Thu. May 19th, 2022

“No American Sign Language [ASL], “Lambrecht reminds them with his hands as the virtual class begins.” This is Hawaiian sign language [HSL]. ”

More than 100 students have received the same reminder from Lambrecht. Since 2018, she has offered HSL classes to the public; first in person, and since the Covid-19 pandemic began, on Zoom.

Lambrecht does not just teach. She fights against erasure, globalization and the cruelty of the times to keep an endangered sign language – and thus generations of history, heritage and wisdom – alive.

But experts estimate that floating HSL users speak in the individual digits. Time is running out.

Race against time to save HSL

Lambrecht was born deeply deaf in 1944 to a family of Chinese workers in Honolulu. She was exposed to HSL from birth through two older deaf brothers who had learned to sign from their deaf classmates.

This was rare back then. Most deaf children were born to hearing parents and did not have access to any language, let alone HSL, until they started school.

Lambrecht and her brothers attended what is today called the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind (HSDB). When it first opened in 1914, it was named The School for the Defectives.
The school had adopted a teaching style called oralism, which aimed to “assimilate” deaf people into a wider community by suppressing the use of sign language. Children could only use HSL to communicate with each other when the teachers’ backs were turned – they were expected to speak English and read the reader.

“Parents and professionals said that sign language was ugly and that if children knew sign language, they would never learn to speak,” Lambrecht says. “[But] I could catch a word or two. ”

When Ami Tsuji-Jones enrolled in the school for the deaf in the 1960s, oralism was seen by critics as a failure. Teachers from the mainland now used ASL instead.

“They were toots [white]. They saw our language and said, ‘What is it? I do not understand your sign. It is wrong. No no no. Let me teach you ASL. No no no. You sign that it’s all wrong, “says Tsuji-Jones, as her hands move emphatically and sharply.” We were constantly criticized … you know we are the kids. They are the authority figures. ”

Then her signature changes and her hands slow down.

“It’s like they’re trying to take from who we are.”

“My heart is broken.”

There are signs that deaf Hawaiians had been communicating with a homemade sign language for generations, prior to the arrival of missionaries, sugar plantations, and the Americans who would overthrow the Hawaiian Empire in 1893.
But linguists did not officially document the language until 2013, when research at the University of Hawaii found that HSL was a language isolate: born and bred in the Hawaiian Islands without outside influence. More than 80 percent of its vocabulary does not resemble ASL.

The results launched a three-year project to document what was left of HSL, led by Lambrecht and linguistics professor James “Woody” Woodward, who has spent the past 30 years studying and documenting sign language throughout Asia.

By 2016, the team had built a video archive and developed a script for an introductory HSL handbook and dictionary with illustrations by Lambrecht showing characters. But then time had passed: their grant from the Endangered Language Documentation Program had run its course.

Woodward knows that the research project is not enough to keep HSL alive.

“It will help linguists analyze the language, but it will not help preserve the language unless more people learn it,” he says. “And the way more people learn it is when it’s used naturally at home and people pick it up, or you learn it as a second language very early on for children.”

Lina Hou agrees that preserving a language is a major task, especially for linguists who are not members of the linguistic community. “It’s very ambitious to think that a person or a small group of people can save a hundred years of oppression or change the language change that has led to the danger of language in a short time,” says the professor of linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Hou, who has worked with sign language documentation in Mexico, adds: “Save a language [with a three- to five-year grant], I do not think it is possible. ”

It is also not easy to get more people to use a language that has been forgotten – or deleted – and is associated with traumatic memories of being perceived as inferior.

As a child, Tsuji-Jones picked up some HSL vocabulary from kuli kupuna (deaf seniors) while playing volleyball together near the school for the deaf. She says, “I sometimes noticed that the coupon was a little embarrassing, and they said, ‘Oh, I have to try using ASL because HSL is not good. ASL is better.'”

82-year-old Kimiyo Nakamiyo went to school with Lambrecht, and although she respects her friend’s work, she does not think HSL is worth reviving.

“HSL is like broken English,” she says. “I think ASL is more proper and more in the direction of formalized English.”

Emily Jo Noschese, Ph.D. graduate in linguistics at the University of Hawaii, says she has often encountered this mood while interviewing HSL users. But it is a misconception that sign languages ​​are tactile versions of spoken or written languages. HSL has no linguistic relationship to Hawaiian, just as ASL and English are separate and distinct.

Noschese, who is in the fourth generation of her family to be born deaf, says she is disappointed, but not surprised, that many of those who are strongly opposed to preserving HSL are themselves deaf former HSL users.

“There may be trauma associated with their memories of HSL use,” she says. “It can be difficult for them. They may forget it.”

So why continue?

“There’s always hope,” Woodward says. “That’s part of what linguists do.”

For Nikki Kepo’o, preserving HSL means more than saving a language. It means protecting a cultural identity for his younger child Caleb La’aikeakua, 9, who was born severely deaf.

Kepo’o has always wanted her two children to be rooted in their original Hawaiian roots. When Caleb was born, his older sister was already enrolled on a Hawaiian language ship. Kepo’o also studied the language, and mother and daughter now speak Hawaiian at home.

“I would love that it was the same for my son,” Kepo’o says. “He knows he’s a Hawaiian and a deaf person, and there’s nothing wrong with that one.”

Caleb is a student at HSDB and attends classes in ASL and English in the rooms that were once filled with children secretly teaching each other HSL. Kepo’o dreams of sending Caleb to an HSL immersion school one day. She has spoken to a teacher at her daughter’s school who would like to develop an HSL curriculum.

“But as the generations get older, and as we have more of the American influence, I’m not very sure how many deaf Hawaiians are actually available to create the materials we need to train. our children, “says Kepo’o. “It really scares me a lot.”

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Lambrecht also feels the urgency. Due to the pandemic, she has not been able to make progress with her goal of getting HSL classes into schools. But she hopes to do so next spring.

Meanwhile, she has filmed herself and tells children’s stories in HSL. She would like to record more stories – “non-American stories; Hawaiian stories” – such as the legend of the demigod Māui, who used his magical fishing hook to pull the Hawaiian Islands out of the sea.

Hawaii means everything to her, Lambrecht says. Its culture, communities and ancestral knowledge form a core element of her identity and an important piece of what she will pass on to future generations through HSL, just as her brothers did for her.

“I lived in the United States for about five years,” Lambrecht says. “After I came back, I cried, and I cried … I got on my knees. I kissed the ground. I was home.”

The legend of Demigod Māui

Read more from the As Equals series

Video producer / editor: Corinne Chin
Video producer / photojournalist: Jeremy Moorhead
ASL interpreters: Jenny Blake and Erika Peery
Digital design: Peter Robertson


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