Hawaii has the best palm trees!NFLRC NetWork #5

A LESSON IN LEARNING HAWAIIAN1

Lise Winer
Southern Illinois University

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© 1996 Second Language Teaching & Curriculum Center
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How often do we hear someone say - or say ourselves - "I'd just love to learn French - or Greek, or Russian"? But upon reflection, don't we really mean that we'd love to know French already? Although as language teachers, we are supposed to appreciate the learning process, and view it as normal and wonderful, we often actually see this process as an obstacle course on the way to the final goal of knowing the target language.

Today, I would like to discuss some ideas about what we can gain of intrinsic professional value from the learning voyage itself, even without ever reaching a "final destination." What can we, as language teachers, learn about teaching language, from the experience of learning a language ourselves?

In 1988, I taught for the fall semester in the Department of ESL at the University of Hawai`i-Mnoa in Honolulu. I was a leave replacement for the late Charlene Sato, to whose memory and spirit this talk is dedicated. Most aspects of this new setting, from academic to shopping, were familiar. Nonetheless, there were the usual difficulties with transition and culture shock. These strains were greatly eased when I began taking classes in two traditional Hawaiian cultural activities: lei-making and hula. Through these activities, I made a network of friends and acquaintances quite outside my departmental circle.

Not surprisingly, considering the circumstances of our meeting, these people were generally into "Hawaiiana," a totally different ball game from "local." To them, the language that is important, the language of solidarity, is Hawaiian. This is especially urgent because Hawaiian, like so many indigenous languages, is on the brink of extinction as a native or widely used language. In any case, I found that whenever I tried to use any Hawaiian words, these people were very appreciative. However, most of the people I met who were not into Hawaiian thought my interest in it overly academic, overly romantic, or at least highly suspicious - like colonials "running amok" or "going native" - and of course they had a point.

The first Hawaiian words I met were in the local variety of standard American English, and in Hawaiian English Creole, locally called "Pidgin." For example, in local English, there are two sides to everything geographic. There's the ma uka side, which is the towards-the-mountain-side, and the makai side, which is the towards-the-ocean-side. People give you directions like, "Go ma uka side," or "It's on ma kai side." At the university, there's ma kai campus and ma uka campus. Since the Honolulu area is pretty flat, with the mountains all on one side, it is generally easy to see where you are. The perpendicular directions to these are, in Honolulu, Diamond Head and `Ewa. So, if you're looking at a conventional map, and you're in Honolulu, mauka is north, makai is south, Diamond Head is east, and `Ewa is west. On the other hand, if you are east of Diamond Head, then telling someone to go "Diamond Head side" would be west, not east. I never found out how people in the other parts of the island give directions, but I did learn that your sense of location and direction depends on which mountain you are using as a reference point.

The contrast between "Hawaiian" and "local" was immediately obviously in the pronunciation of place names. That place where tourists go is called "wai ki kii" by locals and visitors. But in Hawaiian, you say "wai ki ki." For self-preservation, I had to learn both versions, because if I said "wai ki ki" when I was with some people, they would think I was being affected or hypercorrecting. Whereas if I said "wai ki kii" with my Hawaiian-speaking friends, they corrected me because I was obviously saying it wrong.

Such choices are not just learning the mechanics of pronunciation. They are a declaration of political stance on language, and hence on issues of native sovereignty such as land claims. Now in one way, it doesn't make sense to use Hawaiian words in English with totally Hawaiian pronunciation, the same way you don't say, "Well I'm going to ["pah-ree"] this summer" instead of "I'm going to Paris." It sounds pretentious, or at least a joke. But because using Hawaiian in Hawai`i is such a powerful act of political identity, everyone notices what other people do, no matter what their own political orientation. As a result of this political-dialectal dialectic, I was constantly being given variable input - and constantly being corrected by everyone.

