When the pandemic began and schools abruptly closed, Maui resident Kalani Ho-Nikaido saw it as an opportunity to start chipping away at a long-held goal to learn Hawaiian language alongside her children.

Maui County locator mapSo she called her friend Maile Naehu, who teaches Hawaiian language and culture to Molokai children, and asked her to tutor her family over Zoom.

Then she had a thought: What if other parents want to give their children this experience but don’t know how?

On Facebook, the women invited anyone to join their free virtual tutoring sessions. Nearly 700 families signed up.

It was the start of what rapidly became a profitable business venture focused on developing an online educational curriculum in Hawaiian language, history and culture that’s engaging and accessible to people of all ages, no matter where in the world they’re located.

Ka Hale Hoaka co-founder Maile Naehu incorporates Hawaiian language and culture into a virtual educational curriculum tailored for different demographics of Olelo Hawaii learners — primary schoolchildren, adults, members of the Hawaiian diaspora. Courtesy: Maile Naehu/2022

Operating out of Naehu’s off-the-grid Molokai home, what was conceived as a free resource for families during lockdown has morphed into a business that supports eight employees with revenues in the six-figure range, according to the company.

Subscription prices vary from $35 per month for virtual curriculum for homeschool students that meet Hawaii Common Core Standards to $99 for access to a live, three-hour virtual lesson for adults. Live virtual workshops and custom lessons for educators are also available for a fee. The company’s YouTube channel serves as a repository for free language lessons for those who aren’t able to pay.

Ka Hale Hoaka has nearly 13,000 subscribers, including Hawaiians who live outside of the islands, where there are fewer opportunities to learn and practice their culture.

“There are more Hawaiians throughout the world than there are in Hawaii nei,” said Naehu, a University of Hawaii Manoa graduate in Hawaiian studies who teaches at Molokai’s Kualapuu Charter School. “And so the most heartwarming demographic that I’ve seen in my classes are the families that have moved away, that are part of the Hawaiian diaspora. We have students from New Zealand, Australia, Europe, Japan, even Mexico.”

Long ago, Hawaiian language was purged from schools, setting Olelo Hawaii on a perilous trajectory. The Hawaiian renaissance in the 1970s helped save the language from disappearing. Although it remains endangered, the language is now growing. More than 18,000 people speak Hawaiian at home in addition to English, a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau report found.

Today there are nearly two dozen Hawaiian language immersion schools statewide. The University of Hawaii offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Hawaiian. But these educational opportunities are geographically or financially out of reach for many would-be learners.

Ka Hale Hoaka’s cofounders aim to bridge this gap in Hawaiian language accessibility. The company also seeks to help Hawaiian language teachers who, in the absence of a standardized curriculum, are often tasked with building lessons on their own.

As one of the Hawaii Department of Education’s preferred vendors for Hawaiian studies, the company has licensed its educational video packages, which include worksheets and flashcards, to teachers at Hawaii public schools. Some Hawaiian immersion schools are also using the curriculum.

There’s a range of lessons for students in kindergarten through sixth grade in science, social studies and art that incorporate Hawaiian chants, traditional place names and the merits of the ahupuaa as a natural resources management system. Lessons for middle school students are under development.

“It’s a nice medium where teachers who are maybe struggling with how they can integrate Hawaiian language into their courses can use my unit in tandem with what they’re teaching out of science textbooks,” Naehu said. “So if they’re doing a unit on earth materials, they can also use my unit on papahanaumoku, where we learn the significance of rocks, we learn the significance of sand and we learn the significance of dirt in Hawaiian culture.”

One of the project’s aims is to make Hawaiian language and cultural studies more accessible to the Hawaiian diaspora around the globe. Courtesy: Maile Naehu/2022

This new learning tool is also giving college students a way to study an endangered but growing native tongue, even if their institution doesn’t have the resources to offer its own Hawaiian language classes.

Yale University has endorsed the Ka Hale Hoaka curriculum and is considering offering the online school to students as an elective. A Yale student is presently using the curriculum to learn the language in one-on-one virtual tutoring sessions.

The company’s menu of virtual learning programs are tailored for children, adults, educators or families learning at home together on weekends. In addition to pre-recorded video packages, live virtual tutoring is available.

Next, co-founders Naehu and Ho-Nikaido plan to create cultural competency training programs for the corporate world, including financial institutions and the hospitality industry.

“We’re looking at introducing everyday language that hotel employees or bank employees could use in their workplace,” Naehu said. “Small little changes that make a huge difference to create more of a norm in Hawaii when it comes to Hawaiian language.”

Also underway is an early education course for babies.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author