An Interview with Dr. Scott Saft

In this podcast, Dr. Scott Saft (Professor of Linguistics and Chair of Graduate Studies in the Ka Haka ʻUla o Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo), talks in detail about his book published in 2019: Exploring Multilingual in Hawaiʻi. Language Use and Language Ideologies in a Diverse Society.

Dr. Saft’s work can be found here:’i-Language-Use-and-Language-Ideologies-in-a-Diverse-Society


[00:07] Interviewer: Hi. Welcome to the Multiʻōlelo podcast series. This is Ann, and today I’ll be speaking to Dr. Scott Saft from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo about his book published in 2019: Exploring Multilingual in Hawaiʻi. Language Use and Language Ideologies in a Diverse Society. The book provides a comprehensive historical and empirical account of the dynamic development and status quo of multilingualism in Hawaiʻi. Dr. Saft also offers an abundance of micro-analytical insights into the situated language use, language ideologies, and discursive construction of identity by speakers of Hawaiian, Pidgin, Japanese, and many other languages that can be commonly heard in Hawaiʻi. Let’s welcome Dr. Saft.

[00:55] Interviewer: Hello, Dr. Saft. Thank you very much for being our interviewee for this podcast today. Before we delve into the details of your book, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, such as your background and career in connection to Hawaiʻi. How did you become interested in researching multilingualism in Hawaiʻi?

[01:15] Dr. Saft: Thank you very much, Ann. Thank you for having me today. I’m very happy to be here. I’m not originally from Hawaiʻi but I first arrived here in my early twenties. I came from a mostly monolingual background on the mainland of the United States. I spent a couple of years in Japan teaching English which is where I really got interested in language and linguistics. But Japan, although I was an English teacher, it still has this very- at that time anyway, a very monolingual ideological approach to language. 

[01:52] Dr. Saft: So when I first arrived here in Hawaiʻi as a young, new graduate student, I felt like coming to another world, another country. I was aware of the presence of the Japanese language and the tourist industry, and that’s partly why I chose to come to Hawaiʻi. I was interested in Japanese and Japanese culture, but I really wasn’t ready to just go venturing out, even going to play sports on the playground, and hearing a variety of languages. Pidgin, of course, which was completely new to me. And I really wasn’t prepared at that time for knowing what to make of the indigenous Hawaiian language. That was in the early 1990s, so that movement was just gaining momentum. So going to classes with speakers of Hawaiian and hearing about the movement to work on promoting Hawaiian was just eye-opening. 

[02:50] Dr. Saft: That doesn’t even mention other Polynesian languages you would hear just walking across campus, languages of the Philippines, Marshallese, and other so-called Micronesian languages. I just was amazed that this number of languages and this kind of diversity of people could exist in the same place. Since that time, I’ve always had an interest in trying to understand this diversity. The longer I’ve lived here and the more I’ve been involved in language teaching, and with different languages with different groups of people, just- And so writing this book was one way for me to try to better understand myself, what I have been seeing this many years, and trying to make sense of it inside of myself. And also in a sense pay tribute to this great multilingual society that we actually have here surrounding us.

[03:45] Interviewer: Great, thank you. So, in your book, you drew on linguistic ethnography and language ecology to explore multilingualism in Hawaiʻi. Can you tell us a little bit about these perspectives and why you chose them?

[04:00] Dr. Saft: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to focus on Hawaiʻi as a multilingual society, and how I was going to describe this in one book, which of course was not really possible. So I was looking for larger methodologies that would allow for some analysis of language, of discourse of actual language usage, but also make it possible to relate that to bigger issues in society.

[04:31] Dr. Saft: And the ecology of language, I’ve always been fascinated by the concept, the metaphor of languages coming together and forming an ecology. The writing of Einar Haugen and others from back in the 60s and 70s when you had the so-called Chomskian revolution, and people weren’t really interested in multilingualism and bilingualism. Bilingualism was still treated as an interference and codeswitching as kind of a negative thing.

[05:02] Dr. Saft: So I also wanted to in a sense pay tribute to these ideas that were percolating out there from earlier on. As I talked about in the book, the ecology of languages as a concept allows us to think about the relationships of languages, but it doesn’t really supply us with a whole lot of methods for actually analyzing the languages. And that’s where the linguistic ethnography came in. As it sounds, you get the “ethnographic” part but the “linguistic” that focuses on languages. It just so happened through reading, I came across a group working in the U.K., who have been promoting what they call linguistic ethnography as a way of merging the micro and the macro in a sense.

