I ulu no ka lala i ke kumu

  • April 14, 2021

When Cal State East Bay alumna Clarisse Choy was growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii in the 1970s, the option to learn the Hawaiian language wasn’t widely available. In fact, the Hawaiian language was in serious danger of extinction.

“In the time that I was growing up, the Hawaiian language was present but you heard it mostly in songs and hula and culture,” said Choy, whose grandparents and parents immigrated from China to Hawaii. “It wasn’t spoken every day. It was seen as a cultural and intellectual language but not spoken every day and was in jeopardy of dying out.”

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that a grassroots organization, ʻAha Pūnana Leo, was created to support the revitalization of the Hawaiian language and help lift a nearly 90-year-old ban on using the Hawaiian language in schools. With the establishment of its first Hawaiian language immersion preschool in 1984, Pūnana Leo—which translates to “language nest” or “nest of voices”—and later the expansion to Hawaiian medium K-12 schools, a new generation of native Hawaiian speakers was on the rise.

Now, years later, Choy is doing her part to help continue the revival of this endangered language as a Hawaiian language learner and instructor in the Bay Area.

“As a Hawaiian language learner and speaker, I support indigenous language revitalization,” Choy said. “I intend to continue teaching Hawaiian language, especially to learners who live off-island and need to learn remotely.”

Choy, who moved to the Bay Area to attend undergraduate school at UC Berkeley, understands firsthand the importance of distance learning. After joining a hālau hula, or hula school, in Berkeley as a way to stay connected to Hawaiian culture, it was this connection with Hawaii and love of hula dancing that encouraged her to formally learn the language as an adult through a distance learning program.

“For someone like me who was always exposed to the [Hawaiian] language but didn’t really understand it, I always wanted to have that understanding and the facility to speak it,” said Choy. “Especially because if the language was in jeopardy of dying out—it’s a beautiful language, a beautiful culture, a beautiful people—I wanted to do what I could to preserve and perpetuate that language.”

Choy began studying the Hawaiian language in 2008 through a distance learning program based in Hilo, Hawaii. It was her own experience as an online learner that sparked her interest in online teaching and ultimately led her to enroll in Cal State East Bay’s MS in Education, Option in Online Teaching and Learning program (which has since been elevated to the MS in eLearning program in fall 2020).

Choy currently teaches a beginning Hawaiian language course to several cohorts of students based in Northern California, and although the course is open to anyone interested in the Hawaiian language and culture, the majority of her students are actively engaged in the hula community.

“In hula, the Hawaiian language is very important because, unlike other dance forms, the movements and everything you do in hula is tied to the text of the dance. If you don’t understand what the text says and you’re just sort of pantomiming, you’re not really doing hula,” said Choy, who has been studying hula for over 15 years.

Choy graduated from the master’s program last summer and credits the eLearning program for providing the building blocks on how to structure her Hawaiian language classes.

“There’s so much depth in the language and the stories and the culture so that’s what really drives me to just do my part to keep that alive, to perpetuate it.”

“As a student in the program, I learned sound pedagogy, instructional design models, assessment methods, and other building blocks of eLearning course design. That foundational knowledge, combined with practical real-world application, gave me the confidence to create courses and teach online.”

In addition to her beginner-level Hawaiian language class, which is normally taught in a hybrid format but due to the Covid-19 pandemic is now taught entirely online, Choy is also designing a self-paced online course on one of the foundational works of Hawaiian literature, "The Epic Tale of Hi’iakaikapoliopele." The story offers a wealth of knowledge that every hula dancer should know, Choy says, by providing details into the geographic landscape of the islands, social and religious practices, Hawaiian hierarchy systems, healing arts and other Hawaiian cultural practices and customs.

For Choy, it is this deeper understanding of the Hawaiian language and hula that has been the main motivating force behind her passion for language revitalization.

“There’s so much depth in the language and the stories and the culture so that’s what really drives me to just do my part to keep that alive, to perpetuate it,” explained Choy.

But even with passionate language learners and instructors like Choy, many indigenous languages are still considered threatened.

According to the Endangered Languages Project—a project that supports language preservation and documentation around the world—more than 40 percent of the world’s approximate 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing. The Hawaiian language is still one of them.

“So much knowledge is tied to language, especially indigenous languages,” said Choy. “The way they named their plants, the way that they order time, or even just the way you express yourself, your feelings and your thoughts. When those things are not used and English words are adopted for it, that knowledge is lost. That happens with a lot of languages." 

Choy takes her role as a language instructor very seriously and refers to a Hawaiian proverb “I ulu no ka lālā i ke kumu," which means the branches grow because of the trunk, to explain her appreciation for her teachers and hula community and the knowledge they have shared with her over the years.

“There’s a saying in Hawaiian that you’re an extension of your teacher. It’s really important to me as a teacher to be able to represent my teachers well,” said Choy. “Whatever I’m doing, especially when language instruction and cultural instruction is involved, I want to do it in a very careful and sensitive way that acknowledges the teachers and people who shared the knowledge with me.”