Hawaiian language lives at UH-Hilo

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.

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.

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.

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 http://www.olelo.hawaii.edu/.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.