E Ola Ka 'Olelo Hawai'i Every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker. That was the fate of Hawaiian, until a group of second-language learners put up a fight and declared, "E Ola Ka 'Olelo Hawai'i" (The Hawaiian Language Shall Live!!!)
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E Ola Ka 'Olelo Hawai'i

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E Ola Ka 'Olelo Hawai'i

E Ola Ka 'Olelo Hawai'i

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

The man credited with keeping the Hawaiian language from dying...

LARRY KIMURA: (Speaking Hawaiian).

DEMBY: ...Did not grow up speaking that language.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Larry Kimura grew up in Hawaii speaking English. His dad was from Japan. His mom was native Hawaiian.

KIMURA: Both of my parents never used their first language with us, their children, except they would...

DEMBY: Larry says even though everything around him was pushing him to forget his Hawaiian roots, as a kid in the 1950s, he was trying to push back.

MERAJI: He's 73 now, and he was reminiscing about all this with his younger brother.

KIMURA: He said, we used to go and watch the cowboy and Indian shows at our local theater. You would be cheering for the Indians. And I said, yes, and I remember when we played cowboy and Indian, I always wanted to be the Indian.

MERAJI: You were just always drawn to the more Indigenous side of you.

KIMURA: Yes. Yes. It was kind of weird to me to think that Hawaiian was so ignored because that was part of who we - I am - and we, meaning my family. I knew, of course, as I grew up, Japan was very Japanese. And this place, Hawaii, was not very Hawaiian.

MERAJI: This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.

Shereen, you took a couple weeks to go to Hawaii. I'm jealous - just - anyway, you went to Hawaii with our producer, Kumari Devarajan, and our editor, Leah Donnella.

MERAJI: That's right. We were reporting on Native Hawaiian issues. And on today's episode, I'm going to talk about a decades-long fight to keep the Hawaiian language alive. By the 1980s, nearly an entire generation of Hawaiians had lost the ability to speak their language fluently. And the native speakers were passing away, which meant Hawaiian was in danger of dying, too.

DEMBY: There are a lot of really grim stats out there about language that...

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: ...That I did not know about that's, like, very depressing. So every two weeks, a language dies when its last surviving speaker passes away. Half of the world's languages will be gone within a century. And according to the Linguistic Society of America, quote, "the fate of a language can be changed in a single generation if it is no longer being learned by children."

MERAJI: In the 1980s, Hawaii only had about 50 native speakers of Hawaiian under the age of 18. But a college professor named Larry Kimura and a small group of his former students set out to change that. The task ahead of them was daunting - save a language - their ancestral language - while they were still learning how to speak it.

DEMBY: All right, Shereen. Take us there.

MERAJI: Larry Kimura.

KIMURA: Yeah, this is me. I...

MERAJI: Kamehameha Schools Proprietary Department.

KIMURA: Yeah.

MERAJI: I'm in Larry's office, flipping through an old Hawaiian language workbook from middle school he had sitting on a shelf.

KIMURA: My spelling was bad. Oh, this is really terrible. This is in October.

MERAJI: What school - Hale Pule?

KIMURA: Kula - Hale Kula. My handwriting is terrible. (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: You've come a long way, Mr. Kimura.

KIMURA: I hope so (laughter).

MERAJI: Larry's got a full head of white hair, but that's the only thing that hints at his 73 years. He's sprightly, laughs easily. And on this day, he's wearing a faded purple Hawaiian shirt tucked into a pair of jeans. He was 13 when he took his first Hawaiian class and says he remembers thinking back then that the teacher wasn't taking it seriously enough. He called it Hawaiian lite.

KIMURA: And it was meant to be lite, you know? But I just said, if you're going to teach Hawaiian, you should teach it, you know, the way it should be taught (laughter).

MERAJI: And you were 13.

KIMURA: As if I knew, you know, what it was 'cause I didn't even speak it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And now, "Ka Leo Hawai'i."

MERAJI: Fast forward 13 years, and Larry has his own radio show...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: ...All in Hawaii.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hawaiian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This program is produced by the students at the University of Hawaii's Hui Aloha 'Aina Tuahine.

