He pūkoʻa kani ʻāina (A coral reef grows into an island): Building our Indigenous language capacity

Posted on February 24, 2020

I grew up on the island of Hawaiʻi at a time when ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian language) was starting to re-emerge and be revitalized following the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance of the 1970s. As a young Kanaka Hawaiʻi (Native Hawaiian), I didn’t have the opportunity to grow up in a household of Hawaiian language speakers and instead spoke English, as Hawaiian was prohibited from being used as the medium of instruction in public and private schools from 1896 until 1986. I learned and was educated in the colonial language of English from birth, yet I was immersed in Hawaiian culture, including hula, Hawaiian dance.

It wasn’t until I was 12 years old and attended boarding school that I formally began learning Hawaiian. Reclaiming and learning Hawaiian at the time was exciting to me because I was able to learn about Hawaiian history, culture, people, land, and knowledge systems in a language class. We were both learning the language and learning about the language through English, but our nā kumu (teachers) found meaningful ways to make connections to our everyday lives so that we in turn had a vested interest in contributing to a revival of the Hawaiian language among learners and speakers.

More than twenty years later, I am on a continued quest to find ways and resources to support my language-learning journey, as I now reside in what we now know as Canada and am far from my traditional homelands. As an Indigenous language advocate, researcher, and scholar-educator, I am passionate about supporting those on a journey to enhance their Indigenous language ability.

My path may resonate with Indigenous Peoples locally, nationally, and internationally, as we share similar colonial histories of cultural genocide, assimilation, and language loss. As Indigenous people, we have the ability and power to reclaim our respective Indigenous languages on our own terms.

Learning a language has its challenges, and many have experienced trauma from past injustices, which makes it even more difficult for them to see a future with an Indigenous language. However, we need to empower each other to speak our Indigenous languages, even when we make errors. Making mistakes is a part of the language-learning process; however, shaming is not.

Here are some meaningful ways to engage in and establish a foundation for Indigenous language learning and revival:

1. Power in names
Use your traditional and ancestral names. Learn those of others, and let’s refer to each other by our Indigenous names.
2. Positionality
Learn how to introduce yourself and describe your relationships to people, land, and the more-than-human. This can include your genealogy, your community and a land acknowledgement.
3. Good beginnings
Say your greetings and farewells, and use appropriate responses to each other in the language.
4. A phone call away
Answer and end the phone call in the language. Record your voicemail greeting/message in the language.
5. Social interactions
Begin and end your emails, texts, or chats in the language.
6. Redecoration
Write words, common phrases, actions, and the names of items on post-its or stickers, and display them in places that you occupy or frequent (for example, the kitchen, living room, office). Replace the labels with new ones as these words and phrases become a part of your lexicon.
7. Language domains
Identify specific spaces and/or times in which you will immerse yourself in the language (for example, breakfast, car rides on the way to/from school or work).
8. Cultural practice(s)
Identify your favorite cultural practice or activity, and learn terminology, phrases, and cultural protocols that are relevant to it. Use this vocabulary while engaging in the practice!
9. Task-based activities
Choose a task (for example, cooking, weaving), and learn how to complete the task in the language.
10. Songs
Learn songs in the language and sing them. Or better yet, write your own lyrics, sing them, and share them!
11. Other companions
Speak to your pet(s) in the language. Most don’t speak back, so try your language on them. They are great listeners and don’t judge you!

Each of these practices can be adapted to work with language learners and speakers at any level. Whether you live in community or now reside in the big city or a different country, find language resources (for example, speakers, books, media) to help support your journey. Remember to recognize, celebrate, and reward your progress, small and big. Protect these language spaces, and encourage others to join your movement with the intention that we continue to build language capacity so that we use Indigenous languages in all domains.

And most importantly, have fun, and enjoy learning and speaking in your Indigenous language. Through our ancestral languages, we begin to understand our relationships with and responsibilities to each other and our natural environment, and that will guide us to a healthy and sustainable future.

E ola mau nā ʻōlelo ʻōiwi! (Indigenous languages shall live!)


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Candace Galla

Candace Galla

A Native Hawaiian, Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia in the Institute of Critical Indigenous Studies (Faculty of Arts) and the Department of Language and Literacy Education (Faculty of Education). Her scholarship and practice focus on the Hawaiian language and other Indigenous languages at the intersection of education, revitalization, digital technology, well-being, traditional and cultural practices, and policy and planning; and decolonizing and indigenizing the academic world to create pathways for Indigenous thinkers and scholars, and scholarship – locally, nationally, and globally.

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Submitted by Desmond Fisher on February 28, 2020, at 8:50

Wonderful article! Your list of suggestions for practising a language is very useful. Thank you!

Submitted by Justin on February 28, 2020, at 23:08

Thanks so much for this article on Hawaii. I'm from there and reading this article warms my heart!