want to learn Hawaiian.

Adjusting My Approach to Learn the Hawaiian Language

So, as a result of these challenges, I’ve had to adjust how I’m going to study this language. It is different than how I would do it with Arabic or Tagalog or Japanese. First, the biggest change in my approach is that I am essentially forced to study Hawaiian in Hawai’i. It is fortunate that I already live here, but if I didn’t and I wanted to learn the language I would have to move. (And for anyone out there thinking of learning Hawaiian, I will probably be posting up a blog post after a few months to share what I would have done if I was starting from scratch. I already have some ideas, but it’s still a little early.) Now, as you probably also know, my cultural arts practice in Hawai’i is going to be learning the play the Ukulele. My original plan was to take a Ukulele class at the college where I work. But then I thought about all of the challenges of learning Hawaiian and realized that it makes more sense for me to take a class to learn the language than to play Ukulele. The reason being, there are infinitely more people in the world who play Ukulele and there are a hefty number of online resources to learn Ukulele as well. When I share my plans to learn Ukulele I’ll get into those, but I already have several set up to start once my Hawai’i Walkabout officially begins. So, I’m going to utilize the resources of a live classroom environment to learn Hawaiian. The class starts on January 7th, but I plan to get the book and start studying for the first week of 2019 so I can get a good start on the material. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I will give you the entire lowdown on my approach to learning Hawaiian in another post. I’ll be sure to include all the nitty-gritty details so keep your eyes peeled for that in the next few weeks.

Why I’m Excited to Learn Hawaiian

All those years I lived in Moloka’i I didn’t have that much interest and excitement for learning Hawaiian. Why?  Iʻm not sure.  I actually had much greater access to resources there. I even started a Hawaiian language class at the Keawanui Fish Pond with Kumu Mailelani Naehu, but only attended 3 or 4 lessons, and don’t really remember much of what I learned. The other day my wife asked me how many words of Hawaiian I can remember. I think it was less than 20, and that includes common words like Aloha and Mahalo. I’m definitely starting as a complete beginner. And I think that might also be one of the reasons I’m excited. This isn’t a language I already have a slight grasp on, like Japanese or Chinese, or even Spanish. I’m really starting as a complete newbie. That means, my initial progress in the language will be pretty dramatic. It is always nice to learn things quickly. And at some point — probably around the 5 or 6-month mark — I will start to hit a wall. And I’m sort of looking forward to that too. Because the first wall is usually indicative of a certain level of conversational ability. When I hit the wall it means I can probably already say a few things to an adequate degree. And I think that will be great motivation to keep pushing.

How to Follow Along with my Hawaiian Language Studies

So, if you’d like to follow along with this, be sure to sign up for my newsletter down below. No spam. Just updates on new content for you to check out, such as my language study blog posts. I will also be posting up language progress videos so you can see exactly where my level is at certain points. I know a lot of people do these for other languages, but from what I can tell (after some searching) I might be the first person to do a Hawaiian Language study progress vlog. (But if you know of one out there, please do share!). You can check out my YouTube channel here. And finally, I’ll post up quick updates and photos from my experiences on my Instagram account @walktheplanet9. Subscribe and follow there for snippets and highlights. Just a few weeks until this project starts and I can’t wait to get going! Thanks so much for joining me on this journey. Until next time … See you on the road!

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