KIMURA: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: It started in 1972, and it was called "Ka Leo Hawai'i" - the voice of Hawaii. And it was hosted by a then-26-year-old Larry Kimura, who was a professor at the University of Hawaii, and his students helped him produce it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIMURA: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: We're listening to Larry's earliest attempt at saving the language and culture he knew was in danger, recording the elders before they passed away - like this one, Johnny Almeida, a Hawaiian musical icon born in 1897.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNNY ALMEIDA: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: He was 75 years old when Larry interviewed him, and they listened to some of his music together. Johnny Almeida died in 1985.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALMEIDA: (Singing in Hawaiian).

MERAJI: "Ka Leo Hawai'i" was a teaching tool - and not just for Larry's students, but for everyone listening who spoke enough Hawaiian to get the gist of what was being said on the show. And Larry knew this because he strengthened his fluency by hanging around the old folks in his family.

KIMURA: And then I could ask direct questions, you know, about, how do you say this? And they would tell me. My grandmother had all these 78 records, you know? Those were the kind of records they had on Hawaiian music. I couldn't quite understand. Tell me, what are they singing about? Turned out to be a lot of adult-type...

(LAUGHTER)

KIMURA: ...Love songs, you know?

MERAJI: Yeah.

You know, I assumed Larry's grandma and aunties and uncles would be overjoyed that he would take so much interest in learning Hawaiian, but he told me it's complicated.

Were they proud of you? Did they ever say...

KIMURA: Oh, no - I don't know. No.

MERAJI: No?

KIMURA: I don't know if it was a Hawaiian thing to do. In fact, I used to ask my mother, how did you learn your Hawaiian? She said, we just - we heard it. And I remember when I started to really use Hawaiian - I mean, I would begin to speak to her, too. She would start in speaking Hawaiian back to me, and then she would sort of stop or give up, change it to English. And I'd say, why are you not continuing speaking Hawaiian? Then she'd say to me, you're speaking it too good for me to speak it back to you. I think it was a bit confusing for her to see that happen. English was understood to be the most critical thing about being successful.

MERAJI: That reticence to speak Hawaiian was super common and can, in part, be traced back to Hawaii's colonial history. In 1893, a U.S.-backed coup overthrew Hawaii's Queen Liliuokalani. Soon after, use of the Hawaiian language was completely banned in government and in schools. We heard stories from so many people about their grandparents and their great-grandparents being beaten and belittled for speaking Hawaiian.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAWAII '78")

ISRAEL KAMAKAWIWO'OLE: (Singing) Cry for the gods. Cry for the people. Cry for the land that was taken away. And then yet you'll find Hawaii.

MERAJI: We're listening to the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole singing a song he made famous called "Hawaii '78". And the '70s marked a time of renewed pride in Hawaiian culture and identity. You heard that newfound found pride in the music from that time. You saw it in the resurgence of hula. And there was also this revival of the Hawaiian way of seafaring and farming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAWAII '78")

KAMAKAWIWO'OLE: (Singing) To realize that our land is in great, great danger now.

KEIKI KAWAI'AE'A: The '70s is really part of that whole Hawaiian renaissance. You know, we were part of the generation where the women were burning their bras and civil rights, you know? And people were asking, well, how come I can't speak the language of my grandparents? How come they had this, and I don't have that?

Aloha. My name is Keiki Kawai'ae'a. I am the director for Ka Haka 'Ula O Ke'elikolani College of Hawaiian Language, where we are right now, here at the University of Hawaii, Hilo campus.

MERAJI: Keiki Kawai'ae'a is Larry Kimura's boss. And we're in her huge, light-filled office just upstairs from his. But in the late 1970s, she was Larry's student, taking fourth-year Hawaiian.

KAWAI'AE'A: And I really wanted to learn Hawaiian well 'cause I had this big, grand idea that one day, when I had children, that Hawaiian would be their first language. So I had to take the first leap to make sure I had enough proficiency in my language so that I could do that.

MERAJI: Growing up, were you speaking Hawaiian?

KAWAI'AE'A: I had some Hawaiian in my home - words, simple phrases - but not fluent. The only fluency I heard were from my grandparents. My grandparents were that very first generation - when they were in school, they actually used to get hit, humiliated. So when my grandparents had my father - that generation - the majority of that generation did not speak Hawaiian to their children. They were really afraid.

MERAJI: But Keiki was afraid of something else.

