© 2023 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

COVID-19 Forces Hawaiian Language into Homes

Sheldon Abril
First grade Hawaiian immersion student Kaliko Abril engages in distance learning with her teacher and classmates for about an hour a day, three times a week. The reduced hours or exposure to the Hawaiian language has her parents a bit worried.

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept Hawai?i?s 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.

Credit 'Ohana Abril
'Ohana Abril
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.

"For me, its always been my goal to have...only ??lelo Hawai?i 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 don?t know how to use it correctly, just try to use as much ??lelo Hawai?i 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 ?O ?Ehunuikaimalino and they?ve got 4-year-old twin girls, Lehia and Mahina, in the P?nana Leo o Kona. All three have online classes three times a week. But that?s a drastic change from when school was in session, says Sheldon.

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


Credit Sheldon Abril
Sheldon Abril
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.

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 M?noa?s 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 Hawai?i, they begin to lose the language very, very rapidly."

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

Credit Punana Leo O Hana
Punana Leo O Hana
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.

"If everything in their environment is English, and they?re getting Zoom for an hour a day in Hawaiian, they?re 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 there?s 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 N?maka Rawlins.

"No ka mea ?ike ke keiki i ka mea nui o ka ??lelo Hawai?i i ka makua. He ?ano makakoho no ke keiki kekahi l? ke nui a?e e ?ike ?auane?i ?o ia i ke komo o ka ?ohana i loko, ke k?ko?o i ka ??lelo Hawai?i."

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 ??lelo Hawai?i 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.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Related Stories