Linda Yuen Lambrecht has been on a mission to save Hawaii Sign Language (HSL) and with it generations of history and heritage from extinction since 2018.
Lambrecht was born in 1944 to a family of Chinese laborers in Honolulu. She was completely deaf since birth and was exposed to HSL by her two older deaf brothers who had learned to sign from their deaf classmates. At this time, most deaf children had no access to any language whatsoever until they started school, especially if their parents were hearing.
Once they were of school age, deaf children in the area would go to what is now called the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind (HSDB), though when it opened in 1914, it was called The School for the Defectives.
This is the school that Lambrecht and her brothers attended, and where they were forced to suppress their HSL sign language use. The school had adopted a teaching style called oralism, which tried to “assimilate” deaf people into wider society by forbidding sign language use of any kind, and instead would encourage them to speak English and lipread.
“Parents and professionals said that sign language was ugly,” Lambrecht explains, “and that if kids knew sign language, they would never learn to speak.”
By the 1960s, oralism was deemed a failure, and instead, HSDB started implementing American Sign Language (ASL). Ami Tsuji-Jones, a student who was enrolled during this period, describes her experience at the school, saying: “[The teachers] were haole [white]. They saw our language and said: ‘What is that? I don’t understand your sign. That’s wrong. No, no, no. Let me teach you ASL. No, no, no. You’re signing that all wrong.”
The teachers prohibited students from signing in HSL. “We were constantly being criticized… It’s like they were trying to take away who we are,” Tsuji-Jones concludes.
Even though there’s evidence that deaf Hawaiians had been using their own version of sign language since before the arrival of missionaries and Americans who would overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, linguists didn’t officially document the language until 2013. This was the year that researchers from the University of Hawaii discovered that HSL is an isolated language that was invented and propagated on the Hawaiian Islands with no outside influence. Over 80 percent of the signs have no connection or similarity to ASL.
These significant findings set a three-year project to document what was left of HSL into motion. This project was spearheaded by Lambrecht and linguistics professor James “Woody” Woodward. By 2016, the team behind the project had built a video archive and manuscript for an introductory HSL handbook and dictionary, but this wouldn’t be enough to save the language. More people had to be convinced to use it, but this would be a considerable challenge after so many years of erasure.
In fact, many of the people who are opposed to preserving HSL are former HSL users themselves. According to Emily Jo Noschese, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at the University of Hawaii, this opposition is likely born from “trauma associated with their memories of HSL use. It may be hard for them. They may want to forget it.”
However, for others like Lambrecht and Nikki Kepo’o, the preservation of HSL is more than saving a language—it means protecting a cultural identity for their children.
Kepo’o has a young son, Caleb La’aikeakua, who was born severely deaf, and she hopes that he and her daughter will be grounded in their native Hawaiian roots. Kepo’o already enrolled Caleb’s older sister in a Hawaiian language immersion school and makes sure to speak Hawaiian at home. She wants the same for her son. “He’ll know that he is a Hawaiian and a deaf person, and there’s nothing wrong with either one.”
Lambrecht has started teaching HSL to over 100 students. The pandemic has prevented her from making progress on her goal of getting HSL classes into schools, but in the meantime has moved her classes online and has started recording herself telling children’s stories in HSL to continue her fight against globalization and cultural erasure. She hopes to film more stories—but “not American stories; Hawaiian stories.”