Hoping to Revitalize a Dying Language, Koreans Turn to Hawaiʻi
In 2014, a producer and camera crew followed a team of professors on a journey across the Pacific to visit Pūnana Leo o Hilo, a Hawaiian language immersion school located in Hilo on the island of Hawaiʻi.
The professors came from a volcanic island called Jeju off the southern coast of South Korea that is like Hawaiʻi in many ways: balmy air, sandy beaches, and majestic waterfalls. Making Jeju even more similar is a local dialect that is so different from standard Korean that it is considered an indigenous language.
The team of Koreans were on an important mission. The Korea Broadcasting System (KBS) hoped to produce a feature segment that would draw public attention to Jejueo, the island’s critically endangered language.
This reality facing Jeju natives is not a distant one for Native Hawaiians. Increased travel to the islands in the 19th century brought fatal illnesses that killed large numbers of native speakers of Hawaiian. Increasing influence from the United States saw the establishment of English in schools and government following annexation in 1898. The number of native speakers of Hawaiian diminished from 37,000 at the turn of the twentieth century to 1,000 in 1997.
Today, in contrast, the number of people fluent in Hawaiian is steadily increasing. Hawaiʻi has received international recognition for their language revitalization efforts, and their best practices now serve as an example to Koreans seeking to preserve Jejueo.
Language Shaping Identity
As camera crews interviewed the students of Pūnana Leo o Hilo, one thing was apparent: self-identity. Students spoke proudly about their cultural heritage and why they chose to attend an immersion school. One teacher spoke on camera candidly, “[The student’s] lives would be very different if they only spoke English. How they perceive the world would come from that English perspective. Through our language, our culture lives; our history lives; traditional knowledge of our people lives.”
The Korea team’s next journey lead them to Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani, the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s College of Hawaiian Language. There, they met university students with a resolve that resembled the high school students at the immersion school. Keane Dominguez, a student in his fourth year at the college, shared his ambitions on camera. “When I graduate, I will be joining Kahuawaiola, the teacher education program, so I can be licensed to teach at the immersion schools. But that’s not where I’m going.” Instead, Dominguez planned to enroll in a graduate program in language documentation and conservation at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and return to Hilo for a Ph.D. in Hawaiian and Indigenous Language and Culture Revitalization. “I want to be a part of the Hawaiian language revitalization, but I also want to go abroad and help other indigenous communities with the success that we’ve had here.”
Barriers to Revitalization
University of Hawaii linguist William O’Grady has made significant contributions to the current research and literature surrounding Jejueo. While his work has called for acquisition and immersion programs, Jeju-language schools - even Jejueo use in university instruction - he has conceded that the Jeju people must first reassess their relationship with the language. The Hawaiian success story cannot be replicated by merely implementing policies and creating programs. The key to successful language revitalization lies within the hearts and minds of the people.
Historically, Jeju was a place of exile. Over time, the local language also came to be regarded as inferior. Speakers are stigmatized, which discourages them to the extent that the standard Korean dialect is used over their native Jejueo. As a result of South Korea’s intensive education system, students already juggle English and, increasingly, Chinese. Making the case for comprehensive Jeju language acquisition classes to be added to the curriculum is a heavy proposition. However, a significant paradigm shift that enables the Jeju people to view their language differently could evoke the necessary change. Without it, the language may eventually face its imminent extinction.
A Language Worth Saving
As the Pūnana Leo o Hilo teacher claimed, “Through our language, our culture lives; our history lives; traditional knowledge of our people lives.” This truth rings true regardless of race or creed. Language embodies our native ways of expressing, seeing and being. With the death of each indigenous language, we lose a unique perspective of the world that was generations in the making.
After the team concluded their visit to Hawaii, a special 30-minute feature titled The Extinction Crisis: Finding Jejueo’s Future aired on KBS. “The Hawaiian language was once near extinction, but through the efforts of the community and scholars, it continues to live today.” the narrator remarked as the special concluded. “As Jejueo nears extinction, Hawaii’s story gives us much encouragement.”
Keoni Williams is a legislative aide at the Hawaii State Legislature; University of Hawai'i at Mānoa alumnus; and HKC editor-in-chief.
Katarina Brown is an editorial intern for The Austin Chronicle; University of Texas at Austin alumnus; and HKC chief copyeditor.