Naka Nathaniel: Don't Be Afraid To Dance With The Language - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

By making every effort to speak Hawaiian, we’re perpetuating a language that’s critically endangered.

At the beginning of makahiki, I was hiking the Kilauea Iki trail when I stopped to talk story with a pair of recent relocatees from California. One was taking Hawaiian classes, but said he was having a tough time finding people to converse with outside of the classroom. I told him that I remind my son (whoʻs favorite class is Papa Hawaiʻi) that when I was his age, 13 years old, ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi was just about to be returned to the schools after being banned as a medium of instruction in 1896.

I told the relocatee that, sadly, he wouldn’t find many middle-aged Hawaiians like me to speak with, but, maybe, he could try with keiki. As we look back on February, Hawaiian language month, maybe middle-aged Hawaiians can be inspired to be less apprehensive about ʻōlelo and take inspiration from when the Irish actor Paul Mescal unexpectedly found himself speaking Gaelic on the red carpet at the U.K.’s version of the Oscars. Mescal’s moment lit a fire of pride in his fellow Irish.

“I’m sorry about my Irish — it was much better when I was in school,” Mescal said in Gaelic during the interview. “It’s slightly lost on me now.”

I’ve watched the above clip a few times even though I don’t understand him, but I sense the joy his fellow country men are feeling to see someone try.

Gaelic, like ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, was a language that had been trampled and nearly eradicated. UNESCO considers Gaelic with 1.7 million speakers “definitely endangered,” while ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, with less than 5% of Native Hawaiians speaking it fluently, is “critically endangered.”

When I shared the Paul Mescal story with my friend Kuʻuipo Kahele, she wrote: “That definitely resonates with my personal experiences, too. So much of what I learned of Hawaiian (at UH Hilo) was academic and not so much conversational, and then to have such a long span of not using it (before her twin keiki were born) — I often feel very tongue-tied trying to have a conversation these days purely in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. 

“At the twins’ parent/teacher conferences, for instance, I made a very supreme effort to only converse with their kumu ma ka ʻōlelo and throw in the odd English word when I couldn’t (or didn’t know) remember the right word, but I felt so childish in the effort because my grasp of the language when reading and even writing it out is so much greater and refined. However, as our ancestors wisely said, ‘Ma ka hana ka ʻike,’ so we persevere. Carving out time to solely converse with the twins helps, as does making every effort to use the language with others who I know can understand it.”

The moʻolelo that follows wasn’t written for 99.99% of Civil Beat’s audience. It was for a tiny percent I consider to be the most important. The story is about Kuʻuipo’s little boy, Kalanikoa, and how he lit a fire of pride when he read a Civil Beat story that had been translated into ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.

Expand To Read

It’s my version of a “Paul Mescal in Gaelic” moment. I’m very hemahema, but I’m trying to be wiwoʻole. 

I wrote the moʻolelo out first in French because I wanted to simplify the language and I didn’t want to have it come from an American lens. (My friend, Sonia Karkar, helped me with my French and, in the spirit of showing my work, the translation will be dropped in the comments below.) I then translated the French into ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi using, my dictionaries and language lesson books. Thankfully, Ākea Kahikina, who translates the Ka Ulana Pilina series for Civil Beat, made sure what I wrote wasn’t a total disaster. I made sure to e kala mai for my hewa nui.   

I’m also incredibly proud that Kahikina is translating my first column into ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. There’s a three-generation journey between “By Naka Nathaniel” at the top to “Ua kākoʻo ʻia kēia papahana e ka ʻOhana o Harry Nathaniel” at the bottom. My grandfather, Harry, was the last fluent speaker of ʻōlelo in my ʻohana until my cousin Cheri had the wiwoʻole to teach her keiki, Leimaile and Kepa, in the cradle.

I learned my French vocabulary via French newspapers. I wanted to do the same with ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. After all, the revival of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi was partially staged from the hundreds of Hawaiian language newspapers that were published in the 19th century. Thankfully, in the 21st, Civil Beat translates one of its stories each week into Hawaiian.

Naka Nathaniel's son, Mescal, reads a passage in Hawaiian.
“Aʻa i ka hula, waiho i ka hilahila i ka hale.” When one dances the hula, you must leave embarrassment at home. (Courtesy: Naka Nathaniel/2023)

I like to say that one of my character traits is that I’m metaphorically the first person out on the dance floor. I know I’m not a great dancer, but I like to think that I’m a happy one. And my inarticulate dancing gives license to those that are good dancers, or those that just want to be happy dancing, to come out on the floor and join the fun. After all, what better place is there than a happy dance floor?

