Keeping Native Languages Alive

Dec 2nd, 2016 • Category: Featured

By RIDA ALI, age 12

Nahulu Carvalho, 12, looks through a handmade Hawaiian language vocabulary book from her kindergarten class. Nahulu attended a Hawaiian immersion charter school until fifth grade. Photo by Alexandria Neason
Nahulu Carvalho, 12, looks through a handmade Hawaiian language vocabulary book from her kindergarten class. Nahulu attended a Hawaiian immersion charter school until fifth grade. Photo by Alexandria Neason

Native communities are fighting to keep their languages alive. Linguists predict more than half of the world’s indigenous languages will disappear in the next 100 years. Hawaii’s native language almost did.

In the 1980s, the United States ended a 90-year ban that prevented the use of Hawaii’s native language, Ōlelo Hawaiʻi. At that time, fewer than 50 people under the age of 18 could speak the language, according to research from the state. Now, more than 18,000 people speak it, out of about 142,000 native Hawaiians.

To boost the language and culture of native Hawaiians, more than 20 immersion schools opened across Hawaii. Subjects are taught in Hawaiian until fifth grade, at which point English is introduced.

Some parents have mixed feelings and worry that a delay in learning English could be an obstacle. “A job in Hawaiian language is not guaranteed,” Ricky Carvalho, a father, told Slate. “So it’s better they learn to adapt to English.” But many kids want to learn their native language to keep their culture alive. “If I learn it, I could teach it to my kids, and then they could teach it on to other kids,” said Nahulu Carvalho, a 12-year-old student.

In the United States alone, there are currently 150 Native American languages being spoken, but scholars predict that by 2050, there will only be 20. In 1990, the Native American Languages Act was passed to help keep indigenous languages alive. In 2006, a law was passed to help fund indigenous tribes wanting to start up language programs across the globe.

“No culture has a monopoly on human genius,” David Harrison, Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages co-founder, said to BBC. “We lose ancient knowledge if we lose languages.”

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