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‘O ke Au i Kāhuli From Language Learning to Language Acquisition | A Personal Narrative of Kumu Evolution

Updated: Feb 6

By Dr. Kalani Makekau-Whittaker, Kumu

Dr. Makekau-Whittaker gives us access into his reflections and personal experiences that have led to re-thinking how he teaches ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi.


An Introduction to Dr. Kalani Makekau-Whittaker’s ‘O ke Au i Kāhuli: From Language Learning to Language Acquisition

Dr. Lehua M. Veincent

Although I was raised in a time when there were still Hawaiian language speakers in our communities, it was not a living language in my immediate home neighborhood. Yet, I knew I was Hawaiian. I knew I was from Keaukaha Hawaiian homestead. I knew the importance of fishing having been raised in this ocean community. But I didn’t know my language. My introduction to formal instruction of the Hawaiian language occurred in 1985 when I enrolled in Hawaiian 101 at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. It was at that time the “process” of learning Hawaiian language assumed control of my seeking a deeper understanding of who I was and where I came from. 

It liberated me to learn more about our people—our struggles, our successes—and when I entered as a teacher into the kindergarten-grade one classroom of Kula Kaiapuni (Hawaiian Language Immersion Program) in the community of Keaukaha that raised me, it elucidated my contribution to the future of our ‘ōlelo makuahine, our ‘ōlelo kanaka, our ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi for our people.  As we prepared ourselves to be educators in Kula Kaiapuni, the experiences gained with mānaleo (speakers whose first language was Hawaiian) strengthened our agency toward a living language of our present…and of our future. Thirty-eight years since my first step into the classroom at the university, there are many of us who look to our ‘ōlelo makuahine as a beacon of hope for our people while our moʻokūʻauhau (genealogy), mōʻaukala (history), ‘ike hana (practices), and nohona (place) become the streaks of light that radiates across generations to come where we, as kanaka, are able to continue to claim our rightful existence of this ‘āina.

Dr. Kalani Makekau-Whittaker emphasizes the importance of language acquisition, moving from a mechanical way of teaching and learning to authentically acquiring language that bridges over chasms of wondering “who am I” to “this is me!” How do we move from a cognitive way of teaching Hawaiian language to an affective way of learning and embracing our ‘ōlelo makuahine from which we are able to see clearly the existence of generations of our people and the abundance of kanaka intelligence that is extant? The learning of our ‘ōlelo makuahine is on-going, is reflective, is changing; yet, it is intentional, it is meaningful, and it is purposeful. Dr. Makekau-Whittaker asks us to consider a joyful way to learn language that is still intentional, meaningful, and purposeful. 


Context and Self-Reflection

In post-colonialism, to reclaim one’s language by acquiring fluency is seen as a liberating process. My personal learning experience certainly demonstrates this. However, we do not speak enough about how traumatizing it can be, especially in an environment of hyper-correction, largely an overemphasis on grammatical accuracy. Considering the pedagogy through which I was taught Hawaiian and that I mirrored early in my own teaching career, I see the trauma, pervasive fear, and shame throughout the Hawaiian community, that these pedagogies have caused related to learning the language. In other words, learners tend to overly concern themselves with the potential critiques they may be the target of in expressing their thoughts in Hawaiian rather than acquiring it to simply enjoy communicating with each other in our native language. 

When reflecting on the Hawaiian Language Revitalization Movement, and the mass of speakers needed to not only make ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi impactful but thrive, we have a long way to go. I am not just referring to those who gained the ability to speak, but to those who truly feel joyful and free to use ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi in different contexts beyond a classroom setting—free from critique, free from feeling like every sentence is being judged for grammatical accuracy. As a Kumu, I am constantly reflecting and thinking about how I can do better for my students. How do I ensure that my instruction is resulting in not just fluency but a true enjoyment of learning the language, beyond the metacognitive and metalinguistics? Linguistic analysis is what I was trained in as a Hawaiian language learner, something I came to enjoy, and became good at, but most recently came to the full realization that it is an ineffective way to facilitate the language acquisition of my students. Alaukawai 0014 gave me an opportunity to document my journey as a Hawaiian language teacher, reflect on my practice (of over 30 years), and connect with experts in the field whose influence has ultimately led me to re-think and improve my craft. 

Because I was good at analyzing the Hawaiian language from a linguistic perspective, grammar heavy, and able to clearly explain how the language works, I considered myself a pretty good teacher. As I reflect on those moments, I considered how many of my students actually became fluent and regular users of Hawaiian? Those who did become fluent, was it because they were good students? And those who did not achieve fluency were not? If the goal of learning the language is to communicate, to share the joy of speaking ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, and more importantly to increase the number of speakers who actively contribute to the Hawaiian Language Revitalization Movement, I must conclude, through my reflection, that we have failed. Perhaps my use of “we” here is a bit presumptuous. However, it has been my experience that nearly all Hawaiian language classes at various levels of education employ a similar pedagogical approach to some degree.


