Kaipo T. Matsumoto/Civil Beat
Kamehameha Schools graduates now attending Harvard College are, from left, Leshae Henderson (Harvard ʻ16, KS ʻ12), Nākoa Farrant (Harvard ʻ18, KS ʻ14), Kaipo Matsumoto (Harvard ʻ17, KS ʻ13), Kyle Yoshida (Harvard ʻ18, KS ʻ14).

Hawaiian Language Making a Comeback at Harvard


For the first time since 1984, Hawaiian could be used to fulfill the foreign language requirement at Harvard University, reports The Harvard Crimson, the university’s newspaper.

Four undergraduates from Hawaii took a Hawaiian language placement test in October. A group of Hawaiian-speaking students have been working to get their language recognized by the university.

The effort began with LeShae Henderson ’16, who wanted to use Hawaiian to fulfill her foreign language requirement when she was a freshman, but administrators said no because there was not a qualified administrator to give a placement test.

According to The Crimson, she found dealing with administrators “frustrating.”

“I think it’s really symptomatic of a larger problem at Harvard,” she told the newspaper. “Harvard isn't as accommodating as we think it is in terms of what you want to study, especially in terms of anything in the Pacific—unless it’s Asia—there’s not really anything offered here.”

Kaipo T. Matsumoto ’17, Hawaiian, also advocated for the placement test, and said that it will benefit all Hawaiian-speaking students.

“It’s about legitimizing the language in general after all the historical oppression of the language…. It’s about all indigenous people at Harvard,” Matsumoto, who is a member of the Harvard University Native American Program, told The Crimson.

Maria Polinsky, a linguistics professor and chair of the Foreign Language Advisory Group, told administrators that the Hawaiian placement test should be offered, and said the language is being revived. She estimates that 10 percent of the next generation will be fluent.

“There’s always an important challenge to consider. Harvard cannot teach every possible language,” Polinsky told The Crimson. “One of the guidelines that we use in deciding which languages can be taught is whether or not it’s associated with a literary tradition…. Hawaiian has a significant literary tradition.”

The first student in Harvard’s history to fulfill their foreign language requirement was David M. Foreman ’88, in 1984, but he did so without a placement test.

Matsumoto, in a piece for Civil Beat, says that Harvard’s recognition of Hawaiian is significant, but it has become more about institutional validation than about fulfilling curricular requirements. He would also like to see his Native American classmates be able to fulfill their foreign language requirements with their languages.

“Even that of the Wampanoag language on whose land Harvard’s infrastructure was built has yet to be used. Of course, the ‘foreignness’ of this language is also brought into question given that the use of the Wampanoag language in Massachusetts precedes that of the English language, which today is accepted as a ‘non-foreign’ language,” Matsumoto says in his Civil Beat piece. “Indeed, Hawaiian Language at Harvard is but a microcosm of the larger issues that face indigenous languages in America. It is obvious that there is still a long way to go.”


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