I did learn to switch according to my audience in order to avoid continued negative reactions, and because I wanted to learn, not argue. As a result, I felt and acted in an overtly sincere, humble and submissive stance with my new friends and primary cultural brokers. These included Mel, my kumu lei - lei teacher - and Puakea - a friend who is a teacher of Hawaiian language. I did learn a considerable amount from my lei-making classes with Mel, had volunteered to help make decorations for the Aloha Week parade, and tried to learn as much as possible by watching and induction, and not to be seen as someone prone to nele, to ask intrusive and useless questions.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, a two-day hula workshop was held out at Leeward Community College, in Pearl City, just past Pearl Harbor. I asked Puakea and Mel whether I should go to this workshop. They said certainly, it was a great opportunity, go go go. I asked them which teachers I should sign up for. Then I asked my own kumu hula - hula teacher - if it was all right for me to go, and he said yes. I would not have gone without getting his permission, in case he thought the style was wrong, or he thought I would pick up bad habits, or he thought I lacked respect for my own kumu - in case that was how loyalty worked.

The first day I went to the hula workshop, on a Friday morning, it took me about two and a half hours by bus. When I finally arrived at the workshop buildings and walked into the registration area, there were already about two hundred people there. Some of them had come on their own, but many had come with their hlau hula - hula school. These people had their own hlau hula T-shirts and their own hlau hula bags.

People talk about hlau `ohana - family of the hlau, and hence "my hula sisters" and "my hula brothers" - that is, the other people in your hula group. You can change hlau, but generally people seem to be pretty loyal to their own. In mine, one of the things I had been very impressed by was how the more advanced learners who came for extra practice with our beginner group, did not mind helping us. There was real feeling of solidarity and help and `ohana there that I really liked and found very supportive. The advanced dancers had kinship names for each other - perhaps if I had stayed for the rest of the year they would have given me a name too. This would have involved me in an complicated set of reciprocal obligations. Such reciprocity makes demands and requires commitment on all sides. Therefore, I tried to show willingness to work as part of the group. For example, I helped make costumes for the performing members. I also gathered and cleaned sackfuls of kukui nuts, and brought them for the advanced students to use in dyeing their costumes. So, when I arrived at the hula workshop, I missed my hula `ohana. Like most people, I'm really not at my best walking alone into a crowd of several hundred total strangers.

We all waited in the cafeteria for a while. Then things seemed to start off. A man got up and said something in Hawaiian, and everyone said something back. Because the exchange was short, and it was first, I hypothesized it was a greeting. Then the man gave a speech in Hawaiian, and then a speech - of welcome - in English, which I hypothesized was the translation. Then we had a prayer in Hawaiian; I knew it was a prayer, because the leader said something in Hawaiian and everybody stood up and bowed their heads. As this seemed to be a meaningful kinesic cue, I did the same, hoping that I appeared to have some idea of what was going on, or at least that I had some manners. Then we all broke up into our sections - of course I was in the beginners group.

There were about ten different sections going on at once - including keiki hula, for kids - each in its own classroom. In our group there were about fifteen people, all women: the sexes are often separated in beginners, because women's and men's styles are fairly different. We were doing kahiko, the ancient hula style, as opposed to `auana, which is the modern style, more familiar from movies and travel shows. I am not a great fan of `auana. It is very graceful, and it is very pretty, but to me it looks mushy. Kahiko, on the other hand, is much sharper and more forceful. In kahiko, you stand with a straight back, knees slightly bent, feet flat on the ground. At first this is an extremely tiring posture, and eventually you have to develop great muscles in your thighs.

The kumu hula was a very nice, sweet, gentle man, and seemed very patient - a good sign for beginners! There were also two young women assistants, who mostly played the dance rhythms on large gourd ipu. The teacher told us we were going to learn a hula noho, a sitting hula, and we all thought "oh good," because that sounded a lot easier than a standing one. Actually it turned out we were wrong about that point. After sitting on our legs for four hours, even in a modified version with our feet out to one side or the other, we decided that maybe standing up and moving around would be a lot easier . . .

