The fight to save Hawaii’s sign language from extinction


“No American Sign Language [ASL]Lambrecht reminds them with his hands as the virtual classroom begins. [HSL]. ”

Over 100 students received the same recall from Lambrecht. Since 2018, it has offered HSL courses to the public; first in person and, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, on Zoom.

Lambrecht doesn’t just teach. It fights against erasure, globalization and the cruelty of time to keep alive an endangered sign language – and with it, generations of history, heritage and wisdom.

But experts believe that common HSL users only count one digit. Hurry up.

Race against time to save HSL

Lambrecht was born profoundly deaf in 1944 into a family of Chinese workers in Honolulu. She was exposed to HSL from birth through two older deaf brothers, who had learned to sign from their deaf classmates.

It was rare at the time. Most deaf children are born to hearing parents and do not have access to any language, let alone HSL, until they start school.

Lambrecht and his brothers attended what is now known as the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind (HSDB). When it opened in 1914, it was called L’École des Défectueux.
The school had adopted a style of teaching called oralism, which aimed to “assimilate” deaf people into a larger society by removing the use of sign language. Children could only use HSL to communicate with each other when teachers had their backs turned – they had to speak English and lip read.

“Parents and professionals said sign language was lousy and if kids knew sign language they would never learn to speak,” Lambrecht said. “[But] Maybe I could type a word or two. ”

By the time Ami Tsuji-Jones enrolled in school for the deaf in the 1960s, oralism was viewed by critics as a failure. Teachers across the continent were now using ASL instead.

“They were haole [white]. They saw our tongue and said, “What is it? I don’t understand your sign. It’s wrong. No no no. Let me teach you ASL. No no no. You’re signing everything wrong, ”Tsuji-Jones said, his hands moving insistently and incisively. “We were constantly criticized… you know, we are the children. They are the authority figures. ”

Then his signature changes and his hands slow down.

“It’s like they’re trying to take away who we are.”

“My heart is broken.”

There is evidence that Deaf Hawaiians communicated with a local sign language for generations, before the arrival of missionaries, sugar cane plantations, and Americans who would overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893.
But linguists didn’t officially document the language until 2013, when research from the University of Hawaii found HSL to be a language isolate: born and raised on the Hawaiian Islands without any outside influence. Over 80 percent of its vocabulary bears no similarity to ASL.

The findings kicked off a three-year project to document what was left of HSL, led by Lambrecht and linguistics professor James “Woody” Woodward, who has spent the past 30 years studying and documenting sign languages ​​throughout the world. ‘Asia.

By 2016, the team had built a video archive and developed a manuscript for an HSL introductory textbook and dictionary, featuring illustrations by Lambrecht demonstrating signs. But then the time was up: their Endangered Languages ​​Documentation Program grant came to an end.

Woodward knows that the research project is not enough to keep HSL alive.

“It will help linguists analyze the language, but it will not help preserve the language unless more people learn it,” he says. “And the way more people learn it is when it’s used naturally at home and people take it, or you teach it as a second language to kids very early on.”

Lina Hou agrees that preserving a language is a huge undertaking, especially for linguists who are not members of that linguistic community. “It is very ambitious to think that one person, or a small group of people, could save a hundred years of oppression or change the language change that led to the endangering of the language in a short time,” says the professor of linguistics at the University. of California, Santa Barbara.

Hou, who worked on sign language documentation in Mexico, adds: “Saving a language [with a three- to five-year grant], I don’t think that’s possible. ”

Nor is it easy to get more people to use a language that has been forgotten – or erased – and which is associated with traumatic memories of being seen as inferior.

As a child, Tsuji-Jones learned the HSL vocabulary of the kuli kupuna (deaf elders) while they played volleyball together near the school for the deaf. She said, “I noticed that sometimes the kupuna was a little embarrassed, and she was like, ‘Oh, I have to try using ASL, because HSL is not good. ASL is better. ‘”

Kimiyo Nakamiyo, 82, went to school with Lambrecht, and although she respects her friend’s job, she doesn’t think HSL deserves to be revitalized.

“HSL is like bad English,” she says. “I think ASL is more appropriate and more in the sense of formalized English.”

Emily Jo Noschese, a doctoral student in linguistics at the University of Hawaii, says she has often encountered this sentiment in interviews with HSL users. But it is a misconception that sign languages ​​are tactile versions of spoken or written languages. HSL has no linguistic relationship with Hawaiian, just as ASL and English are distinct and separate.

Noschese, who is the fourth generation in her family to be born deaf, says she is disappointed, but not surprised, that many of those most opposed to preserving HSL are themselves former deaf users themselves. of HSL.

“There might be trauma associated with their memories of using HSL,” she says. “It can be difficult for them. They might want to forget about it.”

So why continue?

“There is always hope,” said Woodward. “It’s part of what linguists do.”

For Nikki Kepo’o, preserving HSL means more than saving a language. This means safeguarding a cultural identity for her young child Caleb La’aikeakua, 9, who was born with severe deafness.

Kepo’o always wanted her two children to be rooted in their native Hawaiian roots. When Caleb was born, his older sister was already enrolled in a Hawaiian language immersion school. Kepo’o has also studied the language, and the mother and daughter now speak Hawaiian at home.

“I wish it were the same for my son,” Kepo’o said. “He’ll know he’s Hawaiian and deaf, and there’s nothing wrong with either.”

Caleb is a student at HSDB, attending ASL and English classes in the very spaces that were once filled with children secretly teaching each other HSL. Kepo’o dreams of one day sending Caleb to an HSL immersion school. She spoke with a teacher at her daughter’s school who would like to develop an HSL immersion program.

“But as the generations get older and we have more and more American influence, I’m not sure how many Deaf Hawaiians are actually available to create the materials we need to train our children,” said Kepo’o. “It scares me very much, actually.”

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Lambrecht also feels the urgency. Due to the pandemic, she was unable to progress towards her goal of integrating HSL classes into schools. But she hopes to do so next spring.

In the meantime, she films herself telling children’s stories in HSL. She would like to record more stories – “not American stories; Hawaiian stories” – like the legend of the demigod Māui, who used his magic hook to pull the Hawaiian islands out of the ocean.

Hawaii means everything to her, says Lambrecht. Her culture, communities and ancestral knowledge are at the heart of her identity and an essential element of what she wishes to pass on to future generations through HSL, just as her brothers have done for her.

“I lived in the United States for about five years,” says Lambrecht. “After I got back I cried and I cried… I knelt down. I kissed the floor. I was at home.”

The legend of the demigod Māui

Read more about the As Equals series

Video producer / editor: Corinne Chin
Video Producer / Photojournalist: Jeremy Moorhead
ASL Performers: Jenny Blake and Erika Peery
Digital design: Peter Robertson

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