A network of Hawaiian-focused schools is hoping to significantly expand the number of Hawaiian speakers in the state by making language lessons available on Duolingo, a popular free education app.

The Duolingo course, which launches in September, could help fill a growing demand in Hawaii for opportunities to learn the language outside of a classroom, said Puakea Nogelmeier, executive director of Awaiaulu, an institute dedicated to preserving Hawaiian language and culture.

“There’s an interest that goes far beyond wanting to get a four-year degree and a lot of folks who just want to learn or know more Hawaiian,” Nogelmeier said.

But teachers and Hawaiian language advocates developing the Duolingo course also hope the app will garner significant interest from tourists — a perhaps untapped demographic in efforts to revitalize the language.

“I think the olelo Hawaii course could surpass 10 million learners in five years,” said Lewis Kaneshiro, a Kamehameha Schools alumnus involved in the project. “What will that do to olelo Hawaii re-normalization when visitors expect to hear Hawaiian being spoken, in addition to kanaka maoli taking back their language and culture?”

Protesters rally in 2018 to support the right of a professor to speak Hawaiian in court. Developers of the Duolingo course hope it will grow awareness of Hawaiian as an official state language. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

‘A Path To Revitalization’

Kaneshiro, who is the CEO and co-founder of a data processing and analytics company in California, approached his alma mater about developing a Hawaiian language course for Duolingo in April.

Kamehameha Schools agreed to support the project and brought on Kanaeokana — a network of schools and organizations dedicated to strengthening Hawaiian language and education — to develop the course with Duolingo.

Duolingo has been focusing on high-demand languages like Hindi, but is also interested in creating programs for indigenous languages in the United States, said Myra Awodey, a lead community specialist at Duolingo.

“We recently decided that we were ready to begin building courses for endangered languages,” Awodey said.

Hawaiian is the fifth most spoken language in Hawaii, with around 18,610 speakers, according to a 2016 state study.

Duolingo is not the first mobile app to feature Hawaiian. But with more than 300 million users, it is the largest and most popular program to offer the language to date. And unlike some of the other existing apps, Duolingo’s content is free.

Kaneshiro points out that the company’s course on Irish Gaelic — a language that, like Hawaiian, was once deemed destined for extinction — attracted 4 million learners in just four years.

“I believe free, accessible education will succeed in helping to revitalize our language and culture,” Kaneshiro said. “I want a path to revitalization not only for kanaka maoli, but for all threatened languages and cultures.”

Reaching A Broader Audience

Duolingo courses usually begin by jumping into phrasing and sentences. But the Hawaiian language course will focus on pronunciation and sounds first, Ekela Kaniaupio-Crozier said.

Kaniaupio-Crozier, who is part of a small group of language experts that Kaneokana recruited to work on the Duolingo course, created a televised Hawaiian language learning program with Olelo Community Media two decades ago.

“For me it’s always been a desire to make sure we get our language out in any way that we can,” she said.

Kaniaupio-Crozier taught three of her children to speak Hawaiian but wished they had grown up hearing it spoken more in daily life.

“When I look at our children who are learning in immersion education, I just feel like they need more opportunities to know that this language exists beyond their classrooms,” Kaniaupio-Crozier said.

Making Hawaiian lessons more accessible could help with that, she said.

Students walk into Nawahiokalani'opu'u Hawaiian Immersion School in Keaau, Hawaii.10.28.13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Students walk into a Hawaiian Immersion School in Keaau in 2014. Making Hawaiian lessons more accessible could help parents who don’t speak the language. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Kaniaupio-Crozier is interested in seeing tourists learn to pronounce Hawaiian words and gain enough comfort to engage in conversations in Hawaiian. But she also hopes the app will be useful to a wide range of people in Hawaii, including parents who don’t speak Hawaiian but have children in Hawaiian immersion schools.

“We’re looking at trying to get it out to of course a broader audience, but we’re also hoping that our own families — especially those with children in immersion education — will take advantage of this and feel a little more confident in the language,” she said.

So far, more than 10,000 people have signed up to access Duolingo’s Hawaiian language course when it is released Sept. 9.

Taylor Ishida, a music major at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said she was excited to hear that Duolingo was adding a Hawaiian course.

“I wanted to learn more Hawaiian,” Ishida said. “I’ve only learned small bits through music, but not really on how to speak it.”

Ishida previously used Duolingo to learn French and brush up on her Japanese.

Everyone involved in the Duolingo program is hoping that as more people start learning the language, more opportunities will open for speakers to use Hawaiian and gain more fluency.

“It’s Hawaii and people should speak Hawaiian,” Kaniaupio-Crozier said. “Whatever I can do to make that happen, I am about that.”

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