It seemed to us that we had to learn everything at once: the mele - tune, the words, the meaning, the feelings, the expression, the movements. The process turned out to be a kind of Grammar Translation meets Total Physical Response.

Our first task was to memorize the entire mele in Hawaiian. For this, you need practice! Although in my regular hula class, I'd learned the movements for two and a half hula, we didn't have to know the words. We only had to know the khea for each verse - that is, the first word or phrase of a new verse. So for example if the first verse starts with "kahi mea," when the music starts and the kumu is chanting, then all we have to say is "kahi mea" just before we do that line - that gives us the cue to the step. There's a special intonation for the khea, and that helps you figure out where you are. I was used to paying attention only to the khea as cues to the set of steps, and not really paying much attention to the rest of the verse.

We had five verses to learn for this mele. We were given the words on paper written out in Hawaiian and in English translation. (The verses are included here as given; some vowel marks are not indicated.) The teacher explained to us the general meaning of the verse. The translation on the paper was not word-for-word: pretty close, but not exact. Some of the function words seemed close to English, like ka for `the' and a`o for `of,' but a lot did not. For example, in Hawaiian, adjectives come after nouns; fortunately, I knew this pattern already from French, and was able to use L2 to L3 positive transfer fairly well. Then we tried to get the tune, and the words. The kumu hula expected us to have a pretty good memory of all five verses within an hour and a half. This is something that I find very difficult to do even in English, when I do understand the words already. There are songs that I know in foreign languages that I don't understand, but that's after listening to them for a lot longer than one hour.

`ULA NOWEO

`AE, `ULA NOWEO

`ULA NOWEO LA THE BRILLIANT GLOW OF THE SUN
LA E KA LAE LA SHINES ON THE POINT
KA PUA `ILIMA LA E.

(SHINES ON) THE `ILIMA BLOSSOMS.

A KA LAIE A'O NOHILI LA AT THE POINT OF NOHILI
KAHUWAI LANA LA FLOWS A STREAM
KA `AWAPUHI LA E.

AMONGST THE GINGER.

UA `IKE WALE `OE LA YOU'VE SEEN
I KA UA LOKU LA THE POURING RAIN
A'O HANALEI LA E.

OF HANELEI.

UA LIPOLIPO WALE LA THE DEEP LUSHNESS
A'O KA NAHELE LA OF THE FOREST
A'O HO'OHIE LA E.

OF HO'OHIE.

HA INA MAI KA PUANA LA THE STORY HAS BEEN TOLD
LA HE INOA LA A NAME CHANT
NO KAMOHA'I LA E.

HONORING KAMOHAI'I.

HE INOA NO KAMOHA'I A NAME CHANT FOR KAMOHA'I

The mele for our new hula was not long, and I did have some formal schema background knowledge for it. In hula kahiko, you start off with an announcement of what the song is. There are two kinds of hula kahiko: the ancestral ones, mostly about nature, fertility, and gods; and the monarchial ones, praise songs in honor of royalty. This one starts: `ae, `ula noweo. The `ae is to get your attention, to announce the name - in this case `ula noweo, which means `brilliant sun.' Incidentally, the teacher had us say this part with a falling intonation. Most other hlau, including my own, say this with a rising intonation: `ae, `ula noweo. However, this teacher was very insistent that we not do this, so I now had to change one of the very few things I thought I already knew.

To continue with the formal schema: after the start, this kind of mele then has fairly short verses: three lines of lyrics plus a line without words, sung twice, done first to the right-hand side and then to the left-hand side. There are a number of those verses, usually about five or six, and then you sing "`ea l, `ea l `ea," which signals the end of the mele, and then in the last part you say in whose honor this chant is and name the person. Our new one mele was a chant in honor of Kamoha`i, Queen Emma. So at the end we sang, "`ea l, `ea l `ea" - this is the end; "he inoa no" - in honor of; Kamoha`i. Of course you can't just stop - you wait for the ipu to beat three times, and then you put your hands down.

