The Hawaiian Language Nearly Died. A Radio Show Sparked Its Revival

  • 2019-06-26
  • National Public Radio

In Hawaii today, nearly everyone knows how to speak at least a few words and phrases of Hawaiian. But the practice of primarily speaking the Hawaiian language from birth, as my great-grandmother and many other Hawaiians of her time did, nearly died with her generation.

A man named Larry Kimura — the voice interviewing my great-grandmother on that radio program — and some student activists set out to change that. Today, Kimura is called the grandfather of the Hawaiian language's revitalization.

In the 1970s, Kimura was a young professor, trying to teach himself Hawaiian, when he started a 90-minute radio program called Ka Leo Hawai'i. Out of a tiny studio on the ninth floor of a Waikiki office building, he began interviewing all the native language speakers he could find. He estimates there were about 2,000 of them left of this generation who grew up speaking Hawaiian in the home.

The radio show sparked strong interest from many people who saw the language's status as a sign that their culture was slipping away. The Hawaiian language had been banned from school instruction in 1896, after the U.S. government illegally overthrew the Hawaiian government. From then on, in almost all public spaces, English quickly replaced Hawaiian. And by the time Kimura's show was on the air, there weren't many places to formally learn the Hawaiian language, even as a second language.