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Hawaiian Language Placement Test Offered for First Time in Three Decades

By Zara Zhang, Crimson Staff Writer

Four undergraduates from Hawaii took Harvard’s first systematically administered Hawaiian language placement test in October, and have the possibility to fulfill their foreign language requirement with Hawaiian for the first time since 1984.

The reinstatement of the test was the result of efforts of several Hawaiian-speaking students over the last three years. These students said they consider the language as part of their cultural heritage, and feel it should be recognized by the University as a foreign language.

These efforts were first initiated by LeShae Henderson ’16, who began asking administrators about the possibility of using Hawaiian to fulfill her foreign language requirement during her freshman year. Administrators cited the lack of a qualified examiner as the reason for not being able to offer a placement test, according to Henderson.

She then petitioned the Administrative Board to have her language requirement pushed back one year, and started taking French to fulfill it.

Henderson said she found her interactions with administrators “frustrating.”

“I think it’s really symptomatic of a larger problem at Harvard,” she said. “Harvard isn't as accommodating as we think it is in terms of what you want to study, especially in terms of anything in the Pacific—unless it’s Asia—there’s not really anything offered here.”

Kaipo T. Matsumoto ’17, another Hawaiian student who advocated for the placement test, said that its offering would benefit all Hawaiian-speaking students in the future.

“It’s about legitimizing the language in general after all the historical oppression of the language…. It’s about all indigenous people at Harvard,” said Matsumoto, who is a member of the Harvard University Native American Program.

Matsumoto estimated that there are eight current undergraduates who can understand Hawaiian, and three who are fluent.

Henderson and Matsumoto received support from Maria Polinsky, a linguistics professor and chair of the Foreign Language Advisory Group, who answered affirmatively when consulted by administrators about whether the placement test should be offered.

“There’s always an important challenge to consider. Harvard cannot teach every possible language,” Polinsky said. “One of the guidelines that we use in deciding which languages can be taught is whether or not it’s associated with a literary tradition…. Hawaiian has a significant literary tradition.”

According to Polinsky, the language is undergoing a revival. She estimated that 10 percent of Hawaii’s next generation will be fluent.

When administrators could not find a Hawaiian-speaking Harvard affiliate to administer the test, the task was outsourced to a professor of Hawaiian at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The verbal component was conducted through a video conference call, marking the first time that a language placement exam has been offered remotely, according to Polinsky.

The first student in the University’s history to fulfill the foreign language requirement with Hawaiian was David M. Forman ’88, in 1984, albeit without a systemically administered test. Last October, Forman wrote a letter to then Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education Katherine Stanton, calling the administration to offer the Hawaiian language placement test once again.

Matsumoto said he and other students who took the test are fairly confident that they would pass and successfully fulfill their foreign language requirement.

“It took a long time, but we got there,” Henderson said.

—Staff writer Zara Zhang can be reached at

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