Keao NeSmith — Preserving Traditional Hawaiian Language

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Keao NeSmith — Preserving Traditional Hawaiian Language

Keao NeSmith

Keao NeSmith, on the 2012 teaching staff of Koke`e Hawaiian Music Songwriters Camp. Photo by Anne E. O’Malley

 Keao NeSmith

Preserving Traditional Hawaiian Language

by Anne E. O’Malley

According to Kaua‘i-born Hawaiian, Scottish and Welsh Renaissance man, Keao NeSmith, there’s a demand for learning the traditional-Hawaiian language: the language spoken by native-speakers. A teacher and translator of the language by occupation,  NeSmith was called upon to translate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—available on Amazon—coinciding with a 150th anniversary commemoration of the original English publication to be held in 2015 for the purpose of celebrating Lewis Carroll’s work world wide.

NeSmith has also just completed his translation of the sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, to be made available soon on Amazon.

By quick count — NeSmith estimates native speakers, Hawaiian language school immersion students past and present, second-language learners and enthusiasts to be as many as 5,000 or more persons with various levels of fluency in the language.

So how does a local Kekaha boy raised in an English-speaking household become, first, a traditional-Hawaiian-language-speaker, and further, how does he go on to earn a Ph.D. from a New Zealand university in the field of applied linguistics with a focus on language teaching?

And from there, why does he become an instructor of Hawaiian language at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, going on to translate Carroll’s works, developing a five-volume series of textbooks on teaching Hawaiian to students in various grade levels — and on and on?

Considering he hadn’t a clue about the language thing at first, it’s quite a leap. He studied Japanese at Kamehameha in the ‘80s and initially thought he’d focus on travel management in college. Then his interest changed to international business.


A stint working for WordPerfect Corporation in Utah led to, of all things, his teaching a Hawaiian language class in Provo, Utah as a volunteer to resident Hawaiians, from which his eventual path evolved.

“Growing up in Kekaha, my neighbors were from Niihau,” says NeSmith. “My playmates didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Hawaiian. I got my first exposure there.”

Transferring to Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu in his sophomore year in high school (freshman year at Waimea High School), he lived in the dorms, spending weekends in Hau‘ula, O‘ahu with his maternal grandmother, Annie Kauhane.

“She was a native speaker from the Big Island,” says NeSmith. “I encouraged her to speak only Hawaiian to me, and she did. That’s how I learned the language.”

He considered his Hawaiian language ability a rather private affair and initially felt a bit embarrassed when folks discovered that he spoke it. It just wasn’t “in” in the 80s.

But when immersion schools got going in the 90s, he began to get noticed by those in the movement. He felt uneasy at first at the attention and had reservations about the brand of Hawaiian of second-language speakers who learned the language in classrooms, but felt a growing desire to help preserve the language of his grandmother and native speaker family and friends.

Somewhat of a purist, NeSmith says, “I’m recommending that teachers be professionally trained in the latest approaches of language teaching that rely heavily on communicative approaches to teaching the language of native speakers from the earliest levels of Hawaiian language classes all the way through in order to be sure that the language being taught is as true to native-speaker language as possible. Currently, that’s not the case — lesson plans are generally not centered on native speaker speech, but rather the interpretations of second-language speakers.”

Language is one interest — he has others.

“I’m interested in law, archaeology, writing in general, cooking — more like hobbies. I love being physical too, on the farm, fishing, community activism, working also at Nu‘alolo [with Nāpali Coast ‘Ohana], learning the history and archaeology of the place.”

He’s involved with Po‘okū Heiau on the mauka side of Princeville. He says, “They just formed a board. I’m on that and our job is to do research on the place, stabilize and restore that site and make it available for cultural purposes and education — that’s physical work, actually getting dirty. I love it.”

He does the same at Kānei‘olouma at Po‘ipū, urging people to view video clips on the website at

Soon, and with the blessing and support of Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho, we’ll erect moku, ahupua‘a, beach and stream name signs on Kaua‘i highways. After all, as he says, “I love Kaua‘i. Everything about Kaua‘i is my whole reason for being, every chance I get I come home to Kaua‘i.  I was born here and my bones will be buried here.”

By | 2016-11-10T05:42:37+00:00 September 17th, 2012|0 Comments

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