Monday | January 23, 2017
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Language brought to Life

Next month, students, faculty and administrators of the University of Hawaii at Hilo Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikolani College of Hawaiian Language will celebrate a new chapter in the school’s evolution as they bless their newly completed Hale ‘Olelo building.

Under construction since February 2011, the $21.2 million facility was finished and ready for operation in early November, said Larry Kimura, assistant professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies.

“We moved in on Nov. 4,” he said. “We had been operating out of four or five different spaces on campus over the years. Now, we’ve been able to bring classrooms and administrative offices under one roof.”

Designed by Waiakea High School graduate and architect Robert K. Iopa, the building’s striking roofline and unique spaces make a singular impression against the backdrop of Hilo town and Mauna Kea.

In 2010, the plans for the building earned Iopa the American Institute of Architects Honolulu Design Award. But the building’s physical beauty would be nothing without the purpose it serves, explained Keiki Kawai‘ae‘a, the college’s director.

“It’s like a person. It gives us our spiritual connection. It’s not just a building,” she said. “… Even the terrain around the building is an opportunity to create a living Hawaiian language space.”

At the central covered ceremonial plaza, which separates the student wing from the faculty wing, can be found a circular skylight, the building’s “piko,” Kimura explained.

“It brings back the traditional idea of the umbilical cord, as well as the traditional concept of the home. We come out of the womb connected to our mothers by the cord, with all the genes of our ancestry. It’s our connection to where we come from,” he said. “But it also symbolizes our entry into a new realm.”

The building’s embodiment of those concepts can be found throughout, including on its walls, where the school’s vision statement can be found printed in flowing text, proclaiming “‘O ka ‘olelo ke ka‘a o ka mauli,” or “Language is the fiber that binds us to our cultural identity.”

The new facility allows the College of Hawaiian Language to continue its mission of protecting and building upon that fiber, and not just on the Big Island, Kawai‘ae‘a said.

“It’s a very healthy step forward with the kind of work we do, both internationally and here at home,” she said.

For instance, the college will now be able to provide offices for visiting faculty members from abroad who can help share Hawaiian culture and spread it to their students in their homelands. Currently, the college is hosting a visiting faculty member from Norway.

The biggest space in the building, found under the large, sweeping red wave standing out above the roofline, is the auditorium, which can be separated into two classrooms and a performance hall using movable partitions. With seating for up to 200 students, the auditorium’s high ceilings provide for better acoustics during instruction and performances, Kawai‘ae‘a said.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the language classrooms are the walls, which are covered on all sides in chalkboards.

“We want everyone to participate, it’s part of our mission,” Kawai‘ae‘a said. “Everyone gets up and writes on the board, and we needed room for them to do that.”

She explained as the Renaissance of the Hawaiian language that began in the 1960s and ’70s continues, it is important the college work to make the language a part of its students’ daily lives. Speaking English is supposed to be done on a very limited basis on the grounds of the school. In fact, an informal rule requires English only be spoken in rooms where ti leaves are laid out on a table.

Of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists estimate 50 percent are at risk of extinction by the end of the century. Meanwhile, of the 175 surviving indigenous languages in the U.S., Hawaiian is one of only 20 that still have speakers younger than the age of 18. That success is due in large part to the hard work of Hawaii Island’s kupuna and cultural practitioners who helped build the foundation upon which the College of Hawaiian Language was eventually launched in 1997.

“Language is the first item of anyone’s cultural identity to be lost,” Kimura said. “That’s why language is so important.”

For more on Hale ‘Olelo and the College of Hawaiian Language, visit

Email Colin M. Stewart at


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