KAWAI'AE'A: Well, if we don't really pay attention, we will have nothing in our language to pass to our children. And with that is a tumbling domino effect of our songs, our ways, our practices, our arts, our culture because the language holds all of that intact.

MERAJI: For those of you who might have studied abroad in Mexico or Argentina or Spain to help you regain your fluency in Spanish, that's not something Keiki could do. Hawaii is the only place Hawaiian is spoken. So if it stops being spoken, it's gone.

KAWAI'AE'A: You know, once it gets wiped out, that's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAWAII '78")

KAMAKAWIWO'OLE: (Singing in Hawaiian).

MERAJI: In 1978, Hawaiian was added to the state constitution as an official language, a huge win that resulted from the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the '60s and '70s, but a win in name only, if almost no one could actually speak Hawaiian. And Professor Larry Kimura knew taking Hawaiian as a second language in college or high school was not going to fix the problem. His radio show, "Ka Leo Hawaii," was not going to fix the problem.

KIMURA: Yeah. It wasn't enough. It was important to have that. But it wasn't going to do it. Yeah.

MERAJI: He says he'd been teaching Hawaiian at the university level for over a decade when he came to that conclusion.

KIMURA: Students come. Students go. Students come. Students go. Where do those students go? Are they applying it? Are they using it? No. Maybe some of them became teachers of Hawaiian, but that's not going to bring it back to the home and the community.

MERAJI: To do that, Hawaii needed a new generation of speakers whose first language was Hawaiian. This, he says, would be the most natural way to bring it back.

KIMURA: Which is, really, it wasn't natural. But as natural as possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: So in the 1980s, Larry and a small group of other second-language learners decided to open a preschool. They called it Punana Leo, nest of voices, or nest of language. Everything was in Hawaiian, no English allowed, which wasn't easy. They needed to develop curricula in Hawaiian for little kids, which didn't exist. They had to create new words because they didn't exist. Hawaiian hadn't been used as an everyday language for most people in Hawaii in almost a century.

And they had to change laws. Even after Hawaiian was made an official language in 1978, there was still a federal law in the books that banned its usage as a language of instruction in public schools, which technically meant you couldn't use the Hawaiian language to teach anything, including Hawaiian.

Larry says, with all they were up against...

KIMURA: The hardest part was, how do we get a family to allow us to have their child for the day or the week or the months? (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: There was immense pressure from critics who thought centering Hawaiian would hold these kids back from succeeding in an English-speaking society. Some of those critics were family members. That's what nearly a century of colonial history had taught them. Here's Keiki Kawai'ae'a again.

KAWAI'AE'A: People wondered if our children would be able to read and write and speak English because they were being raised in Hawaiian.

MERAJI: Despite all this, Keiki and her husband made the decision to raise their kids in a Hawaiian-only home in the 1980s.

KAWAI'AE'A: There were only about half a dozen of us who were doing that. So it was kind of an isolated feeling. And then as the Punana Leo preschool started to open and we started to gather around this common idea of our children being Hawaiian speakers, so launched our movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: When the toddlers in the Punana Leo were ready for kindergarten, they created a kindergarten. And when it was time for first grade, they made a first grade. And so on until they reached 12th grade. Keiki's daughter graduated with the first class of this experimental new school, called Ke Kula 'O Nawahiokalani'opu'u, Nawahi for short. That was 20 years ago. Nawahi's class of 1999 had five graduates. And its mission was then and still is bring Hawaiian back.

KAUANOE KAMANA: The Hawaiian language (speaking Hawaiian). That's all.

MERAJI: That's Nawahi's principal.

KAMANA: And we had to hurry up because time was working against us. We were, like, a hundred years late, you know?

MERAJI: We'll meet her after the break...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing in Hawaiian).

MERAJI: ...Because that's where we're headed.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Hawaiian).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Stay with us.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, Shereen. So you said that about 40 years ago, this group of Hawaiians who learned to speak their native language as adults set out on this mission to keep that language alive.

MERAJI: And they decided the best way to do that was to begin at the beginning, teach the babies.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Hawaiian).

DEMBY: Because our brains are better at learning languages the younger we are. So knowing that, these folks took that notion and ran with it, and they created a nonprofit pre-school program that turned into a full-fledged public school?

MERAJI: That's right. And that school graduated its 20th class of seniors this year.

DEMBY: Wow.

