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With its tropical climate and stunning natural scenery, Hawaii is often seen as an exotic paradise far removed from the hustle and bustle of the mainland United States. However, Hawaii is very much part of the U.S. and shares much of American culture and history.

This includes the predominance of the English language in everyday life and government affairs across the Hawaiian Islands. But is English actually recognized as Hawaii’s official language? Let’s take a closer look.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: There is currently no designated official language recognized at the state level in Hawaii. While English and Hawaiian are the primary languages used, neither holds official legal status.

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover the complex linguistic history of Hawaii and analyze the use of language in the islands today. We’ll look at the efforts to promote endangered Native Hawaiian language, examine the diverse immigrant tongues that are part of Hawaii’s heritage, and explain why calls persist to give Hawaiian official status.

The Origins and Decline of the Hawaiian Language

Indigenous Polynesian roots

The Hawaiian language traces its origins back to the Polynesian settlers who voyaged across the Pacific and arrived in the Hawaiian islands around 400-600 AD. As the native people developed their unique culture in Hawaii over the centuries, their language evolved into Ōlelo Hawaiʻi, with its melodic rhythms and glottal stops.

For over a thousand years, Ōlelo Hawaiʻi was the sole language spoken in the islands. It enabled oral histories to be passed down through chants and songs, and contained a rich vocabulary related to native plants, traditions, deities, and the natural world that surrounded the people.

Suppression under American rule

After Western contact and the arrival of American missionaries in 1820, the use of the Hawaiian language began to decline rapidly. In 1896, the Republic of Hawaii government repressed the Hawaiian language in schools and governmental operations. Speaking Hawaiian was even forbidden on school grounds.

Over the next five decades, fluent Hawaiian speakers diminished greatly. By 1984, only about 2,000 native elders retained fluency in their mother tongue. This suppression nearly erased the cultural identity embedded in the Hawaiian language.

Revival efforts in modern Hawaii

Thankfully in recent decades, native Hawaiians have made great strides through grassroots efforts and legislative support to revive Ōlelo Hawaiʻi. Hawaiian language immersion schools have nurtured a new generation of fluent speakers.

Cultural revitalization programs teach traditional practices, arts, history, and values integrated with language learning. The Hawaiʻi State Constitution recognizes Hawaiian as an official state language alongside English.

Though still endangered, the Hawaiian language has once again become a vital part of Hawaiian identity and culture, spoken by over 18,000 people today. With continued community support, this rich cultural heritage passed down from ancient Polynesians promises to have a place in Hawaii’s future.

English Established but No Official Recognition

De facto role since statehood

Though Hawaii has no officially designated language, English has served as the de facto official language since statehood in 1959. As the primary language used in government, business, education, and other formal contexts, English is indispensable for participating in Hawaiian economic and civic life.

According to a 2019 American Community Survey, 79.7% of Hawaii residents speak English at home. Proficiency in English unites locals and visitors in day-to-day interactions. Road signs, legislation, public school instruction, and utility services rely on English to reach the widest possible audience.

Day-to-day usage across islands

The lingua franca status of English in Hawaii enables communication between speakers of the state’s diverse array of heritage languages. From the rural towns of Molokaʻi to the urban capital of Honolulu, English serves as a common tongue allowing residents and tourists of all backgrounds to exchange ideas.

While native Hawaiian speakers comprise just 0.1% of Hawaii’s population, English words and phrases have entered the Hawaiian lexicon over generations of contact. Code-switching between English and Hawaiian reflects the interwoven influence of both languages on 21st century life in the Aloha State.

Absence of official designation

Despite its widespread use, efforts to formally recognize English as Hawaii’s official state language have failed to gain traction among lawmakers and citizens. After Hawaii entered the union in 1959, establishing an official language was not considered a legislative priority.

In the 21st century, English remains Hawaii’s de facto official language, though some politicians have argued for codifying its status in law. Opponents counter that doing so could discourage heritage language preservation and subject non-English speakers to unfair disadvantages in accessing public services.

While no bills have passed to make any language an official mode of communication, Hawaii’s policies and demographic trends confirm English as the common tongue for carrying out official state business at present.

