A Hawaiian immersion public charter school in Kaneohe was opened in 2000 to bolster culture-based education through the Hawaiian language.

Now it’s developed an online Hawaiian dictionary in partnership with a local software firm.

Ke Kulao Samuel M. Kamakau Laboratory Public Charter School, serving pre-K through 12th grade, recently debuted a Hawaiian-to-English dictionary web app known as Manomano, translated as “our vast knowledge.”

Built by Honolulu software company Sudokrew Solutions, Manomano is not the first online Hawaiian dictionary. But it is the newest — and only one spearheaded and maintained by a public school in Hawaii. Its launch is the culmination of a years-long effort to provide English translation of Hawaiian terms and serve as a resource not just for students at the immersion school, but the community at large.

Students and staff from Ke Kulao Samuel M. Kamakau Public Charter School sing for guests Sunday. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

“In Hawaii, there are words that don’t have a good one-to-one translation to English,” said Kent Salcedo, one of Sudokrew’s developers, on the usefulness of the app. “I was really drawn to this because I’ve lived in Hawaii my whole life” without a base of knowledge of the language, he said.

The inspiration for Manomano came from a former IT consultant for Kamakau. Ka’onohi’ulaokamano, as he is referred to on the school website, is described as a “seeker of knowledge, a warrior revitalizing the native languages for his own nations and for those who live in other nations.” He passed away in 2013.

Described by school principal Kameha’ililani Waiau at a Sunday morning launch event as having mixed Chinese, Hawaiian and Lakota ancestry, Ka’onohi’ulaokamano once worked at Microsoft in Seattle and spent time in a monastery in Mongolia. He showed up one day at the school expressing interest in the IT role, eventually striking up a great relationship with school leaders.

“He had a love for languages, especially indigenous languages,” Waiau said during her remarks, delivered entirely in Hawaiian, to 80 guests at the event venue Ka Waiwai in Moilili.

In 2013, the year of Ka’onohi’ulaokamano’s death, Manomano was near completion but not quite ready to publish. Kamakau charter school applied for a Native Hawaiian Education Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Part of those federal funds allowed the school to hire a language specialist and see the project through.

Family members of Ka’onohi’ulaokamano who attended the event — held on the late developer’s birthday — provided a financial gift to the school to complete the project.

Manomano’s minimalist interface and consistent features, including a “Word of the Day” and “flashcard decks,” are designed to appeal to a broad audience. It offers multiple definitions when appropriate.

Kamakau high-schoolers who spoke Sunday, also entirely in Hawaiian, praised its functionality as both a dictionary and thesaurus and a tool that would prepare them well for a vocabulary test.

Suggestions thrown out by guests included adding a pronunciation guide and providing for English-to-Hawaiian translation. Sudokrew developers took notes to consider for possible future versions.

School director Meahilahila Kelling speaks to guests at Ka Waiwai. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

The release of Manomano comes as Hawaii has experienced a resurgence of interest in Hawaiian language and culture in recent decades.

The Hawaii Department of Education established public Hawaiian immersion schools in 1987, nine years after Hawaiian was declared an official state language.

Kamakau is one of six Hawaiian language immersion public charters in the state. In the 2016-17 school year, it enrolled 141 students. Teachers arrive by way of places like University of Hawaii Hilo, such as Keane Nakapueo-Garcia, an instructor of language arts and social studies who translated Sunday’s presentation to a reporter and others.

Another 15 traditional public schools offer Hawaiian language immersion, according to a DOE list.

Interest in the Hawaiian language in higher education has increased. In 1990, there were 912 students studying the language. Five years later, that number doubled, and by 1998, more than 2,000 students were enrolled in Hawaiian language classes across the country, mostly in Hawaii colleges and universities.

Enrollment dropped off in the 2000s, but by 2013, there were more than 2,300 students studying Hawaiian language in the U.S., with almost half that total studying at the University of Hawaii Manoa, according to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Native Hawaiian Data Book.

It’s unclear how many people speak Hawaiian fluently.

Annette Ipo Wong, the director and associate professor at Hawai’inuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at UH Manoa, estimates that native speakers aside, there are about 1,000 second-language fluent Hawaiian speakers through school immersion programs and higher education settings in the state.

Proponents of Manomano feel the new online resource will underscore the importance of keeping the language alive.

“If you lose a language, you lose a way of thought,” Salcedo said. “Your language really influences how you think.”

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