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Pondering Pidgin and Hawaiian Creole: Should Hawaii's third language be taught in schools?

Updated: May 25, 2019

This discussion is really complex and looking at the use of a language in the present moment is different than looking at the development of a language over a period of time.  So let's start with a brief history of how this language developed in Hawaii.


"Pidgin" refers to a new language that develops as a result of a situation where different people need to come together, but do not share a common language. Hawaiian Pidgin English (HPE) was developed as a result of a continued influx of Westernization that not only put populations to work on plantations, but killed large percentages of Hawaiians due to disease.  HPE is a conglomeration of languages from Hawaii, China, Japan, Korea, Philippines and Portugal, as these were the main populations who worked together on Hawaii's plantations.  So from the start, HPE was an adaptation for Hawaiians (and local cultures at that point), that was a result of colonization.  As generations then continued to be born into an already colonized world, this language became their own and it was then called Hawaiian Creole English (HCE). The new generations were no longer speaking "Pidgin" out of necessity, but because it was now their native tongue.  A "Creole" language is a language that develops from a Pidgin language, but evolves into a full language with complex grammar and native speakers. So although most local people in Hawaii today say they are speaking Pidgin, in actuality, they are speaking a Creole language. By speaking and understanding the context of a Creole language, there is a further reach into a reclaiming of identity in Hawaii. There is now choice, not necessity.


So HCE became a new language of a people. When looking at the request for standard English only in schools in Hawaii in the context of the past few decades, one may presume that this may be a reasonable request.  However, when looking at the larger time frame, we see a pattern of one thing being taken away at a time, so that the changes only appear small and gradual, when there is still an insidious colonization occurring in the context of it all. By not allowing HCE in schools systems, whether through actual classes or adaptations in exams, colonization continues to spread. This would be similar to asking American students to use the English used in Great Britain and be tested on this English only. Not only would American students have a lower performance in schooling, but also perhaps a negative self image as a result. There is a perception that HCE is inferior to English and there are also many stereotypes and stigmas that are attached to its usage.

There are double standards. What we ask of the children of Hawai'i who speak HCE as their native language when we ask them to conform to standard English only exams, is not only unfair, it is discriminatory.  Moreover, it clearly can put them at disadvantages in excelling in school, thus, likely giving them less opportunities in society. It is unclear how many children this would affect in our current year, as more people now seem to speak a lighter version of HCE with a greater ability to excel in standard English. But this is challenging to see as a debate within our educational system to begin with. Why are there not more curriculums developed that are catered to our local populations? (There are some great culturally adapted curricula done by amazing groups, so I am not trying to take away from their contribution in the same vein.) It is undeniable that the language someone speaks, governs thought patterns and sequencing. Simply by placing an adjective before or after a noun, for example, one may view the world from a different context.   

Clearly economics becomes the main player in modern education, as children are trained to be productive workers. What becomes irrelevant to economic growth, gets displaced.  If our educational system were to change its values to that of cultivating an individual's self-actualization, self-esteem or character, for instance, the angle on this issue would also change.  Right now it seems that this request is asking people to adapt to a system, instead of asking the system to adapt to "its people".  When asking if education should include HCE, we should ask, does the population use HCE? The perception of the inferiority of HCE, is really all that is, a perception. Which on one hand, should not be catered and given attention to, as it only reinforces negative stereotypes that have no benefit to the people of Hawai'i.  On the other hand, we also want to protect the people of Hawai'i and provide them with as much opportunity as anyone else in America.  So this part is challenging. 

Moreover, not enough credit is given to the skills and collaboration needed for any Pidgin language to exist to begin with, creating a more positive framework and association. The speakers of HPE which became HCE, had to be creative and efficient to communicate across multiple cultures. These traits and types of adaptability need to be praised too.


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