The fight to save Hawaii Sign Language from extinction

“No American Sign Language [ASL],” Lambrecht reminds them with her hands, as the virtual class begins. “This is Hawaii Sign Language [HSL].”

More than 100 students have received the same reminder from Lambrecht. Since 2018, she’s offered HSL classes to the public; first in-person and, since the Covid-19 pandemic began, on Zoom.

Lambrecht isn’t just teaching. She’s fighting erasure, globalization and the cruelty of time to keep an endangered sign language — and with it, generations of history, heritage and wisdom — alive.

But experts estimate that fluent HSL users number in the single digits. Time is running out.

The race against time to save HSL

Lambrecht was born profoundly deaf in 1944 to a family of Chinese laborers in Honolulu. She was exposed to HSL from birth through two older deaf brothers, who had learned to sign from their deaf classmates.

This was rare at the time. Most deaf children were born to hearing parents and had no access to any language, let alone HSL, until they started school.

Lambrecht and her brothers attended what is today called the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind (HSDB). When it first opened in 1914, it was named The School for the Defectives.
The school had adopted a teaching style called oralism, which aimed to “assimilate” deaf people into wider society by suppressing sign language use. Children could only use HSL to communicate with each other when teachers’ backs were turned — they were expected to speak English and to lipread.

“Parents and professionals said that sign language was ugly, and that if kids knew sign language, they would never learn to speak,” Lambrecht says. “[But] I could catch maybe one or two words.”

By the time Ami Tsuji-Jones enrolled at the deaf school in the 1960s, oralism was seen by critics as a failure. Teachers from the mainland were now using ASL instead.

“They were haole [white]. They saw our language and said: ‘What is that? I don’t understand your sign. That’s wrong. No, no, no. Let me teach you ASL. No, no, no. You’re signing that all wrong,'” Tsuji-Jones says, her hands moving emphatically and incisively. “We were constantly being criticized … you know, we’re the children. They’re the authority figures.”

Then her signing shifts, and her hands slow down.

“It’s like they were trying to take away who we are.”

“My heart is broken.”

There’s evidence deaf Hawaiians had been communicating with a homegrown sign language for generations, predating the arrival of missionaries, sugar plantations and the Americans who would overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893.
But linguists didn’t officially document the language until 2013, when research by the University of Hawaii found HSL to be a language isolate: born and bred on the Hawaiian Islands with no outside influence. More than 80 percent of its vocabulary bears no similarity to ASL.

The findings launched a three-year project to document what remained of HSL, led by Lambrecht and linguistics professor James “Woody” Woodward, who has spent the last 30 years studying and documenting sign languages throughout Asia.

By 2016, the team had built a video archive and developed a manuscript for an introductory HSL handbook and dictionary, featuring illustrations of Lambrecht demonstrating signs. But then, time was up: their grant from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme had run its course.

Woodward knows the research project isn’t enough to keep HSL alive.

“It’s going to help linguists analyze the language, but it’s not going to help preserve the language, unless somehow more people get to learn it,” he says. “And the way more people get to learn it is when it’s used naturally in the home and people pick it up, or you teach it as a second language very early to children.”

Lina Hou agrees that preserving a language is a vast undertaking, especially for linguists who are not members of that language community. “It’s very ambitious to think that one person, or a small group of people, could rescue a hundred years of oppression or change the language shift that has led to language endangerment in a short period of time,” says the linguistics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Hou, who has worked on sign language documentation in Mexico, adds: “Saving a language [with a three- to five-year grant], I don’t think that’s possible.”

It’s also not easy to get more people to use a language that’s been forgotten — or erased — and is associated with traumatic memories of being perceived as inferior.

As a child, Tsuji-Jones picked up some HSL vocabulary from kuli kupuna (deaf seniors) while they played volleyball together near the deaf school. She says: “I noticed sometimes the kupuna would be a little embarrassed, and they would say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to try to use ASL, because HSL is not good. ASL is better.'”

82-year-old Kimiyo Nakamiyo went to school with Lambrecht, and while she respects her friend’s work, she doesn’t think HSL is worth revitalizing.

“HSL is like broken English,” she says. “I think ASL is more proper and more along the lines of formalized English.”

Emily Jo Noschese, a PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of Hawaii, says she’s often encountered this sentiment while interviewing HSL users. But it’s a misconception that sign languages are tactile versions of spoken or written languages. HSL has no linguistic relationship to Hawaiian, just as ASL and English are distinct and separate.

Noschese, who is in the fourth generation of her family to be born deaf, says she’s disappointed, but not surprised, that many of those who are most strongly opposed to preserving HSL are deaf former HSL users themselves.

“There might be trauma associated with their memories of HSL use,” she says. “It may be hard for them. They may want to forget it.”

So, why carry on?

“There’s always hope,” Woodward says. “It’s part of what linguists do.”

For Nikki Kepo’o, preserving HSL means more than saving a language. It means safeguarding a cultural identity for her younger child Caleb La’aikeakua, 9, who was born severely deaf.

Kepo’o has always wanted her two kids to be grounded in their native Hawaiian roots. When Caleb was born, his older sister was already enrolled in a Hawaiian language immersion school. Kepo’o studied the language, too, and mother and daughter now speak Hawaiian at home.

“I would love for that to be the same for my son,” Kepo’o says. “He’ll know that he is a Hawaiian and a deaf person, and there’s nothing wrong with either one.”

Caleb is a student at HSDB, attending classes in ASL and English in the very spaces that were once filled with children secretly teaching each other HSL. Kepo’o dreams of sending Caleb to an HSL immersion school one day. She’s been speaking with a teacher at her daughter’s school who would like to develop an HSL immersion curriculum.

“But as the generations get older, and as we have more of the American influence, I’m not too sure how many deaf Hawaiians actually are available to create the materials we need to train our children,” Kepo’o says. “It scares me a lot, actually.”

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Lambrecht feels the urgency, too. Because of the pandemic, she hasn’t been able to make progress on her goal of getting HSL classes into schools. But she hopes to do so next spring.

In the meantime, she’s been filming herself telling children’s stories in HSL. She’d like to record more stories — “not American stories; Hawaiian stories” — like the legend of the demigod Māui, who used his magical fishhook to pull up the islands of Hawaii from the ocean.

Hawaii means everything to her, Lambrecht says. Its culture, communities and ancestral knowledge form a core part of her identity, and a vital piece of what she wants to pass on to the coming generations through HSL, just as her brothers did for her.

“I lived in the U.S. for about five years,” Lambrecht says. “After I came back, I cried and I cried … I got on my knees. I kissed the ground. I was home.”

The Legend of the Demigod Māui

Read more from the As Equals series

Video Producer/Editor: Corinne Chin
Video Producer/Photojournalist: Jeremy Moorhead
ASL Interpreters: Jenny Blake and Erika Peery
Digital design: Peter Robertson

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