MERAJI: And all of the instruction at that school is in Hawaiian - all of it. English is taught as a second language.

DEMBY: What? Wow.

MERAJI: And school employees are required to speak Hawaiian, from the groundskeepers to the principal.

DEMBY: And that's where you're taking us.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS #1: (Singing in Hawaiian).

MERAJI: It was really hard to believe that in the mid-80s, there were only a handful of kids enrolled in the preschool, the Punana Leo, here on the Big Island, because when we got to Nawahi, there were more than 400 kids outside greeting us.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS #1: (Singing in Hawaiian).

MERAJI: A sophomore stepped forward, named Ipono Valenti (ph), and gave a passionate speech about how the students were facing down huge obstacles to bring back Hawaiian. He related their journey to an ancient Hawaiian story about Hiʻiaka, the goddess of hula. She took a journey of her own, through a forest home to a treacherous monster. Hiʻiaka's advisers told her to take the safe route through the forest, but she refused and killed the monster who stood in her way.

IPONO VALENTI: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: And then it was our turn to be introduced.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: We spent the day on campus, saw babies as young as 9 months old learning Hawaiian through music.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS #1: (Singing in Hawaiian).

MERAJI: We visited different classes.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS #2: (Speaking Hawaiian).

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: (Speaking Hawaiian).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: That's a student telling us we're in fifth-grade math. The kids were learning about the metric system.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS #2: (Speaking Hawaiian).

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: We watched the middle school students practice hula during gym.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #3: (Speaking Hawaiian).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS #3: (Singing in Hawaiian).

KAMANA: (Speaking Hawaiian). I am the principal of Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopuu.

MERAJI: Kauanoe, the principal of Nawahi, was one of Professor Larry Kimura's students and a part of that original group that decided they were not letting Hawaiian die on their watch.

KAMANA: And we were all second language learners. And some people say, well, you know, that's not native fluency. But for us, that's what we had. You know, you work with what you have. So for the majority of the families who signed up at the beginning, they were not speakers yet. They became speakers in the course of being together over the years. And then they became teachers.

MERAJI: What you observe really fast at Nawahi is that this is still a family affair. A lot of teachers and students are related; same goes for the rest of the staff. Kauanoe married her college sweetheart. They met studying Hawaiian, and they were a part of that first group of families who brought Hawaiian back into the home. It was their children's first language. Kauanoe's eldest son was a part of Nawahi's very first graduating class in 1999. So Kauanoe is really serious about how this school is not your typical language immersion school. It's a way of life.

KAMANA: Other people come to this school, but the program is set up for families who use Hawaiian as a language of the home, and this is the school that they come to. The language is always the core of what Nawahi is about - always, always. It cannot be anything else. Everything else comes after.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCH SHELL HORN SOUNDING)

MERAJI: Three boys blow into conch shells to mark the end of the school day for the kids.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #4: The pencil is on the table. I'll restart. (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: But on Thursday nights, school's back in session for the adults. Nawahi has four levels of Hawaiian to help parents who want to speak more with their children at home. We're in Level 1. And tonight, everyone's learning how to ask where something is and how to answer that question. Where's the pencil? The pencil's on the table. Where are my soccer cleats? Your cleats are in the garage - basic things kids might ask at home.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #4: So find a partner. Each one of you comes up with three questions.

MERAJI: There are about a dozen adults in Level 1 this evening; most are dads. I cornered a few after class.

MITCHELL PIERS: Aloha. (Speaking Hawaiian) Mitchell Piers (ph).

EARL KI'IWI: My name is Earl Ki'iwi (ph).

MERAJI: And what brings you to class?

KI'IWI: I live the Hawaiian life, but I don't talk too much Hawaiian. So I'm just grateful to have this class for us parents so we can pick up and learn along with our kids.

PIERS: Because I'm outnumbered at my house.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Who else is outnumbered at their house? Are you outnumbered too?

TY MAKANUI: My name is Ty Makanui (ph). I'm a father of two children. And along like Mitch, I'm outnumbered at home 'cause my wife - she works at the Hawaiian language college.

MERAJI: Did your wife make you feel like you had to come here? Or are you coming on your own volition?