The Hawaiian language has only 14 phonemes, probably the lowest number of meaningfully different sounds in any known human language. This means you get a lot of homonyms, and a lot of words that seem very similar, like khili / kalihi. Two phonological features of Hawaiian are usually big problems for English speakers. One is long or double vowels: for example, there's a difference between kane and kne. For me, this just happened not to be very difficult to hear or pronounce, because I learned how to do that in Japanese many years ago. But there's a special kind of variable input in written forms that causes problems. Usually this feature is indicated not by a doubling of the vowel, like "aa," but by a line or macron over the letter, like "." That is not standard English type, and it has only been introduced fairly recently into mainstream local print like Honolulu Magazine. Oftentimes when you see things in print - from books to street signs - this long vowel is not indicated, so it's hard to remember which is the right way to say it.

The other phonological problem for English speakers is the phonemic `okina, the glottal stop. In English, all words which begin with a vowel begin with a non-phonemic glottal stop, like apple, orange. Therefore, if you have a language that distinguishes between `apple and apple, or `oe and oe phonemically - as two completely different words - it can be hard for learners to hear the difference, and hard to produce them, and especially hard not to produce the `okina, at the beginning of a word. Hawaiian also has the `okina in the middle of a word. So you can get kou / ko`u, and so on. Typically, English speakers put in an extra `okina at the beginning of words, and omit necessary ones in the middle of words. I myself found that I could produce this feature well only if I had my Krashenian language learning "monitor" on full-blast.

Now, about the song we were learning. The first verse is: `ula noweo, l; la e ka lae, l; ka pua `ilima, la . Those las at the end are to make the line fit well. The rest means that the beautiful, brilliant sun is rising, and shines on the point - a point of land - on the `ilima blossoms. In terms of vocabulary, I already knew only one word - `ilima - because I had used these lovely flowers in my lei-making class.

The next verse is also really nice: a ka lae a`o Nohili, la `at the point of Nohili,' kahuwai lana, l `flows a stream,' ka `awapuhi, l `amongst the ginger flowers.' Then the next verse is: ua `ike wale `oe, l `you have seen, you have seen', i ka ua loku l `the pouring rain', a`o Hanalei, l `of Hanalei'. For this verse, there is a lovely hand movement to indicate the sheets of rain; and another to show the bay of Hanalei. Then the next verse is: ua lipolipo wale, l; a`o ka nahele, l; a`o Ho`ohie, l . Lipolipo means the kind of dark light that you find in a forest, in a very lush forest - here the special darkness of a place that has a lot of `hi`a trees. Then the last verse restates what you have said, and who the song is in honor of: ha`ina mai ka puana, l `this is the story that has been told', l he inoa, l `a name chant in honor of', no Kamoha`i, l `in honor of Kamoha`i - Queen Emma'. The lyrics of this mele are about things I really love - streams, ginger flowers, driving rain, the darkness of the lush forest - so I found it totally lovely; my affective barrier - for content - was at zero. The translation made the comprehension of the content words relatively easy. (However, even a Hawaiian-English dictionary, doesn't always help. For one thing you need to make sure you have the right homonym, and for another, a lot of the language in mele hula is highly figurative and poetic, so it's not always easy to figure out what's going on.) Not surprisingly, though, my grammar schema was scrambling for air.

Well, here we all were working on the song, looking at the words and singing along. Then we were trying not to look at the words and singing along, and then we were trying to sing without the words and without even the teacher - very very quietly. Then we started to add in the hands. It was instantly clear that I could either sing the chant (more or less), or do the moves (more or less), but not both at once. When I was singing the words, I could only do it with my eyes closed. If, however, I was just doing the hands, and someone else was singing the words, I used the words, as well as the motions of some of the more reliable students, as cues.