[05:47] Dr. Saft: I especially like the fact that they didn’t really have one single approach that they were promoting. In fact, they were promoting perhaps a mixing or meshing of different types of microanalytical approaches that might be one way to go. So I kind of used that as an umbrella term to bring in some conversation analysis, some ethnopoetics, some critical discourse analysis, some MCA, membership categorization analysis.

[06:20] Interviewer: I see. Thank you. So in the first chapter of your book, you adopted a critical perspective to examine how multilingualism in Hawaii has been traditionally viewed as a problem. First of all, what were the major events that led to the rise of multilingualism in Hawaiʻi? Secondly, what are some examples of multilingualism in Hawaiʻi being treated as a problem and the underlying ideologies associated with it?

[06:58] Dr. Saft: I think the big events, we have to go back to history. These are events that have been written about, talked about, and described in detail. But the arrival of the missionaries back in 1820, who were English speakers. There have been other non-Hawaiian speakers who have made their way to the islands before that, but this really brought in a consistent group of non-Hawaiian speakers and English speakers. 

[07:14] Dr. Saft: And then, of course, we have the rise of the sugar plantations starting in the 1830s, but continuing kind of slowly but then growing, especially in the 1860s and 1870s when we had The Reciprocity Treaty in 1875/1876, which allowed the sugar planters. The sugar planters were mostly not- the owners of the managers of the sugar plantations were not Hawaiian speakers. So they were able with the Reciprocity Treaty to export sugar more easily to the United States without significant taxes. So this increased the sugar plantation business and all these led to more of a need of workers to work on the plantations. So we get from the mid-1800s on this influx of bringing in people from around the world including Europeans, but the most famous groups were of course the Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and later people from the Philippines. Of course, this led to a mixing of languages. What’s often not really appreciated is that Hawaiian remained strong as the main language of society throughout the 1800s, and so first we had a pidgin, a Hawaiian pidgin that was formed.

[08:36] Dr. Saft: And here I’d like to make a distinction between small “p” pidgin as not a creole but a pidgin, and then what we come to call here now in Hawaiʻi as a Pidgin with a capital “P” as the actual name of our creole language. But we had a pidgin with a small “p” and Hawaiian Pidgin, and then eventually what we ended up with was a more English-based creole that we call pidgin. The small “p” pidgin that the new generations speaking it then turned into a creole or as we call it now capital “P”.

[09:13] Dr. Saft: One thing that really stands out as our Pidgin, capital “P” Pidgin was emerging, and as some of the immigrants, the plantation laborers such as the Japanese and Chinese had an interest in teaching their own children their heritage languages. So we had actually a really well-developed system of schools. The Japanese—something well over 95 or more percent of the children of the Japanese plantation workers were sending their children after the regular schools to Japanese language schools. A significant number of Chinese also going to Chinese language schools.

[09:53] Dr. Saft: But, as- well I guess heading toward the World Wars is often given as an excuse, but as the United States’ influence, including the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and becoming a territory of the United States, as the US influence became more and more here in Hawaiʻi, there was this fear of non-English languages started to emerge. So the territorial government took action, often with the support of the federal government to shut down the language schools. It wasn’t easy because the schools had quite a lot of support in the community here Hawaiʻi, but eventually with the wars coming. So the ideology would be this Americanization. That to be truly American, to show that you’re an American, you need to show that through the language you choose to speak yourself and then you also choose to pass it onto your children.

[10:59] Dr. Saft: And so especially the Japanese immigrants had to give up this idea of teaching their children the heritage language to show that they were on the side of the United States.

[11:12] Interviewer: In one of your chapters, you mentioned the strong revitalization movement of the Hawaiian language since the 1960s, beginning with a period that was coined as the “Hawaiian Renaissance”. Can you provide us with some examples of the efforts into revitalizing the Hawaiian language and the outcomes of the revitalization movement?

