As the ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) revitalization movement matures into its fourth decade, I am encouraged by its growth in and out of classrooms. While shopping at Pukalani Superette I spotted ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi labels on common grocery items. Duolingo, a popular language learning app, now includes ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi for learners around the world. 

And while ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi may be in more places, you still might be unsure about how to read, write, and pronounce this Polynesian language. The good news is ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi has a number of advantages that make it easier to learn and to read than English. ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi words are generally multisyllabic and constructed from 45 basic syllables that have both long and short versions (ha and hā, for example). This makes it possible to memorize and begin reading syllabically before kindergarten. In comparison, English words are structured using over 15,000 different syllables!

The phonotactics of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi and its writing system is also very closely aligned. What you read, write, and say are all the same, all the time. This was one of the reasons Hawaiʻi experienced such high rates of literacy in the 19th century. It is an easy language to learn. 

When I began learning Hawaiian in 1987 at age 2, our kumu introduced us to ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi through the English alphabet. Through study, observation, and experimentation our kumu and the ʻAha Pūnana Leo, a non-profit that runs Pūnana Leo Hawaiian immersion preschools, developed the Hakalama syllabary for keiki learners. Today, those students begin to master reading Hawaiian approximately 2 years before their peers begin to master reading English.

Learning the Hakalama syllabary begins with the chant ha, ka, la, ma na, pa wa, ʻa. Follow the syllabary from top to bottom, left to right (see Hakalama figure) chanting the lines with no kahakō on a single beat and the lines with a kahakō (macron) on a 2 beat. At Pūnana Leo schools students do this while seated in a circle, alongside peers, while watching one student lead them by pointing out huakalama (consonant vowel pairs) on a Hakalama chart. You can do this by following the Hakalama chart with your finger. 

No matter if you’ve lived in Hawaiʻi all your life or have recently arrived, you have the opportunity to learn ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi through formal education, apps, or self-study. I encourage you to stay curious and seek learning opportunities that best fit your learning style, time availability, and budget. As the ʻōlelo noʻeau goes “I ka ʻōlelo nō ke ola;, I ka ʻōlelo nō ka make” ‘In language there is life; In language there is death.’

Kaimana Brummel is the product of a home dedicated to Hawaiian values and community. She strives to fulfill the responsibilities bestowed upon her by her ancestors, family, and community with aloha