Let me talk about my fellow students for a minute. There were eleven of us. I did not find the group, on the first day, really all that friendly - for example, nobody joined me at lunch. I don't think it was a racial thing or an ethnic thing, it was more like in-group and out-group - those people who knew each other from this kind of workshop before, and those few people who didn't. But by the second day, it was a bit better; there's nothing like sweating a lot together to develop a certain amount of group spirit. Anyway, except for one girl who was I think Japan Japanese - although she might have been local Japanese - I was the only clear-cut foreigner. There was one other haole - white, Caucasian - in the class, but she had grown up in Hawai`i, and had lived there almost all her life, although she had just started hula a few months previously. Everyone else was a usual local mix, for example, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Chinese and Irish.

Two women in the class were kpuna `elder.' Kpuna are highly respected in traditional Hawaiian culture. There is a kupuna program in some schools, where elders from the community go into the schools and talk to the keiki `children' about Hawaiian culture. They teach a little bit of Hawaiian language, songs, stories, and talk about traditional agriculture, customs and values. One of these kpuna in my class, whom I shall call Lily, was a real "live wire." She would tell these stories, like about how she fell down in a store one day and nobody would help her up; she would make it into a funny story and then immediately repeat it two or three times in succession, polishing it. This is a story-telling style that I know from my own cultural background, so I felt right at home. She also kept complaining about her knees hurting. Although it is not really considered good form to complain about this too much, if you're into a traditional Hawaiian mode, you certainly don't criticize kpuna. So Lily provided some welcome derailments of the class, because the kumu was very polite and didn't interrupt her, thus giving us a chance to stretch our legs.

During the course of the first day, Friday, Lily made a number of negative comments about "fags." She also complained that there weren't very many men in hula classes. Now, homosexuality in traditional Hawaiian culture was really very openly accepted, and was not really a big problem. After the missionaries came, things were very different. But still, there's a tolerance in Hawai`i for mh that is quite remarkable compared to a lot of other places. Many people think that all the men involved in hula are mh, and it's true that there's a high percentage of them, but it's not everybody. However, Lily kept going on and on about this, and about how she played football with her sons, and how she'd rather have them grow up "rough" than "panty," and a lot of similar comments. I thought, I'm not going to say anything, it's the teacher's class, not mine, he's in charge. Nonetheless, Lily's statements were distressing me, personally. In my own culture, I was brought up not to talk back to my elders, and in Hawai`i, especially in the context of a traditional activity, it's really very bad form - you don't criticize, or contradict, kpuna.

At the end of that first Friday afternoon, I got a ride back into town with Barbara, the other haole lady. On the way, I asked her if Lily's comments were bothering her, because it was really annoying me. They were, but Barbara didn't have any ideas of what to do either. This all left me feeling both distressed and helpless.

Friday night was my regular night at Hula's Bar and Lei Stand, a mostly gay male bar in Waikik. Mel, my kumu lei, was there presiding over the lei-making table from four to seven; I often sat there and practiced my lei, and conducted informal research on the sociolinguistic pragmatics of gender. That evening, moving at snail-like speed, I limped in pathetically, much to Mel's amusement. After I had reported on the workshop, I asked Mel about the predicament with Lily, because he's mh and does hula. I said, you know this lady's really bothering me, but she's a kpuna, and is there some way that I can handle this? "Yes," he said, "you can. You think about it" . . . (Cultural brokers like Mel are always extremely helpful like that, very direct.) I took his comment to mean that there was indeed some culturally appropriate way to say something. So I made some lei for my workshop teachers for a while. Then I got on the bus home, and continued to work on memorizing the mele. By the way, no matter how quietly you do this on a bus in Hawai`i, total strangers ask you, "New hula?" and nod approvingly; the same way that if you're picking flowers somewhere outside in public, someone will ask you, "What kind lei you making?"