MAKANUI: No, I'm coming on my own to learn so I can conversate with my kids and understand what they're saying, talk stories and stuff. But then, you know, my oldest one - he's way more advanced because he's already, you know, (speaking Hawaiian), the first grade. And then he's always correcting me. He'll go, no, that's not correct. You're not saying it, so I always go back to English.

MERAJI: These guys are learning Hawaiian much later in life. Ty and Earl are in their 40s, and Mitchell's in his late 50s.

Do you feel like it's changed you in any way learning more Hawaiian?

PIERS: I guess Hawaiians have a very deep culture. It helps you reconnect.

KI'IWI: For me, it brought me, I guess, closer to the land, to the people. My grandma was pure Hawaiian, but she always told me that they wasn't allowed to talk Hawaiian. It was kind of like - they was banned from talking Hawaiian. She felt like I needed to learn English. Now I'm trying to learn Hawaiian. It's not that easy to learn at this age (laughter).

MERAJI: Ty told a similar story to Earl's. When he was a kid, he'd help out at his uncle's taro patch with his cousins. And he remembers the old folks talking to each other in Hawaiian.

MAKANUI: But the same like him, they would say, like, no, we're not teaching you guys. They look down on you guys if you guys learn the language. It wasn't, I guess, popular, you could say, like, how it is now.

MERAJI: The very popular language learning app Duolingo added Hawaiian to its roster of languages in October of 2018. And today in Hawaii, there are a dozen Punana Leo preschools and nearly two dozen other schools that are referred to as Hawaiian immersion, which can mean different things. Right now Nawahi is the only campus where a child can go from 9 months old all the way through high school entirely in Hawaiian.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

PELE HARMAN: Aloha. Good morning.

MERAJI: (Speaking Hawaiian).

HARMAN: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: One thing everyone we spoke with stressed was that in order for a language to thrive, it can't be stuck in a classroom. So we visited one of the Nawahi families that use Hawaiian in their home. Mom, Pele Harman, and dad, Kekoa Harman, have dedicated their lives to fortifying their culture. Pele teaches fifth and sixth grades at Nawahi. Kekoa is an associate professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii's Hilo campus. Both teach hula after school four days a week, and they've raised all three of their kids in Hawaiian.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLATES SCRAPING)

MERAJI: It was 6:45 a.m. when we showed up at their house. Everyone was getting ready for school or work, pouring coffee, cracking open cans of green tea, warming up cheese Danishes and finally, sitting around the kitchen table to check in about what's for dinner, after school plans, weekend plans - typical family stuff.

KALAMANAMANA HARMAN: (Speaking Hawaiian).

HARMAN: (Speaking Hawaiian).

KEKOA HARMAN: (Speaking Hawaiian).

HARMAN: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MERAJI: I had a chance to speak with Pele and her oldest daughter, who graduates this year as Nawahi's valedictorian.

HARMAN: So Kalamanamana - kala is the sun, and then manamana is rays. So rays of the sun - that's what my name means.

MERAJI: They're sitting right next to each other. Both daughter and mother have beautiful, white flowers in their dark hair.

HARMAN: She's always been a morning person, you know? The sun rises and so does she. Now at night, it's a totally different story. She takes on the persona of maybe a elderly person at night.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Kalamanamana is definitely that first-born child the parents rely on to be the responsible caretaker. She gets good grades. She looks out for her little brother and sister, and she's also the first of her family in two generations to grow up speaking Hawaiian as her first language. Her parents, Pele and Kekoa, started learning Hawaiian in college in the '90s.

HARMAN: Then we - when we started our family, we decided, OK, we're all in. We're going to - for both of our families, we're going to reclaim Hawaiian as our language. Yeah. And so that's where Kalamanamana was raised. That was her first language growing up.

And after that, the rest of our children - we have a son, Kamwalii (ph). How old is he? He's 13 (laughter) - 13 going on 30. He thinks he's - she thinks he's older than that - and then Nali'impuemoco (ph), our youngest daughter, who is 12.

Within both of our families, we would've had, you know, two generations of a gap of not being able to speak our language. And then seeing that in our kids - it really is a blessing to have been able to watch them grow up and see the world in a very different way that I think would've been more in a line with the way that my great-grandmother saw the world around her - with a better understanding of Hawaii.

What was it like growing up? - 'cause she had no choice. You know, we just kind of...

HARMAN: Yeah.

HARMAN: ...Forced her to do it.