The phrase I cited in the moʻolelo above could not be more appropriate: “Aʻa i ka hula, waiho i ka hilahila i ka hale.” When one dances the hula, you must leave embarrassment at home.

Kuʻuipo Kaheleʻs son, Kalanikoa, reads an early draft of Nathanielʻs moʻolelo. (Courtesy: Naka Nathaniel/2023)

Just before moving to Paris, two decades ago, I read Adam Gopnickʻs “From Paris to the Moon.” Toward the end of the memoir, he has an epiphany. He realizes that no matter how well he thinks he is speaking French, that in his France-born sonʻs eyes he is an alter kocker, a comic immigrant. Gopnick writes: “ʻZo, how the boy does?ʻ he hears me saying in effect (to his sonʻs teachers). ʻHe is good boy, no? He is feeling out the homeworks, isnʻt he?ʻ I can see his small frame shudder, just perceptibly, at his fatherʻs words. I had thought to bring him the suavity of the French gamin, and instead I have brought onto him the shame of the immigrant child.” 

From that paragraph, I knew I’d never be a suave native speaker, so instead I used French as the lingua franca that it’s supposed to be. In Paris, people are uptight about their French, because they’re afraid that they’re being judged (because they are). However, when I was working in France’s former colonies, I felt loose with the language because the idea is to communicate not conjugate. I’ll make a Parisien’s des orielles saignent, but we’ll figure out what we need to figure out. That’s why I’ll always treasure the effort an ESL speaker makes to be understood. I’ve been an alter kocker and I honor the grace others gave me. 

At the end of the moʻolelo, I’ve included a blague, a joke, that I learned to say in French. Sadly, the word play doesn’t work quite as well in ʻōlelo: “Q. What do you call someone who can speak two languages? A. Bilingual. Q. What do you call someone who can speak three languages? A. Trilingual. Q. What do you call someone who can speak one language? A. An American.”

I made an addition: “Q. What do you call someone who can speak Hawaiian? A. A savior.” 

Ma ke mahalo nui piha to all the kumu and haumana safeguarding the language. And to the rest of us? Donʻt be afraid to dance with language.

The translations for Civil Beat’s Ka Ulana Pilina project are funded in part by the Ohana of Harry Nathaniel, Levani Lipton, and Lisa Kleissner.

Read this next:

Enough With The Deferred Maintenance: Time To Reinvest In Environmental Infrastructure

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

If you're like me and grew up here, there's a very good chance you already know how to pronounce Hawaiian fairly accurately and without much of an accent. That is because as children you went through a "critical period" of language acquisition and mixed in with all the English and Pidgin were the sounds used by the Hawaiian language. While you probably weren't exposed to enough Hawaiian to learn it naturally, you did end up hearing the sounds of place names and their proper pronunciation. Try asking someone from the mainland to pronounce "Likelike" and see what sounds they make. People from Japan have a lot of trouble pronouncing words with the letter "L" because that sound doesn't exist in Japanese. They didn't grow up hearing it. The fewer Hawaiian words people hear, the more difficult it will be for them to ever pronounce the words properly, even if they want to learn how. This is one of the reasons why I believe it is important that we choose Hawaiian names for new things and we keep using Hawaiian words and phrases. It may not seem like it, but it helps to preserve the language by keeping the sound of it alive.

Lio · 6 months ago

A wonderful article, thank you! (I liked the inclusion of the Gopnik book.) I'm not a speaker of 'olelo Hawai'i, but I enjoyed seeing you use my favorite Hawaiian word, hemahema. It epitomizes SO much about the situation in which we find ourselves today in Hawai'i.

tiredVoter · 6 months ago

CONTINUING:"And every time we interact with ʻāina, it draws us closer to our ʻōlelo too. We come to understand how its character, history, and energy are embodied in its name. We come to learn who its rain is and remember how that rain dances on our skin. We look up and see clouds with golden edges across a crimson sunset sky, knowing there must be words for those aspects of Papahulilani, motivating and moving us to learn what they are called."When the ‘āina lives, our ‘ōlelo lives too. They thrive together. When we fight for our ʻāina, we fight for our ʻōlelo. When we speak our ʻōlelo, we speak our ʻāina. It is as simple and complex as that. Ola ka ʻāina, ola ka ʻōlelo."Learning any language other than the one you were raised speaking opens your mind to a different worldview, which can only enrich your own life experience. Living as we do in the ancient home of a people, it can only be helpful to become more deeply familiar with their worldview. One needn't necessarily become a fluent speaker, but how can it hurt to come to a better understanding of how kanaka maoli learned to see the world?

Naleilehua · 6 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.