When I got off the bus in Mnoa, it was raining. My focus suddenly shifted from straight memorization to the relationship between vocabulary, reality and grammar. Remember the verse in the mele that goes: ua `ike wale `oe, l; i ka ua loku, l; a`o Hanalei, l - `you have seen the torrential rain at the bay of Hanalei'? I ka ua loku means `torrential downpour', a`o is `of' and Hanalei is a place. As I got off the bus, I thought, well! this is a genuine torrential downpour all right; I have a 15-minute walk, and I'm going to get drenched. Then I thought, aha! - i ka ua loku, l, a`o Mnoa, l, that is, "you have seen the torrential rain in Mnoa"! I felt so pleased! Here I had, all by myself, activated my very own Chomskian Language Acquisition and Rearrangement Device, taken a word that I knew, and used it in a new and appropriate context to make a meaningful, communicative, expressive utterance, even if the only person who heard it and appreciated it was me. I was having such a good time with that I sang this all the way home, while getting completely soaking wet. I shall call such moments "epiphanies of competence" - these moments are both powerful and deeply delightful.

So, going back to the workshop the next morning, Barbara picked me up as arranged. We went a bit early, to warm up, and to practice the chant. I had four lei ready, one for Barbara for giving me the ride and being friendly, one for the kumu hula and two for his assistants. I had made my absolutely best lei for the assistants - my Micronesian braided ginger flower ones, and a very spectacular and splendid one for the kumu hula, with red sleeping hibiscus and orange flowers in between. They really appreciated the lei, and I certainly liked being able to do something considered appropriate and nice to give something back to my teachers. Also, it showed them that I was competent in something Hawaiian, compared to my hula work . . .

So I'm saying to myself, I really want to talk to this kpuna. I was keeping in mind something I had read about the traditional Hawaiian concept of ho`oponopono, a kind of therapeutic session in which people sit down and really talk about the things that are bothering them, a kind of cleansing sort of talk. I thought this might be culturally appropriate to do - although maybe it wouldn't be, but then again, I might never get another chance. So before class really began, I asked Lily, "Auntie, can I speak to you for a minute?" (Women there often have very high quiet voices, so I thought that would be a good voice to use.) I talked with her, just outside the classroom, no one else around. I told her how thrilled I was to be there, and how wonderful it was to have her in the class, with all her experience, and her stories, and her liveliness, and on and on like that for a while. In fact, all of this was perfectly true. But, I really had to tell her, but, there was something that she said yesterday that made me feel really sad. She got a little flustered at that, and said "What? What?" and I said, "Well you know, these remarks that you keep making about `fags,' um, uh, I . . . I . . . have, a lot . . . of my friends and . . . some people in my `ohana are mh, and they're very fine people . . . and I think maybe it's just not such a good way to talk about people." First Lily said she didn't remember, she didn't know what I was talking about, so I refreshed her memory a bit, "Well, like you know, when you say this . . . or that . . . it hurts people . . . And you know, when you're talking about how you want to encourage boys, and your grandsons to dance hula, if they think that it's a bad, mh kind of activity, they're not going to do it, because they listen to you, because you're their kpuna, and we all respect you, so your opinions are really very very important to us." Lily said, "Well, it's not what I really feel, it's not what's in my heart, it's just what's in my mouth," and I thought "hmm," but I said, "Well, maybe, maybe then it's good to say what's in your heart, and that way people know." So then we had a good little sniffle and a hug and a kiss and went back into class.

When we went back in, I sort of moved over so she could sit next to me in the circle, and put her mat down there. And after a minute or so, she looked at me, and said "You Hawaiian?" I said no, and she said, "Oh, that's funny, because you look Hawaiian." And I thought, what does that mean? I pointed to Barbara, next to me, the haole lady who is Hawaiian, and I said, "No, she is." And Lily looks at her and says, "Na, she don't look Hawaiian." I thought, this is an interesting intersection of ethnicity, appearance - in contrast to Barbara, who was taller and much thinner, I am much heavier and have a flatter face - and some kind of affective factor that made this woman feel closer to me. Though still feeling in turmoil, and truly without any sense of "victory," I did feel a little more socially accepted, because of that emotional risk I had taken and therefore investment I had made, and because of the realization that we were, in some important sense, speaking the same language.

