Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series about whether there’s a place for Pidgin in Hawaii schools. Read Part 2: Can or No Can? Pidgin Speakers in the Workforce.
“Dear Teacha,” the letter reads. “Wedda yo one native Pidgin speaka or one curious teacha of Pidgin speakaz, dis teacha’z guide, da website an all da adda stuff dat goes with it was put tugedda fo you.”
So begins the preface to a packet of Pidgin education materials put together by a linguistics professor and other University of Hawaii at Manoa faculty. The materials — Pidgin grammar quizzes, critical reading exercises and the like — are meant to be used by Hawaii teachers who want to teach the language in their middle and high school classrooms.
The fact that the resource even exists reflects the growing notion that Pidgin is a distinct and valid language that Hawaii schools should welcome. The packet outlines how the materials, which were published in 2010, can help teachers meet state Department of Education standards.
“As you look over dese resources, I like fo yo to tink about Pidgin as one elegant language,” the letter, written by a UH College of Education professor, continues. “Not in da high maka-maka kind sense, but in da scientific or mathematical sense. Da economy of words. Da efficiency in expression.”
But there are still those who spurn Pidgin use in formal settings, saying students who are allowed or encouraged to speak it at school are put at a disadvantage when pursuing a college degree or career.
Still, Pidgin advocates — many of them linguistics scholars — say the state by and large turns a blind eye to the language, ultimately leaving Pidgin-speaking students in the dark. They assert that Pidgin is a creole language that traces back to Hawaii’s rich immigrant history, a language just as valid as any other that deserves to be celebrated in classrooms.
The Hawaii DOE doesn’t have a policy governing the use of Pidgin in the classroom, leaving it up to teachers to decide how to approach Pidgin. And the UH College of Education doesn’t require its student teachers to take a course on Pidgin, nor does it provide guidelines on how prospective teachers should address the language in school settings.
“I think some people just don’t want to face the reality that Pidgin is widely spoken and used in Hawaii,” said Christina Higgins, the UH sociolinguistics professor who put together the educational materials with feedback from teachers, graduate students and other Pidgin advocates.
DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said it’s up to teachers as to how to address Pidgin in the classroom. The department doesn’t impose a Pidgin policy on its schools because it’s more of “a community issue,” she said, emphasizing that “standard English” is the official medium of instruction.
Dela Cruz said the Pidgin education materials could work well at schools with diverse populations, “in which exposure to Pidgin grammar could assist students to better relate to each other.”
Board of Education officials echoed Dela Cruz’s comments, writing in a statement that the board has “trust that teachers use their professional judgment in engaging students by appropriately utilizing all academic tools available to them.” The board, however, has not discussed the issue as a group.
Advocates say their campaign to legitimize Pidgin — both in school settings and elsewhere — has proved an uphill battle.
Many of the challenges facing Pidgin stem from a misunderstanding about the language itself and the legacy of discrimination that has trailed its speakers, advocates say.
For starters, linguists say that “Pidgin” is a misnomer. A pidgin language is formed when people who speak different languages need a means to communicate. Hawaii’s Pidgin English developed primarily during the plantation era in the 1800s and early 1990s and accompanied the arrival of immigrant laborers — including Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese and Filipinos — and American missionaries. It evolved over time; what started as a Hawaiian pidgin developed into an English pidgin.
But what is commonly known as Pidgin today is actually Hawaiian Creole English. A creole stems from a pidgin, arising when the children of pidgin-speakers adopt the pidgin as a first language. That means that people who speak both Pidgin and another language, including English, are actually bilingual, linguists say.
Stigmas about Pidgin — that it’s a lower-class, uneducated slang dialect, for example — trace back to its plantation history, according to advocates.
Higgins said Pidgin is just one language among many in Hawaii, including Hawaiian, that have lost out to English-only policies. Language discrimination, she said, creeps into education policy across the country.
“[T]here’s a belief that one language will overcome and replace others and that that’s a good thing,” she said. “And I think that’s an ideology of many contexts … the history of this country is not that great in terms of maintaining or preserving any kind of heritage.”
The local debate has been compared to that over Ebonics — the language spoken primarily among African Americans. Like Pidgin, Ebonics also identifies with a creole culture that traces back to plantation labor.