Other Notable Languages in Hawaii’s Melting Pot

East Asian tongues

The influx of immigrants from East Asian countries like China, Japan, and Korea has added several languages to Hawaii’s linguistic mix over the past couple centuries. Chinese varieties like Cantonese and Hokkien were likely introduced when Chinese laborers arrived in the 1800s to work on sugar plantations.

Similarly, the large number of Japanese settlers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought their native language to the islands. Today, Japanese is the second most widely spoken language in Hawaii after English, with almost 200,000 speakers statewide.

In recent decades, an increase in Korean immigration to Hawaii has also led to a growth in Korean speakers. While exact up-to-date numbers are hard to find, it’s clear that major East Asian languages continue to have a strong presence there.

Filipino dialects

Tagalog and Ilocano, two of the most widely spoken Filipino dialects, have a sizable number of speakers in Hawaii. This traces back to the early 1900s when Filipinos were recruited to work on sugar and pineapple plantations.

Today, Filipinos make up one of the largest Asian ethnic groups in Hawaii, so it’s no surprise their languages are still used by tens of thousands of residents.

For example, a 2015 community survey estimated there were around 115,000 Tagalog speakers in Hawaii, making it the third most common language there. And while harder to track down exact figures, Ilocano also continues to be used within Filipino enclaves.

Preserving immigrant languages

To help maintain the diverse languages brought by immigrant groups, Hawaii has several initiatives dedicated to language preservation. This includes the establishment of Hawaiian Language Immersion Schools, which teach subjects like math, science, and social studies completely in Hawaiian.

There are also efforts to document and revitalize endangered Pacific Islander languages in Hawaii like Marquesan through partnerships with academics and community outreach programs.

Additionally, the University of Hawaii system offers instruction in over 30 different languages originating from Hawaii’s various settler communities. Classes are offered in widespread tongues like Mandarin Chinese as well as less common ones like Pohnpeian, a Micronesian language.

This focus on teaching heritage languages helps ensure they remain an integral part of Hawaii’s cultural fabric for generations to come.

Calls to Make Hawaiian the Official State Language

Symbolic recognition proposed

In recent years, there have been increasing calls to grant official state language status to Hawaiian. Supporters argue that giving Hawaiian formal recognition would be an important symbolic gesture, acknowledging the native language’s historical and cultural significance in Hawaii.

Hawaiian was originally the predominant language spoken in the islands, but its usage severely declined after Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1898. Today, Hawaiian is considered an endangered language.

Making it an official state language could stimulate further revitalization efforts and promote wider teaching and usage of this crucial part of Hawaii’s heritage, advocates claim.

Criticism and counterarguments

However, critics have raised objections to constitutionally enshrining Hawaiian as an official language. They argue that Hawaiian is only spoken fluently by around 2,000 people statewide, making everyday government and legal business in Hawaiian impractical.

There are also concerns about the costs of providing official documents and services in Hawaiian that would come with official language status. Estimates indicate ongoing translation, printing, and interpretation expenses could amount to millions of dollars annually.

Opponents say those funds would be better directed to existing Hawaiian language preservation programs in schools and communities around the islands.

Uncertain future status

For now, the issue remains unresolved and Hawaiian lacks any official status at the state level. However, in 2018 Hawaii’s legislature passed a bill to create an advisory body to make recommendations on promoting and revitalizing Hawaiian.

Recent reports indicate there is renewed political momentum behind bestowing official recognition. Any future change would likely lead to extensive additional debate on how to balance costs and logistics with preserving Hawaii’s living native tongue.

Perhaps adding Hawaiian as an official language would be more feasible today than ever before in Hawaii’s history as a U.S. state.


While the Hawaiian language undeniably represents an integral piece of Hawaii’s cultural identity and history, English remains the predominant tongue for government and business applications across the islands.

With no legislation designating an official state language, both languages are free to be used and promoted at various levels without any binding hierarchies enforced. This likely balances both preserving Hawaiian’s revival and enabling day-to-day functionality.

The unique blend of languages in Hawaii adds to the richness of its culture and the aloha spirit of inclusivity. Whether future efforts succeed in making Hawaiian an official language or not, it seems clear that Hawaiian and English will maintain their integral roles in shaping Hawaii’s distinctive linguistic heritage.

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