COVID-19 Forces Hawaiian Language into Homes

Apr 29, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept Hawaiʻiʻs schools closed for more than a month and families are beginning to feel the impact. 

For students enrolled in Hawaiian immersion programs, school is often the only place where kids are able to practice the language. 



Kona resident Leonani Hussey-Abril never doubted the decision to enroll her kids in Hawaiian immersion.

The 'Ohana Abril at Pu'u Huluhulu. Parents Sheldon and Leonani enrolled their three young daughters - Kaliko, Lehia and Mahina - in Hawaiian language immersion to ultimately become fluent speakers. But COVID-19 school closures could have an impact on their language skills.
Credit 'Ohana Abril

"For me, its always been my goal to have...only ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi in our household," she said.

With the coronavirus school closures, Hussey-Abril and her husband, Sheldon, who both primarily speak English, have been given a crash course in recreating that immersion experience at home.

"Even if you donʻt know how to use it correctly, just try to use as much ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi as you can. I try to encourage Sheldon to do that. I scold him all the time," Hussey-Abril.

"I would be the weakest link but its motivated me to speak more," her husband said.


The Abril daughters take a break from Zoom classes.


Their oldest daughter, Kaliko, is in the first grade at Ke Kula ʻO ʻEhunuikaimalino and theyʻve got 4-year-old twin girls, Lehia and Mahina, in the Pūnana Leo o Kona. All three have online classes three times a week. But thatʻs a drastic change from when school was in session, says Sheldon.

"They would get ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi from when they get dropped off at 7:45am all the way till they get picked up at 3:45 p.m."


Kaliko Abril logs in for Zoom class three times a week. She's a firs grader at the Hawaiian language immersion school Ke Kula 'O 'Ehunuikaimalino.
Credit Sheldon Abril

And that worries the Abrils, whose sole purpose of enrolling their kids in immersion was to ensure they could become fluent speakers. 

Kamil Deen, chair of UH Mānoaʻs Linguistics Department, shares those concerns.

"We know from a lot of the research done in our own department that when children are removed from a language learning context, especially a minority language like Hawaiian here in Hawaiʻi, they begin to lose the language very, very rapidly."

Deen, who specializes in childhood language acquisition, says without that sustained exposure to ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, children are losing out on more than just new vocabulary.

There are no students at this Hawaiian language preschool in Hana, Maui, but teachers are still engaging students with distance learning. The COVID-19 school closures may have an impact on the students' language.
Credit Punana Leo O Hana

"If everything in their environment is English, and theyʻre getting Zoom for an hour a day in Hawaiian, theyʻre really not going to be interested in it. If children get a sense that the language is not important and is not going to be useful to them in the future, then thereʻs no reason for them to acquire it."

And that is why efforts being made by immersion parents like the Abrils matter, says Hawaiian language advocate Nāmaka Rawlins.

"No ka mea ʻike ke keiki i ka mea nui o ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi i ka makua. He ʻano makakoho no ke keiki kekahi lā ke nui aʻe e ʻike ʻauaneʻi ʻo ia i ke komo o ka ʻohana i loko, ke kākoʻo i ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi."

She says the child will see how important Hawaiian language is to the parent if it's a priority. And that child will grow up knowing the family was part of the movement to support the Hawaiian language, she said,

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced parents to adopt ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi in the household quicker than they otherwise would have. And that, says Rawlins, has always been the goal of Hawaiian immersion education – to get the language into the home.