Photo: Deborah Kolb/Shutterstock

Native Land, Native Tongue: an Essay on Learning the Hawaiian Language

Hawaii Languages
by Wailana Kalama Sep 2, 2016

‘O Hawai’i ku’u kulaiwi… Hawaii is my native land.”

My Hawaiian lesson on Youtube begins slowly, the kumu (teacher), a soft-spoken woman, tiptoes gently through the vocabulary of the day. She is dressed in a colorful mu’umu’u, the classic dress of Hawaii.

Aloha, and welcome to Kulaiwi.”

The video series is easy to listen to and it moves slowly enough so that I don’t have to pause. The goal is to get the learner to speak some basic Hawaiian straight away and to construct conversations as quickly as possible. I repeat each sentence carefully. In my lap, I keep a language notebook where I jot down grammar notes, spelling, and vocabulary. I think I’m making steady progress. The most difficult part for me is knowing where to place the long vowels and the glottal stop — but for the most part, I zip through the lessons without many problems.

Not bad for a Hawaiian learning Hawaiian.

“ ‘Olelo Hawai’i ’oe?… Do you speak Hawaiian?”

Although I am Hawaiian, I didn’t grow up in Hawaii. I was a Third Culture Kid, was born in California and moved to Saudi Arabia before finally settling in Hawaii. So I didn’t have the exposure to Hawaiian that my mother and her family had. For the first decade of my life, I lived abroad in Riyadh and spoke English while at home and to my neighbors.

Hawaiian never ended up being a part of my upbringing until my family moved back to the Big Island when I was 9 years old — but even then, the lingua franca was still English or at best, the local Pidgin. Throughout my childhood, I absorbed Hawaiian only in snippets and phrases. And when I turned 19, I left the islands and have only been back twice.

I was never interested in learning Hawaiian until recently, and now I find myself here in Sweden in a tiny apartment — nearly 7,000 miles away from the islands — trying to get a grasp on it. Ten years have passed since I last visited the Big Island, and I’m watching video lessons on Youtube.

” ‘Ae, he li’ili’i… Yes, a little.”

The kumu in the video is always smiling. She runs through the vocabulary of the lesson, all food-related. I recognize a lot of the words she uses. Hawaiian is best-preserved in everyday vocabulary like food: niu (coconut), pa’akai (salt), pua’a (pig), wai (water), ahi (tuna).

Hawaiian has seeped into my brain quite gradually. Words dealing with food, home, people — these things in the immediate surroundings — these are the words I recognize. And then there are the complex, cultural concepts that can’t be easily translated into English — kuleana and lokahi and na’au. The words that don’t have easy equivalents in English seem to stick better in my head.

But still, there’s a big, blank spot in my knowledge. As a teenager in Hawaii, I saw street names every day — Kalopa, Pililani, Waipi’o — but had no idea of their meaning. I’ve learned a dozen Hawaiian songs by heart but don’t know if I’m singing a love song or an ode to a rain shower. Town names? Old newspapers? That one Hawaiian video channel? No idea whatsoever.

No hea mai ‘oe?… Where are you from?

It’s a bit weird if you think about it, living in Hawaii, identifying as a Hawaiian without knowing the language. It feels like I’m only able to touch half of my own culture. Imagine growing up in England and not knowing English. Or Japan and not knowing Japanese. Language connects you with your history, and if you don’t have that, you’re always going to look at it with the lenses of an outsider.

I once felt that my cousins, who always seemed to know more Hawaiian than me, had more of a right to call themselves native. But as I got older, and traveled farther than I had ever before, I realized it didn’t matter. What was important was that Hawaii always felt like home. When strangers asked where I was from, I’d always reply with Hawaii. Visiting the islands later on, I noticed as soon as I stepped off the plane that my breath would come easier, my muscles would unclench, my shoulders would slacken in the heat.

One thing I have noticed living abroad, in Iceland and Sweden especially, is that Hawaii has a sort of magical presence everywhere. Mention that you’re from Hawaii and many people will marvel. They’ll ask incredulously why you ever left a paradise. I used to dismiss their comments.

“It’s no paradise,” I’d say. “It’s got its own ups and downs.”

Then one day, I was drinking some “1,000 Flower Schnapps” with a German. She had tons of questions for me about Hawaii and I dumped everything I knew — history, geology, songs (thank you Dennis Pavao), language (those precious snippets) — onto her tipsy head. I realized, Hawaii was actually a special place to me. What’s more, I could share it with people.

All over the world, people are inundated with the English language and American culture, thanks to pop culture, media, and Hollywood. If you speak English abroad (especially in Europe), chances are that your words will land on someone who understands you. But with Hawaiian, I feel somehow like I am part of a secret that not many people know. It’s a colorful world that nobody around me knows. But they are curious and I have a lot to share. It feels distinctly like something that is altogether my own. And the farther I am from Hawaii and Hawaiian, the more rare it is in my everyday life, the more valuable it has become to me.

It’s grown from something I barely identified with to something inseparable to my identity.

Makemake au e ‘olelo Hawai’i… I want to speak Hawaiian.

So why am I learning Hawaiian now? The reason is simple: I’m homesick. The farther I go, the more I seem to think about home. After years on the road, away from my family and my homeland, it’s only natural that I become homesick. I’m almost 30. I have spent the last few years of my life dabbling in other people’s cultures: learning bits of Icelandic, Japanese, Polish, picking up Cyrillic and Hangul. I just moved to Sweden and some days, it’s stressful as hell. So I watch Hawaiian lessons, with that sweet Hawaiian kumu, only understanding every other word or so, and I let her playful voice ease my blood pressure and remind me of palm trees.

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