In 1841 the Kingdom of Hawai‘i instituted Hawaiian medium education in 1,100 schools, including the first high school west of the Mississippi. Later that century, the Hawaiian literacy rate was estimated to be more than 90%.
After the takeover of the monarchy, the provisional government banned Hawaiian medium education in 1896 and discouraged speaking the language at home.
Eighty nine years later, in 1985, only 32 island children under the age of 18 – including the keiki on the island of Ni‘ihau – spoke the language.
During that decade the grandchildren of the last generation of native speakers (kūpuna) chose to begin revitalizing their native language and culture by teaching their children Hawaiian. Recognizing that higher education was not producing fluent or near fluent Hawaiian speakers, they started the immersion education movement to make Hawaiian ‘Ōlelo a living language once again.
It takes one generation to lose a language and three generations to recover it. The Hawaiian language renaissance is in the middle of the second generation. The language is still endangered but the growing number of native speakers is encouraging. As one of the immersion movement founders describes it: “Our numbers are hope.”
The 2010 census reported that 24,000 households identified Hawaiian as their dominant language. A handful of children in the first Hawaiian immersion classes in the 1980s has grown to more than 2,500 students annually enrolled in the 11 preschool and 21 immersion and charter school sites. Another 8,000 study Hawaiian language in other higher education settings each year.