[11:33] Dr. Saft: Sure. There’s lot of people and places that should get credit for the movement. But we can see that the focus has been on the school system, on the educational side in creating a system of schools that would serve as safe places where Hawaiian could be spoken and taught to the younger children. So in the early 1980s, they created a system of preschools called the Pūnana Leo schools. They were preschools so these were children who are going there and having their days conducted through Hawaiian. In the beginning, it was in the 1980s, you’d think people were a little more enlightened, but there was a lot of pushback from the government even from within the communities. Even some of the Native Hawaiian families themselves were questioning, “Well, this is the United States,” “Americanization movement, you need English,” and this kind of this fear of bilingualism as well might be harming our children by not focusing on English- teaching them Hawaiian even though it is their indigenous heritage language.

[12:51] Dr. Saft: So starting with the Pūnana Leo, just a dedicated group of people on some of the different islands. There was one organization, the Pūnana Leo, but it took a growing network of people to help start working with the government, with the legislature, because eventually focusing on the schools, they had to allow what’s now called the Hawaiian medium education continue into the actual school system. The DOE, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade. So it took a lot of dedication. There were threats of being arrested for not following the law, which was the accepted law to teach through English, but they persevered and eventually almost 40 years later, we now have an educational system where you can be educated in Hawaiian from preschool all through high school, and now we have programs at the universities, at both Hilo and Mānoa, where you can major in Hawaiian. And we have graduate programs where you use Hawaiian as well. So we now call it a P-20 system, where P starts with preschool and 20 you can do your doctoral work and get your Ph.D. in Hawaiian, which you can now.

[14:13] Dr. Saft: So a lot of the credit goes to many people, and the growing number of people who persevered against the negative ideologies. And of course, there’s still- I think you’re gonna ask me about the challenges as well?

[14:26] Interviewer: Right, you mentioned one of the emerging challenges would be the notion of authenticity, and I was wondering if you can speak a little bit about that.

[14:35] Dr. Saft: Authenticity with the Hawaiian language specifically is basically we’ve skipped a couple of generations in terms of the transmission of the Hawaiian language. Typically you pass naturally a language onto the next generation. Well, we’ve skipped at least two generations except for small pockets where people were still speaking the language. So the school system is trying to recapture that and was also promoting programs for parents as well for trying to reinstate this intergenerational language transmission.

[15:15] Dr. Saft: One question that has come up, and it’s definitely a valid question, is the kids who are relearning the language—and it’s not just kids as we know it, it’s also young adults at the universities who first come to the Hawaiian language and then start learning it—is that they are not learning it in a natural way. Even though the school may play a major role in the child’s life, it’s still not the typical way that languages passed on. And especially here in Hawaiʻi with English, and with the strength of English, and with the contact with English, there is this fear that the language that is now emerging is different from the language that was traditionally spoken. And that’s usually where the questions of authenticity come in.

[16:04] Dr. Saft: Also I should mention that there are pockets of- you know we have the island that’s been isolated and where it was supposed to have the transmission of Hawaiian—Niʻihau. And then we have people who left Niʻihau and gone over to Kauaʻi, and they’ve started their community and they have their own school. It’s been noticed that the language being spoken by speakers in that community and what’s sometimes called the university Hawaiian that’s promoted at the universities. There are differences in pronunciation, in some of the word choices. 

[16:44] Dr. Saft: Just a final thing—I do talk about that in terms of authenticity, and I do do some analysis where I tried to compare the emerging Hawaiian speakers’ speech with some of the tapes that we have of the elder speakers, and I tried to show that the younger speakers are following at least some of the traditional ways of speaking. But I’d add that instead of talking about it as a problem that might cause a rift in the- cause problems for the continued movement, I think we should look at this as a good thing. You know people saying teaching at the universities or teaching at the communities, and I just think continued dialogue amongst those groups it’s gonna be, you know, not have one stepping in and saying “No, you’re wrong” and “you’re wrong”. We still need all the people we can get to continue doing this. Even if the languages are a little bit different but the goals are the same, and so I think we just need to continue this dialogue and turn what could be king of a controversy into a plus. Because there are indigenous societies out there, indigneous speakers and communities who struggle with this issue and have different factions within the community. And that can sometimes cause problems in terms of trying to create schools and trying to build up a program.

