By Pamela Varma Brown
Keaoopuaokalani “Keao” NeSmith is a Hawaiian language instructor at the University of Hawai‘i. He has translated books including “The Hobbit,” “The Little Prince” and two “Alice in Wonderland” stories into Hawaiian.
But when he was growing up in a large Hawaiian family in Kekaha on the west side of Kaua‘i, he and his family spoke only English.
“As a kid I always wondered, ‘How come we don’t speak Hawaiian?’ ” Keao says. “My mother is Hawaiian but she never learned to speak Hawaiian. She speaks perfect English.”
As Keao grew older, he learned that while there were never laws banning the Hawaiian language, in the late 1800s, laws were passed that strongly discouraged the Hawaiian culture and everything that goes with it.
“My grandmother’s generation realized that in order to survive, in order to be anything of substance in your life, you had to give up speaking Hawaiian and being Hawaiian,” he says. So his grandmother never taught her children to speak her own language.
Thank You for Speaking Hawaiian to Your Grandson
Keao loved his grandmother so much that he wanted to be able to talk with her in her native tongue. After he graduated high school, he came up with a plan. He went to live with her on the north shore of O‘ahu.
“I insisted that she only speak Hawaiian to me. She thought I was silly. I seriously wouldn’t let her speak English to me, to the point where sometimes I would ignore her if she spoke English to me,” he says.
His plan worked. Within nine months, Keao and his grandmother were speaking only Hawaiian to each other. Sometimes while washing dishes together, “she randomly turned to me, gave me a big hug and said in Hawaiian, ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t speak Hawaiian to your mom.’”
At times, Keao and his grandmother would ride the public bus together on O‘ahu, talking in Hawaiian and sharing laughs. “More than once local people, often older ladies of my grandmother’s generation, would walk up to her, tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘Thank you for speaking Hawaiian to your grandson.’”
Nabbed to Teach
Keao’s exploration of the Hawaiian language had always been a personal goal, solely to connect more deeply with his grandmother. He had never thought of it as a career move. Instead, he studied the Japanese language and worked one summer in Japan.
In the early 1990s, Keao was working for a computer software company in Orem, Utah. One of his aunties lived nearby and his grandmother would visit her for months at a time and Keao would join them and spend hours talking with each other in Hawaiian.
Other Hawaiian families living close by became aware that Keao was able to speak with this older generation in Hawaiian, and they wanted to do the same with their kupuna (grandparent’s generation).
“The other families nabbed me to teach a Hawaiian language course. I’d never taught Hawaiian before. I had never sat in a Hawaiian language classroom before,” he says.
He gave himself a crash course in teaching Hawaiian, but finding the textbook very technical, “I just had the families memorize stuff,” he says. “Now that I have a Ph.D. in language teaching theory and practice, that seems so long ago.”
Saving Tutu’s Hawaiian
A couple years after returning home to Hawai‘i, Keao decided to “just go with it,” and began taking formal Hawaiian language classes in order to begin teaching it.
To his surprise, he noticed that the Hawaiian that was being taught sounded very American. The accent, inflection and even phraseology was based in English, not Hawaiian, but when he questioned people in the field about it, he was told it was being taught correctly.
“Imagine learning French, knowing that you aren’t pronouncing it like a native, then trying to convince the world that, as an instructor, it’s not important that you don’t speak like a native,” Keao says. “It didn’t make sense to me. Native speakers should tell us how their language is spoken, not the other way around.”
Keao was inspired to write his Master’s thesis about traditional Hawaiian spoken by native speakers, versus the more American English-sounding version that he calls “neo-Hawaiian.”
He posted both his Master’s and Ph.D. theses on his website, and although they have shaken up the old guard a little bit, he continues to receive emails from people all over the world who are facing similar challenges keeping their own native languages alive, confirming the value and need for his work.
“We have only about 300 or so native speakers of Hawaiian left in the world,” Keao says. “Kaua‘i is where we have the biggest number of native speakers because of our proximity to the island of Ni‘ihau where only Hawaiian is spoken. There are some differences between the Ni‘ihau dialect and my grandmother’s Hawaiian, but it’s authentic.
“My grandmother died in 1999. In my entire family, I’m the only one who speaks Hawaiian like my grandmother did. At least it got passed on while she was still alive,” Keao says. “I am doing everything I can to keep my grandmother’s Hawaiian language alive.
- Pamela Varma Brown is the publisher of the book “Kauai Stories,” and the forthcoming “Kauai Stories 2,” which will include a more detailed version of Keao’s story.