Revitalising the Hawaiian language: 2019 Narrm Oration

Dr Larry Kimura
Dr Larry L. Kimura delivers the 2019 Narrm Oration: The Fabric of Hawaiian Medium Education: a Perspective for Indigenous Language Revitalisation. Photo credit: Peter Casamento

Doctor Larry L Kimura, Associate Professor of Hawaiian Language at Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawai'i Hilo, delivered a speech on the ambitious work that has been undertaken to revitalise the Hawaiian language through early childhood education at the 2019 Narrm Oration.

This year marks the 11th Narrm Oration, which profiles leading Indigenous thinkers from across the globe at the University of Melbourne.

Dr Kimura presented on the remarkable reawakening of the Hawaiian language, with new generations of highly fluent second and first language Hawaiian speakers emerging thanks to his efforts beginning in the 1970s to resurrect the language that was in danger of being lost.

A language disappears nearly every two weeks with the death of its last native speakers. Hawaiian, a Polynesian language, was in danger of disappearing completely.

In the 1960s Dr Kimura recorded the last native Hawaiian speakers and throughout the next two decades he hosted the Ka Leo Hawai'i radio program, broadcasting some 525 hours of first language Hawaiian speakers.

His work lead to a resurgence in the language and with it growing pride and awareness of Hawaiian culture, helping the indigenous Hawaiian population to reconnect with their heritage.

“As one of the co-founders of the ʻAha Pūnana Leo that initiated the Hawaiian language revitalisation movement in 1983, we had no funding, no site, no curriculum and a law that forbade the use of Hawaiian as the medium of education,” Dr Kimura said.

“Since then, Hawaiian has been immersed into the state’s public school system and the Department of Education administers 23 Hawaiian language immersion programs throughout  Hawai'i with many sites requiring more space to accommodate increasing enrolment.

“Teaching Hawaiian language in the 1970s and 1980s at the University of Hawai'i provided me the chance to mentor a few of my former students who, in turn, became Hawaiian language teachers themselves at the University level, and as colleagues, worked together to establish the first Hawaiian language Bachelor's Degrees at the University's two main campuses, Mānoa and Hilo in the 1980s.”

Shaun Ewen said that hearing from Dr Kimura about his experience in revitalising the Hawaiian language was deeply inspiring, especially to Australia where approximately 90 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are critically endangered.

“Listening to Dr Kimura gives us the opportunity to reflect on, and understand, Indigenous languages as Indigenous Knowledge, and how this adds to the richness of our endeavour as a University,” Professor Ewen said.

More than 250 Indigenous Australian languages including 800 dialectal varieties were spoken on the continent at the time of European settlement in 1788.

Only 13 traditional Indigenous languages are still acquired by children and approximately another 100 are spoken to various degrees by older generations, with many of these languages at risk as Elders pass away.

Dr Kimura’s presentation is one of many ways in which the University is honouring the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

It follows a visit to the University by His Excellency Governor-General David Hurley on November 4 to learn about The 50 Words Project from Professor Rachel Nordlinger.

“The project aims to provide fifty words in every Indigenous language of Australia, showcasing the diversity of these languages and making a significant contribution to language revitalisation in Australia,” said Professor Nordlinger.

“The importance of language to Indigenous identity, self-esteem and community pride cannot be overestimated. Dr Kimura showed us the power of what can be achieved, and we hope to be able to contribute to similar efforts across Australia,” she said.

The Narrm Oration was followed by a panel discussion on language revitalisation in Australia.

Narrm is the name of the Country of Melbourne that is home to the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation.