The fight to save Hawaii Sign Language from extinction

“No American Signal Language [ASL],” Lambrecht reminds them together with her fingers, because the digital class begins. “That is Hawaii Signal Language [HSL].”

Greater than 100 college students have obtained the identical reminder from Lambrecht. Since 2018, she’s supplied HSL courses to the general public; first in-person and, because the Covid-19 pandemic started, on Zoom.

Lambrecht is not simply instructing. She’s combating erasure, globalization and the cruelty of time to maintain an endangered signal language — and with it, generations of historical past, heritage and knowledge — alive.

However specialists estimate that fluent HSL customers quantity within the single digits. Time is operating out.

The race towards time to avoid wasting HSL

Lambrecht was born profoundly deaf in 1944 to a household of Chinese language laborers in Honolulu. She was uncovered to HSL from delivery via two older deaf brothers, who had discovered to signal from their deaf classmates.

This was uncommon on the time. Most deaf youngsters had been born to listening to dad and mom and had no entry to any language, not to mention HSL, till they began college.

Lambrecht and her brothers attended what’s as we speak known as the Hawaii College for the Deaf and the Blind (HSDB). When it first opened in 1914, it was named The College for the Defectives.
The college had adopted a instructing model known as oralism, which aimed to “assimilate” deaf individuals into wider society by suppressing signal language use. Youngsters may solely use HSL to speak with one another when lecturers’ backs had been turned — they had been anticipated to talk English and to lipread.

“Mother and father and professionals mentioned that signal language was ugly, and that if youngsters knew signal language, they’d by no means be taught to talk,” Lambrecht says. “[But] I may catch perhaps one or two phrases.”

By the point Ami Tsuji-Jones enrolled on the deaf college within the Nineteen Sixties, oralism was seen by critics as a failure. Academics from the mainland had been now utilizing ASL as a substitute.

“They had been haole [white]. They noticed our language and mentioned: ‘What’s that? I do not perceive your signal. That is flawed. No, no, no. Let me educate you ASL. No, no, no. You are signing that each one flawed,'” Tsuji-Jones says, her fingers transferring emphatically and incisively. “We had been consistently being criticized … you recognize, we are the youngsters. They’re the authority figures.”

Then her signing shifts, and her fingers decelerate.

“It is like they had been attempting to remove who we’re.”

“My coronary heart is damaged.”

There’s proof deaf Hawaiians had been speaking with a homegrown signal language for generations, predating the arrival of missionaries, sugar plantations and the People who would overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893.
However linguists did not formally doc the language until 2013, when analysis by the College of Hawaii discovered HSL to be a language isolate: born and bred on the Hawaiian Islands with no exterior affect. Greater than 80 % of its vocabulary bears no similarity to ASL.

The findings launched a three-year undertaking to doc what remained of HSL, led by Lambrecht and linguistics professor James “Woody” Woodward, who has spent the final 30 years finding out and documenting signal languages all through Asia.

By 2016, the staff had constructed a video archive and developed a manuscript for an introductory HSL handbook and dictionary, that includes illustrations of Lambrecht demonstrating indicators. However then, time was up: their grant from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme had run its course.

Woodward is aware of the analysis undertaking is not sufficient to maintain HSL alive.

“It is going to assist linguists analyze the language, however it’s not going to assist protect the language, except in some way extra individuals get to be taught it,” he says. “And the best way extra individuals get to be taught it’s when it is used naturally within the house and other people choose it up, otherwise you educate it as a second language very early to youngsters.”

Lina Hou agrees that preserving a language is an unlimited enterprise, particularly for linguists who usually are not members of that language neighborhood. “It is very formidable to suppose that one individual, or a small group of individuals, may rescue 100 years of oppression or change the language shift that has led to language endangerment in a brief time frame,” says the linguistics professor on the College of California, Santa Barbara.

Hou, who has labored on signal language documentation in Mexico, provides: “Saving a language [with a three- to five-year grant], I do not suppose that is doable.”

It is also not straightforward to get extra individuals to make use of a language that is been forgotten — or erased — and is related to traumatic recollections of being perceived as inferior.

As a baby, Tsuji-Jones picked up some HSL vocabulary from kuli kupuna (deaf seniors) whereas they performed volleyball collectively close to the deaf college. She says: “I observed generally the kupuna can be slightly embarrassed, and they might say, ‘Oh, I’ve received to attempt to use ASL, as a result of HSL isn’t good. ASL is healthier.'”

82-year-old Kimiyo Nakamiyo went to highschool with Lambrecht, and whereas she respects her buddy’s work, she does not suppose HSL is value revitalizing.

“HSL is like damaged English,” she says. “I believe ASL is extra correct and extra alongside the strains of formalized English.”

Emily Jo Noschese, a PhD candidate in linguistics on the College of Hawaii, says she’s usually encountered this sentiment whereas interviewing HSL customers. But it surely’s a false impression that signal languages are tactile variations of spoken or written languages. HSL has no linguistic relationship to Hawaiian, simply as ASL and English are distinct and separate.

Noschese, who’s within the fourth technology of her household to be born deaf, says she’s upset, however not stunned, that lots of those that are most strongly against preserving HSL are deaf former HSL customers themselves.

“There may be trauma related to their recollections of HSL use,” she says. “It could be laborious for them. They might wish to neglect it.”

So, why keep it up?

“There’s at all times hope,” Woodward says. “It is a part of what linguists do.”

For Nikki Kepo’o, preserving HSL means greater than saving a language. It means safeguarding a cultural identification for her youthful youngster Caleb La’aikeakua, 9, who was born severely deaf.

Kepo’o has at all times needed her two youngsters to be grounded of their native Hawaiian roots. When Caleb was born, his older sister was already enrolled in a Hawaiian language immersion college. Kepo’o studied the language, too, and mom and daughter now communicate Hawaiian at house.

“I’d love for that to be the identical for my son,” Kepo’o says. “He’ll know that he’s a Hawaiian and a deaf individual, and there is nothing flawed with both one.”

Caleb is a pupil at HSDB, attending courses in ASL and English within the very areas that had been as soon as stuffed with youngsters secretly instructing one another HSL. Kepo’o desires of sending Caleb to an HSL immersion college in the future. She’s been talking with a instructor at her daughter’s college who wish to develop an HSL immersion curriculum.

“However because the generations become old, and as we’ve extra of the American affect, I am not too certain what number of deaf Hawaiians really can be found to create the supplies we have to prepare our youngsters,” Kepo’o says. “It scares me so much, really.”

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Lambrecht feels the urgency, too. Due to the pandemic, she hasn’t been in a position to make progress on her objective of getting HSL courses into colleges. However she hopes to take action subsequent spring.

Within the meantime, she’s been filming herself telling youngsters’s tales in HSL. She’d wish to document extra tales — “not American tales; Hawaiian tales” — just like the legend of the demigod Māui, who used his magical fishhook to tug up the islands of Hawaii from the ocean.

Hawaii means all the things to her, Lambrecht says. Its tradition, communities and ancestral data type a core a part of her identification, and an important piece of what she needs to go on to the approaching generations via HSL, simply as her brothers did for her.

“I lived within the U.S. for about 5 years,” Lambrecht says. “After I got here again, I cried and I cried … I received on my knees. I kissed the bottom. I used to be house.”

The Legend of the Demigod Māui

Video Producer/Editor: Corinne Chin
Video Producer/Photojournalist: Jeremy Moorhead
ASL Interpreters: Jenny Blake and Erika Peery
Digital design: Peter Robertson

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