When class resumed, I would alternate, as any language learner does, between moments of exhilaration when I would get a whole verse right, or three moves in a row right, or some move I'd been having problems with, I did it and it came out really fine - and then in the next moment total despair, when something I had previously done just fine completely fell apart on the next verse. That roller-coaster feeling, that frustration at trying to coordinate everything at once.

When people like Earl Stevick talk about low affect in error correction, I agree, and in my own teaching this is my general approach. Nonetheless, in this particular situation, I found that I myself needed a lot more praise than I thought I would. I needed to think that I was good. On the one hand, I didn't want praise to be effusive, I don't like people to gush over my performance, or to keep saying, "Oh you're so wonderful, that's just fantastic." To my Canadian self, this seems uncomfortable and insincere - it seems more like encouragement than evaluation - I'm more willing to accept a "well done" or even a "not bad." On the other hand, I did want a lot of attention; even to be corrected. Sometimes when the teacher was speaking to the whole group, it was difficult to know whether he was speaking to me? Am I not putting my elbow up far enough? So then I would want some individual attention. But mostly I needed time - sometimes I knew perfectly well that I had just made a mistake, so I didn't need it pointed out every single time, thank you very much, I just needed practice. This is of course a typical reaction of learners: to want, immediately and right now, whatever kind of feedback the teacher is not giving at the moment . . .

It was interesting to see what kinds of errors the kumu hula corrected and which ones he didn't. In Hawaiian tradition, the body is divided very strictly into right-hand and left-hand sides. You do have motions that go across the body, but when you have a motion that is supposed to stop at the center line of the body, those fingertips are not supposed to go past the center of your body. So if you make an error there, that error is going to get corrected, and you have to move it back. But if your palm is crooked, or you made a sloppy turn, or something like that, that's not likely to be corrected. First of all, it's not an offensive kind of error, and secondly, it mostly just takes practice. And practice was one thing none of us in this class ever objected to - hana hou `again'. We knew we needed a lot of practice - drill, if you like.

A good language learner is supposed to be a good risk taker. But who judges the nature of these risks? By the second day of the workshop, I didn't really mind the idea of doing something by myself in front of the rest of the people in my group. I knew them well enough, trusted them, felt comfortable enough with them. But in the afternoon of the second day, there was going to be a h`ike, a recital, when all the groups get together and show what they've learned.

I was absolutely not ready for that. I recognized that everyone else knew that you're a beginner, and was going to make appropriate allowances, but there were three reasons I felt uncomfortable. The first was that I really did not feel ready for a h`ike. The second was that I was feeling too shy about being in front of the larger group, real strangers. Third, my input buffers were full; I didn't want to learn anything more just then.

It was truly not just a question of not wanting to make a fool of myself in front of other people; I've certainly had lots of practice at that. In any case, the other people were going to make mistakes too, they too were all beginners once, there were no grades, and we would probably get some compliments (sincere or encouraging).

No, mainly I didn't want to stay because I really didn't want to watch anyone else; I found it either distracting or too removed from what I was doing. Normally when I go to a new place, I say, ok, what am I supposed to learn here? I think, well, there's this museum, and that exhibit, you have to do this, and learn about this, read this, watch this, do that. But at this stage of my stay in Hawai`i, I wanted to do and feel from the inside as much as possible. I was going to museums and the like, but most of the time I stayed away from formal learning experiences; I didn't even want to watch hula that much. I didn't even want to look much at other people's lei, even though they were beautiful, interesting, inspiring and helpful; I just needed to make my own. Moreover, even under normal circumstances I am not keen on scenic vistas; even in Hawai`i I didn't need to go to this beautiful place, or that beautiful place. I was happiest just going with my kumu lei up an ordinary hillside at dawn, picking ginger flowers and ferns by the side of the road with my bare feet in the mud, smelling how it smelled, feeling how it felt. In any case, I could not have tolerated more elaborate experiences because my senses were already constantly hyper-stimulated.