The Oakland, Calif. school board in a 1996 landmark decision passed a controversial resolution that recognized Ebonics as a valid language. The resolution required that some instruction be conducted in the language in an effort to both recognize the value of the language as well as help Ebonics-speakers master English language skills.
Still, Higgins said that discussions about Ebonics are much more “straightforwardly racist” than those about Pidgin. The languages’ experiences have been markedly different in many ways, she said, citing Hawaii’s mixed-plate demographics. Unlike Ebonics, Pidgin isn’t the language of a minority population in an area dominated by whites, she said.
“The majority of people are local, the majority of people do have plantation roots in some way or another, and I think that changes everything because it’s the norm versus being not the norm,” she said.
Still, the state has repeatedly attempted to ban Pidgin from public schools.
A Hawaii Board of Education proposal in 1987 to outlaw Pidgin in schools fell flat following public outcry and testimony from the academic community. Instead, the board reiterated that “standard English” is the language of instruction.
Pidgin again came under intense scrutiny in the late 1990s following the release of eighth graders’ national writing scores. National Assessment of Educational Progress results showed that less than three-fourths of the state’s eighth graders were writing at or above basic achievement levels, compared with 83 percent nationwide.
But advocates say the impulse to eradicate Pidgin ignores other factors that influence academic performance. They also stress that the language is an integral part of local culture.
UH Hawaiian language professor Laiana Wong, who teaches a course for College of Education students that includes some Pidgin, pointed to the role of language in the Hawaii identity.
“We’re always going to have a way to identify linguistically with this place,” he said. “Whether or not it resembles creole English, it’ll be something that distinguishes us.”
“There’s the other side of our lives — the social part of it, actually — that if you’re in Hawaii oftentimes you’re required to speak Pidgin,” he said.
Critics, citing low verbal and written test scores and job market competition, say Pidgin should be banned from school settings. Efforts to incorporate Pidgin into lesson plans, they argue, are a misguided attempt to be politically correct.
One of the most vocal opponents of classroom Pidgin is former Gov. Ben Cayetano, a Farrington High School graduate who spoke the language as a boy.
“For the kids who have a difficult time articulating proper English, it’s a tremendous handicap as they go to school and are trying to get a job in the real world,” he said. “It didn’t make any sense to me when I heard that in some public schools teachers were using Pidgin to teach some classes.”
Cayetano said he appreciates that his teachers corrected him when he spoke Pidgin as a student in the 1940s and 1950s. Eradicating Pidgin from school settings was even one of the goals he outlined in a 1996 interview with the Star-Bulletin.
He said he wouldn’t have gone to a good university or gotten a law degree if he didn’t speak “good English.”
“If you use Pidgin, it can really affect your grammar,” he told Civil Beat. “I think it does the kids a disservice if you allow them to continue to speak Pidgin.”
Signe Godfrey, president of Olsten Staffing and Professional Services and a Chamber of Commerce Hawaii board member, agreed. Hawaii teachers should demand that their students speak “good English” all the time, she said.
Godfrey went to high school in the late 1950s, when the state’s education system was still split into schools enrolling students who could pass an English exam — “English standard schools” — and those enrolling all other students, including those who spoke Pidgin.
Godfrey didn’t attend an English standard school and had to force herself to stop speaking Pidgin after getting a job at a telecommunications company, she said. She no longer speaks the language — not even with her family members.
Linguists and Pidgin advocates say that Pidgin is just a scapegoat for poor academic performance. And some UH career development staff say that Pidgin isn’t always antithetical to success in the professional world.
“The idea of blaming a language for academic performance is starting on the wrong foundation,” Higgins said. Instead, she said, components such as school resources, instruction quality and classroom discipline determine performance.
“[Pidgin] is sort of the easy target,” Higgins said. “I just think it’s a proxy.”
UH College of Education professor Margaret Maaka agreed, dismissing stereotypes that Pidgin use puts students at a disadvantage.
“You can still be a Pidgin speaker and accomplish something in life,” said Maaka, a sociolinguistics expert who directs the college’s Hookulaiwi Center for Native Hawaiian and Indigenous Education.
Waianae High School Social Studies teacher Kervin Oshima, who often speaks Pidgin in the classroom, said social networking often affects students’ English writing more than Pidgin does.