Our campus has been working with Greg Duncan (a language teaching consultant) for a couple of years. He referred us to the work of Dr. Stephen Krashen (and others), a prolific writer and researcher on language acquisition who has been conducting research since the 1970s. I dove into Krashen’s work, read his materials, viewed his presentations, and realized that I needed to know more. I kept on researching and accessed the work of other language acquisition scholars as well as polyglots (multiple-language learners). As I researched Dr. Krashen’s work, I learned about his hypotheses:

  • the Acquisition-Learning hypothesis

  • the Monitor hypothesis

  • the Natural Order hypothesis

  • the Input hypothesis

  • the Affective Filter hypothesis

I learned about James Asher’s TPR (Total Physical Response) tool, Blaine Ray’s TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) strategy, and Beniko Mason’s research on “story-listening,” and all led back to Krashen’s theories/practices in some form or another. The commonality across these language acquisition scholars is that people acquire language in one way, subconsciously when we understand messages. Students need a large amount of input—reading and listening—that they can understand. Therefore, it is ineffective for language acquisition if students comprehend only 20%, for example. Input needs to be closer to 100% comprehensible. And there needs to be lots of it. This is how vocabulary is acquired and how grammar is acquired.

This is called Comprehensible Input.

It is important to note that comprehension doesn’t necessarily imply that learners have already acquired the language. There needs to be enough clues provided by the speaker or the book. It is how you present the story using pictures, videos, gestures, in-text visuals, and drawings, particularly around the parts they do not understand. This input however, needs to include content that is interesting and relevant to the extent that the story is so compelling that the learner cannot help but be engaged and often forgets they are listening or reading in the target language.

“When somebody asks you the time, they don’t want an explanation of how a watch works.”

Dr. Krashen adapted and applied this phrase (from the movie Sicario) to language acquisition. It’s more about don’t tell me how the language works—I just want to know how to speak it. Krashen differentiates between the terms learning a language and acquiring a language. As one polyglot stated, a language cannot be taught, it can only be acquired. Language acquisition is not about understanding how grammar works. This is a paradigm shift, a huge change in how we as language teachers think about our practice. As teachers, we all want the goal to be for students to speak the language. But we think that we need to show them how the language works and to drill, drill, drill. This is the common method used in so many language classes around the world, with little overall success. We often focus on the grammar and structure of the language. By always correcting and focusing on (in)accuracy/mistakes, we have induced trauma rather than inspired joy, even more so in the Hawaiian language community.

“I could feel the sweat running down my back.”

I challenged one of my students to learn Tagalog over the summer as a project for both of us because I knew her mother spoke Tagalog. I tried out strategies such as preparing conversations with people in the target language. The next day I went to the Farmer’s Market to engage in my freshly learned phrases. I was sweating, I could feel it running down my back. I approached a vendor but then walked away. I thought to myself though, how can I ask my students to do this, and I chicken out. I went to another vendor, mustered up the courage and began “speaking” to her. She was excited and happy that I took an interest in her language. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t fluent. We were interacting in her language. I started to see the possibilities! By putting myself in my students’ shoes, I felt the anxiety, the nervousness.

It’s been about 30 years since I experienced not knowing a language and trying to acquire it from the beginning. That was a valuable experience. Not only were my Tagalog interlocutors open to me, but they often expressed happiness that I was learning their language. As a result, the joy and motivation I felt as a new language learner was intoxicating, almost obsessive. A feeling that seems rare in the Hawaiian language learning community, if it exists much at all. This sentiment was shared with me by a Native Hawaiian adult learner of Hawaiian who took several attempts at trying to acquire the language. As I inquired with others, this seemed to be the norm, unfortunately.

Language acquisition is not about studying, it’s about developing a feeling

This idea of feeling versus studying was another huge revelation for me. That was one of the biggest shifts that changed my practice as a language teacher. This idea supports Krashen’s learning vs acquiring theory. Students inherently approach language class as they have been trained to approach all their subject areas—the teacher teaches and the student studies to do well on an exam or to produce a good grade. I work to acculturate them to a much more effective way within the context of language acquisition. This re-acculturation process takes a long time as the traditional ideas of schooling have been ingrained into them for many years. I need my students to learn to enjoy the process of engaging with lots of Hawaiian input in the form of comprehensible and compelling stories—written and spoken. I often tell my students about a particular student of mine who placed high on an assessment of his proficiency level in Hawaiian. After he did really well, I inquired about how much time he “studied” for the assessment. He hesitantly replied, “I didn’t study.” It was an answer I was happy to hear.

Fangirling—Dr. Krashen responded to my email! 

In my need to know more and meet one of the sources of my transformation, I reached out to Dr. Krashen via email and to my surprise he responded! We corresponded electronically for a couple of months, and he was so gracious in answering my questions and dialoging with me. I was able to secure a Zoom session with him. I wanted to share his manaʻo with my colleagues so they could also experience how transforming the information could be. We opened it up to the language department and recorded it so that those who could not attend would have access to it.

Dr. Krashen’s video is more of a Talk Story about his lessons in the form of moʻolelo, personal experiences peppered with empirical studies and statistics. He seamlessly integrates the research on literacy, science, language, linguistics, and learning across fiction and non-fiction.

“The ability to speak is the result of language acquisition, not the cause.” S. Krashen.

Curiosity and Contemplation

Dr. Krashen’s scholarship on language acquisition has been around for about 50 years and continues to this day. Why then have we as a Hawaiian language teaching and learning community not include his theories and methods to inform our practice? His work is considered seminal in the field of language acquisition and would have been useful during the first few decades of the Hawaiian Language Revitalization Movement to engage and motivate a mass of Hawaiian language learners. 

Concluding Thoughts

As I continue to evolve my craft and understand the wealth of research available on effective methods to teach a language, I hope to inspire a new generation of Hawaiian language speakers who find joy in communicating freely across all spaces, not just as an academic practice. I continue to consult the latest research so that I can be a better Kumu for my students and contribute to the number of Hawaiian language speakers in my community. And as a community, we need to do better to mitigate the trauma that permeates throughout the Hawaiian community.


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