E ola mau ka ʻōlelo!

The language shall live

Dr. Keao NeSmith
Dr. Keao NeSmith

Dr. Keao NeSmith has joined the Upper School faculty as Hawaiian language teacher. NeSmith holds a PhD in applied linguistics in language teaching theory and practice from the University of Waikato in New Zealand. His PhD work focused on how Hawaiian language is currently being taught in high schools, community colleges, and universities—and how that compares with teaching approaches over time around the world. Among his many published works is Harry Potter a Me Ka Pōhaku Akeakamai, a Hawaiian language translation of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

NeSmith is trained in Communicative Language Teaching theory and practice, and most recently taught Tahitian language at UH Mānoa. At UH Mānoa, one of NeSmith’s former students was Upper School principal Ka‘ai Spencer, who built HPA’s Hawaiian language program over the past several years, handing the reins formally to NeSmith this fall.

What was your own experience learning to speak Hawaiian?
I grew up in Kekaha, Kaua‘i, where there were lots of Hawaiian speakers around me growing up, although my own family did not speak Hawaiian. As a teenager I lived with my grandmother—my mom’s mom, originally from Ka‘ū, who lived in a grass house in Puna when she was young, and later moved to O‘ahu. She only spoke Hawaiian with me, and that’s how I really picked up speaking.

I picked up speaking Tahitian, which is very similar to Hawaiian, at about the same time. I lived with my grandmother in Hau‘ula, O‘ahu, and there were several Tahitian families there that I also hung out with, and I picked up on the language that way. I learned Marquesan language at university in Tahiti while I was in an MA program. Marquesan is another Polynesian language in French Polynesia, and it is very much in between Hawaiian and Tahitian. I think it’s really cool that we have these similar languages like that.

What does Communicative Language Teaching theory look like in the classroom?
Lots of imagery. Lots of color. Lots of practice between students. Traditional native speakers are the role models. Lessons are designed to engage the four language skills: speaking, listening with comprehension, reading, and writing. Lessons are also focused around contextualized communicative events, like how to interact when meeting someone for the first time; how to talk about typical things we do around the home; how to talk about the weather to make small talk, while learning about weather at the same time, etc.

Grammar is how we say whatever we say, but lessons are NOT designed around grammar structures. Instead, grammar structures serve the needs of communicative events (social interactions), so communicative function comes first. After lots of actual practice between learners engaging the four skills, grammar is then focused on to help clarify why we say what we say when we say it. But just as important is the cultural context. We engage with each other following cultural norms here in Hawai‘i, and our students need to learn to interact within those cultural norms and be aware of them.

Prior to this, you taught college and university students at the highest levels. What has been different so far about teaching high-school students?

It has been interesting to see how similar and different the two learning environments are and how learners process language. I am trying to engage those areas of the brain that really spark meaningful attachments to various purposes for language interaction. I am trying to latch onto concepts that learners find interesting and immediately useful.

So far I can tell that I need to make adjustments for teenagers in ways I did not expect. Ultimately, I need to bring my teacher-talk in class down and increase student talk among themselves in Hawaiian in directed ways that I model and then pass onto them. I am observing and learning strategies that help me accomplish that. I have a lot of the basic materials in place that engage partner and group practice, and I can tell that I need to expand further on that in ways I did not anticipate before I got to HPA.

Because you are so accomplished in your field, it’s easy to imagine that your life is largely dedicated to the study and preservation of the Hawaiian language. Are there other things that you enjoy?
Lots. I want to write books. I work with various community groups on Kaua‘i who get involved in preserving heiau and maintain lo‘i kalo and fishponds. I love being in the dirt and water like that. It’s very rewarding and gratifying. I enjoy archaeology work, too. My family was involved in that kind of thing from when I was a little kid: doing digs and diving into research on cultural sites. So I have lots of interest in that sort of thing. I also love to travel the world. Love it.

You once wrote about being surprised to meet a “Type 1” Hawaiian speaker, or someone who learned the language from native speakers, at your neighborhood convenience store in Honolulu. Do you still ever stumble upon Type 1 speakers?

She is the latest person I have met like that. It used to happen more often when I was a teenager in the 80s. I think most of those people are gone now. It is incredibly rare to find native speakers these days.

Do you feel hopeful about the future of the Hawaiian language?

With university Hawaiian already having spread far and wide across Hawai‘i through classrooms—mainstream schools and immersion schools—that is what carries on, and that natural, raw, and lively chatter of native speakers, with their naturally Polynesian accent, has for the most part fallen silent. So, Hawaiian continues, but I have bittersweet feelings, since I miss that older version of the language. I understand that this is a result of history, of being acted upon to give up the language, so I give credit to advancements in the promotion of Hawaiian language. It’s something to celebrate. The future is ours.

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this story first appeared in the fall 2021 edition of Ma Ke Kula.