Deaf Hawaiian Battles to Save State’s Native Sign Language

Almost as soon as its documented discovery in 2013, Hawaii Sign Language was on its way to extinction.

Linda Lambrecht, a career American Sign Language teacher and past president of the Aloha State Association of the Deaf, is documenting Hawaii Sign Language, or HSL, while its few remaining native signers are still living. She’s one of them.

She hopes they can teach HSL to Hawaiians to preserve it as something that belongs to the Hawaiian Deaf community’s history.

Not long ago, Hawaii faced losing it's native spoken tongue. Now, experts are focused on saving its signed one. photo credit: Cliffs on Molokai Northern Coastline James Brennan Hawaii (27) via photopin (license)
Not long ago, Hawaii faced losing it’s native spoken tongue. Now, experts are focused on saving its signed one. photo credit: Cliffs on Molokai Northern Coastline James Brennan Hawaii (27) via photopin (license)

Lambrecht learned HSL from her older brothers, who are Deaf. According to an article in Hawaii News Today, “‘It wasn’t formal instruction, it was just exposure and that’s what we used to communicate,’ signed Lambrecht, who is also an ASL instructor at Kapi’olani Community College. ‘When foreigners came here and taught American Sign Language it was quite confusing.’”

She presented Hawaii Sign Language to the world at an endangered language conference and stunned the community because a new language hadn’t been discovered in America in decades.

According to the Ethnologue website, which documents the world’s languages, HSL is listed as “nearly extinct,” used by “elderly only.”

Surfer surfing a giant Hawaiian ocean wave.
Will Hawaiians surf this next wave to save a native language? photo credit: Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational Surf Contest Waimea Bay Hawaii Febrary 2016 via photopin (license)

Many Hawaiians who are Deaf don’t support HSL.

The results of the battle within the Hawaiian Deaf community about the value of its native sign language versus the more common and powerful American Sign Language will determine whether Hawaiians keep or abandon their unique sign language and its history.

HSL is distinct from American Sign Language. 80 percent of HSL has different vocabulary. Words such as “mother,” “father,” “pig,” and “small” have signs that differ from those of American Sign Language, according to an article in The Guardian.

See examples of HSL compared to ASL here.

Two things led Hawaiians who are Deaf to desert their native sign.

Pictures of a woman's lips while talking.
Some past and present efforts with Deaf education focus on how they can learn to speak, not sign. photo credit: 160318-N-IU636-154 via photopin (license)

The first was the establishment of a Deaf school, which promoted speaking over signing, according to The Guardian article. “‘The turning point, the beginning of the end of HSL,’ according to Barbara Earth [one of Lambrecht’s students], was the founding of Hawaii’s deaf school in 1914. Like most schools at the time, it promoted oralism, the system of lip-reading and speaking that is almost universally despised in Deaf communities for being painful, unnatural and ineffective.’”

When Hawaiians left the islands to become U.S. mainland soldiers, other Hawaiians also left, causing widespread changes, including the loss of HSL. photo credit: 160318-N-IU636-154 via photopin (license)
When Hawaiians left the islands to become U.S. mainland soldiers, other Hawaiians also left, causing widespread changes, including the loss of HSL. photo credit: 160318-N-IU636-154 via photopin (license)

The second language-killing event was Hawaiian military participation during World War II. While soldiers trained on the U.S. mainland, more Hawaiians moved to mainland states to attend college. Since most Americans who were Deaf used American Sign Language, Hawaii’s Deaf community used it too.

ASL became associated with success, education, and even “whiteness.” According to The Guardian article, “‘Deaf people here would put themselves into an inferior category compared to the people who brought ASL. People said, ‘They’re from America, they’re white people, they know better.’”

“…The forward march of ASL, which in certain ways brings people together, also poses a significant danger to many of the estimated 400 sign languages used all over the world – most of which we know nothing about,” according to The Guardian article.

Picture card showing sign language
How many ways are there to sign? Apparently, less and less with the widespread use of American Sign Language. photo credit: Positive signs via photopin (license)

Few Hawaiians sign now in HSL. Some who know it well prefer ASL instead of the native sign language they know that dates back to at least the 1820’s.

For a pilot study conducted by the University of Hawaii and created through the efforts of Linda Lambrecht and her former student, Barbara Earth—researchers located 19 people who were older and two children of Deaf adults who knew fluent HSL, according to the article.

Mildred was one of the most fluent HSL “masters,” but she preferred ASL. According to the article, Linda Lambrecht said, “‘I remember Mildred would always tell me, ‘I don’t like HSL, I like ASL, it’s for educated people like me.

However, when Mildred had a bad fall and was placed into hospice care, she reverted to using HSL, according to the article. “‘Linda visited her recently: “I saw her signing – and I noticed that she had reverted to HSL.’”

Whether anyone will translate HSL in the future depends on the Hawaiian Deaf community.

According to a Hawaii News Report, “”What we need to do is make sure that we have a good grammatical description of the language, make sure that we have a lot of data, then we need to train the deaf adults who use the language to teach it to other deaf and hearing people—and especially to expose children to it,” said James Woodward, an Adjunct Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who helps document HSL.

Learn more about the history of HSL and attempts to preserve and teach it.

See the most popular HSL signs.

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