And generally speaking, Oshima said he’s more concerned about content than writing style.
“I pick and choose what I look out for,” he said. “I try to find that middle ground.”
A group of UH faculty and students in the 1990s formed “Da Pidgin Coup” to advocate for Pidgin and discuss its linguistic properties. The group — including some of its original members — still meets bimonthly.
Group members in 1999 wrote a position paper in an effort to debunk statements made by former Board of Education chairman Mitsugi Nakashima, who attributed Hawaii students’ poor performance on national standardized writing tests to Pidgin.
Nakashima, like Cayetano, said that students write how they think and talk.
But Pidgin advocates say that efforts to stamp out the language from school settings is simply discrimination in disguise.
“It’s a type of racism and language is just an excuse for it,” said Gavin Furukawa, a Pidgin Coup member and UH-Manoa PhD student whose focuses include Hawaii Creole sociolinguistics.
Hawaii teachers have long grappled with how to address students whose first language is Pidgin. Some use Pidgin with their students so they can better communicate with them; others discourage its use in the classroom in an effort to ensure their students are college- and career-ready.
But advocates say it doesn’t have to be one way or the other.
Some UH education professors, including Maaka, encourage prospective teachers to celebrate Pidgin in the classroom.
“Students should understand that Pidgin is a first language of many, many, many children in the state,” she said. “If you’re trying to get a concept across, then you use whatever vehicle is appropriate.”
Oshima, the Waianae High teacher, said he often speaks Pidgin in class because it helps him get his point across and makes his students “feel more comfortable.”
“A lot of da local teachers (use Pidgin),” said Oshima, who graduated from Kahuku High School in an era when few teachers spoke Pidgin in the classroom. “That’s how we grew up … But I want dem to be able to turn it off and on.”
Oshima said he himself often switches back and forth between Pidgin and English in class — a technique linguists call “code switching.”
Wong, the UH Hawaiian language professor, stressed that acceptance of classroom Pidgin has grown as younger teachers enter the workforce. Most the prospective DOE teachers who are taking his graduate Hawaiian language course like the idea of using Pidgin with their students, he said.
State Rep. Roy Takumi, House Education committee chair, said teachers should encourage students to be proficient in multiple languages, including Pidgin.
“No one disagrees that students should know English,” he said. But “if you get a child who only knows Pidgin … it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to reach out to that child by only speaking English.”
As long as students are equipped with high-quality English instruction, teachers shouldn’t shun other languages, Takumi said.
“If I just berate and chastise that child [for speaking Pidgin], it’s counterproductive,” he said. “The child would probably withdraw, and I’m not going to get the desired outcomes.”
Experts encourage teachers to help their students recognize what distinguishes their language from others.
If teachers gained further knowledge about Pidgin as a language and could clarify how it’s different from English for their students, they say, Pidgin-speaking students would have a better opportunity to excel.
Sakoda, the UH Pidgin professor, said it’s students’ inability to consciously code-switch between English and Pidgin that can pose problems.
“I don’t think most kids are able to switch it off and on easily — and I don’t mean to say their English is lacking,” he said. “I think they’re not exactly sure when it’s Pidgin and when it’s English … until someone from the mainland who doesn’t know any Pidgin will say, ‘Oh, didn’t you mean…?'”
Higgins also pointed to the esteem kids gain when they perform highly on tests or other coursework that involve Pidgin, such as the education materials she put together.
The UH, in conjunction with Waianae High’s video production academy Searider Productions, also produced a film project about Pidgin use at the school called Ha Kam Wi Tawk Pidgin Yet? Higgins also worked with Farrington High School students to produce a claymation Pidgin tutorial dubbed Da Pidgin Toolkit. Both projects gave students an opportunity to capitalize on their language.
“[T]here would be more respect for it and people would feel more overtly proud,” she said. “I think there’s a covert pride, but it’s not legitimized in a way.”
Higgins has since arriving in Hawaii in 2005 conducted field research on Pidgin by interviewing teachers and students. She says she’s noticed a lot of teachers — even Teach for America teachers who aren’t from here — use the language.
“They see it not just as a language of rapport, good social relations with students, but also a language that conveys knowledge,” Higgins said. “And it’s not just a language for joking around and being silly, but it’s much deeper than that. I think a lot of teachers know that intuitively.”