So, on Saturday, I left the workshop early in the afternoon, before the h`ike, making excuses to the teachers and class. I couldn't tell the teacher the real reason, because I didn't want to let him down, or hurt his feelings, or have him think that I was criticizing his teaching - which I wasn't - and I didn't want to run the risk that he would really put pressure on me to stay.

What did I learn? I certainly did not learn to speak Hawaiian. What did I bring back, what did I take away in my head? Skills, for one, like making lei. I've never looked at flowers in the same way since; now I think, even for a split second - "How can I use that? What could I do with that? Would that be good in a haku style or what?" And ways of behaving. A lot of reinforcement of a type of inductive learning I had become conscious of and practiced in my Caribbean experience: watching other people, watching how to behave and talk, without asking a lot of stupid questions, reflecting intently on both pleasant and uncomfortable experiences to extract principles. I learned a lot.

What can we, as language teachers, learn about teaching language from our own and others' language learning experiences? What can we learn about teaching one language, by learning another? How can we translate individual, perhaps idiosyncratic, experience into principles and practices generalizable to our own teaching? Let me conclude here with an even dozen of such principles - in no particular order.

1. Practice patience. Remember, you already know how to do this, but your students do not.

2. Enable your students to do something to demonstrate their own competence, if not in your task then in something else that is relevant.

3. Culture and language can be usefully separated to some extent. Learning about the target culture in L1 can help L2 learning by building up necessary background knowledge, increasing motivation and encouraging positive affective attitudes.

4. Provide a rich, complex, and intense learning environment. Beware of setting up cognitive overload, but when you are planning lessons, do keep in mind all the inter-related schemas you are helping to build, and recycle items consciously.

5. Make the target goals high - the students can do a lot more than they think they can. But also make the target goals realistic - the students can't always do as well as they would like.

6. Remember that any methodological technique - from Grammar Translation to TPR - can be helpful if done appropriately and well.

7. Encourage students to become consciously aware of different possible learning strategies, and to practice using them.

8. Encourage your students to develop good relationships with cultural brokers - people, books, films. Also encourage your students to make real friends with target language speakers; remember that real friends, in real life, are often cultivated only slowly. Social comfort requires a major effort by both the learner and people in the host/target culture. As a teacher, be the kind of person that they can ask something embarrassing or unwittingly insulting, without fear of rejection or undue harshness.

9. Keep in mind that things are going on between your students that you know nothing about. Think about what kinds of dynamics you do see going on. Consider carefully if, how and when to intervene.

10. Remember that learning a language sets up a complex series of interacting and often very contradictory impulses around identity and ego. Distinguish temporary resting from emotional withdrawal or refusal to learn.

11. Similarly, be sympathetic to those affective roller coasters. Be patient and encouraging with setbacks and backsliding. Don't tell students they're doing well when they are not, or you will lose credibility. Do assure them when they are doing splendidly for their level. Celebrate with them their epiphanies of competence.

12. Finally, be gracious in accepting expressions of your students' pain, their joy, and their gratitude.

Now, this part of talking story is pau - finished. For your attention, Mahalo nui loa - thank you very much.

The contents of this publication were developed in part or whole under a grant from the Department of Education (CFDA 84.229). However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and one should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.


1 This paper was given as plenary speeches at the 1994 Illinois TESOL/BE and TESOL `96 conferences. It benefited greatly from comments by Jean Handscombe, Charlene Sato, and Mareena Wright.

Lise Winer
Dept. of Linguistics
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 014517
e-mail: winerl@siu.edu


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