HARMAN: Sometimes - I guess family members who didn't speak Hawaiian had a hard time understanding me because I was always mixing Hawaiian and English. So that was kind of difficult for me at times to communicate with others. But through being a part of (speaking Hawaiian) - being a student here - has given me a lot of (speaking Hawaiian) - blessings - being enriched in my Hawaiian language and my culture, understanding where my ancestors came from. It was (speaking Hawaiian). I know it was very difficult for her. I mean, she had to learn the Hawaiian language later in life. And I know that I have a responsibility to work hard for my mother and my father because they worked hard for - to put me and my siblings in this sort of education, and I'm very grateful for that. Yeah.

HARMAN: (Speaking Hawaiian).

HARMAN: Oh.

MERAJI: They're looking at one another and talking in Hawaiian, and both of them have tears in their eyes. Kalamanamana is a member of Nawahi's 20th graduating class, soon to be a freshman at Dartmouth College, a world away in New Hampshire.

HARMAN: OK, you have to go, hon.

HARMAN: Yeah.

MERAJI: And I talk more about that big step with her mom Pele after she left to catch the bus.

HARMAN: Oh, gosh. It's so funny 'cause I rarely get to hear her speak English, you know?

MERAJI: I asked Pele how she felt about her daughter leaving for college, knowing she most likely won't encounter another Hawaiian speaker in New Hampshire - so she probably won't be speaking the language day in and day out - and knowing there's absolutely no guarantee she'll move back to Hawaii after college.

HARMAN: It'll allow her to spread her wings a little bit, learn as much as she can and then come back and help our people move our language forward, move our culture forward. Our school motto is (speaking Hawaiian), which means that - (speaking Hawaiian) - we're from this place, and this is the place that has given us life. Another poetic - I guess a way of putting it is (speaking Hawaiian), which is the land of the bones of my ancestors. And so to answer your question - that was a really long one - she'll be back. She'll be back.

MERAJI: Is the language still in danger, in your opinion, after all of this work?

KIMURA: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, you know, English is so - too strong - still is too strong.

MERAJI: Professor Larry Kimura is referred to these days as the grandfather of the Hawaiian language revitalization movement. And he's still worried about the fate of Hawaiian. When they decided to start that Punana Leo - that preschool - there were about 50 native speakers under the age of 18. And it's hard to get a good handle on the numbers today, but one study from a few years back estimated there were more than 5,000 fluent Hawaiian speakers under the age of 18.

That's progress, but Professor Kimura says you still can't do basic things yet, like walk into any bank or post office or grocery store, and speak Hawaiian, let alone government offices or the courts. It's one of Hawaii's official languages, after all. So he says the next step is for these young people who graduate from Nawahi to push for Hawaiian to be spoken all over Hawaii so speaking the language isn't unique; it's normal. And ultimately, he hopes no one will even know there was a decades-long struggle to make it that way.

KIMURA: Hopefully, nobody's going to remember how it all came to be.

MERAJI: That's the hope.

KIMURA: Yeah, that would be the hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Hawaiian).

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. Shereen, you're @RadioMirage. That's radio mirage - the way that's spelled - all one word. I'm @GeeDee215. That's G-E-E-D-E-E 215. You can sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/code-switch.

MERAJI: And I got to give a few shoutouts - Mahalo nui loa to Ku'uwehi Hiraishi from Hawaii Public Radio for making sure we didn't mess anything up and for fielding numerous phone calls and texts. Another mahalo nui to Namaka Rawlins, who did so much coordinating on the ground in Hilo. And a big thank you to NPR managing editor Sara Kehaulani Goo, who first told us about Larry Kimura and his radio show. Her great-grandmother was interviewed by him in Hawaiian.

DEMBY: Wow. This episode was edited by Leah Donnella and Steve Drummond, with help from the aforementioned Sara Kehaulani Goo.

MERAJI: Field production in Hawaii was by Kumari Devarajan, Leah Donnella and me; studio production by Kumari, Maria Paz Gutierrez and me.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Karen Grigsby Bates, Kat Chow, Adrian Florido, LA Johnson and Sami Yenigun. Our interns are Michael Paulino and Jess Kung.

I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Wait. How do you say peace in Hawaiian again?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Maluhia.

MERAJI: Maluhia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Hawaiian).

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