[18:10] Interviewer: I see. So in the same chapter, you used a combination of conversation analysis and ethnopoetics to examine the practice of repetition by Hawaiian elders. That is quite an innovative approach, since conversation-analytic research on repetition has been primarily focused on the practice of repair. So, can you tell us why you combined conversation analysis with ethnopoetics, and what did you find by combining these two approaches?

[18:40] Dr. Saft: Excellent question. I took a little poetic license I guess there, by combining two approaches that might not necessarily seem like they’re easily combined. But again, in the license I took there comes from the overarching linguistic ethnography that I decided to use thinking that at some point I’m gonna have to combine some techniques, some methodologies. The way I think I was building a little bit on some of the research that’s been done by some people who have used the methodology of conversation analysis (CA). Here I’m thinking about Michael Moerman, you know Jack Bilmes has used CA to talk about culture and other issues that go beyond just the structure of interaction itself. So I felt okay doing that, as not the first person to have done that. Ultimately, the purpose was to try to describe language as it was being used by the participants themselves, and just to consider that as a cultural way of speaking. Also in the back of my mind is that maybe that kind of CA type of analysis that looks at the details might be also usable later on. People who read that to understand that “Oh, wow, yeah.” We’re talking about revitalizing the Hawaiian language, but maybe it’s not just the words and sentence patterns but also the turn-taking patterns are also something that we really need to look at.

[20:32] Dr. Saft: What I was finding was that the elders frequently were repeating parts of the previous utterance, parts of the previous question. Because it seemed to be quite a large number of instances in the data, I felt that it is kind of a cultural practice, an interactional practice that was engaged in at least by this group of elders and maybe as we talked about, ethnopoetically, a cultural practice—a cultural way  of speaking. To me that’s the strength of ethnopoetics is embedding language within cultural ways of being, including cultural ways of communication. So I was using that to emphasize what I’m finding here are structures, interactional patterns—CA styles—but also maybe we need to think about that as a cultural way of communicating that might be valuable to remember when we think about what it means to communicate Hawaiian style.

[21:36] Interviewer: That’s really interesting to take a very microanalytic approach to understand Hawaiian culture in a way. 

[21:43] Dr. Saft: We’re trying.

[21:46] Interviewer: Great, next question. So besides the Hawaiian language, you also have a chapter dedicated to Pidgin. You mentioned that, unlike the Hawaiian language, people have ambivalent attitudes toward Pidgin. Why is that the case?

[21:59] Dr. Saft: Well, certainly it’s from being told over and over that what they’re speaking is a broken form of English. The history here sees that, as Hawaiʻi became a territory, and then in the early 1900s, and it was also thinking militarily and the need to fortify Hawaiʻi in that sense, that more families from the mainland US came over, and they were English speakers. They needed schools, and they actually created these so-called Standard English schools. They took some of the existing schools and designated them to be Standard English schools. Some of the children of plantation workers who were speaking Pidgin would have to take an oral test. If they spoke a little bit of a Pidgin accent, then they were told they can’t go to this school because it’s only for English standard speakers, and they had to go to another school.

[22:56] Dr. Saft: So from the very beginning when Pidgin became a creole, it never had a period where it was recognized as this wonderful, beautiful new language. It was always being compared with English, and Pidgin speakers were told they couldn’t go to the same school as these English speakers because of their language.

[23:16] Dr. Saft: And as we know, that gets internalized, these kinds of negative ideologies get internalized. You still hear people who speak Pidgin but then will sometimes claim that they do not speak Pidgin or even denigrate themselves and say, “I’m not that good. You shouldn’t ask me about English ‘cause I speak Pidgin” as such.

[23:37] Interviewer: So, are there active efforts into removing the stigma attached to Pidgin and Pidgin speakers?

[23:44] Dr. Saft: For sure, for sure! Actually on your campus over there at Mānoa, you have Da Pidgin Coup. Dr. Christina Higgins has done a lot of work toward advocacy and you hold conferences and workshops. So there’s a lot of advocacy on your island. And we now have people writing literature now in Pidgin, and some of them like Lee Tonouchi is out there writing in newspapers and also giving speeches promoting Pidgin. And it’s been effective. 

[24:20] Dr. Saft: Here on my island over here on the Big Island, we don’t see a whole lot of workshops as such, but I was trying to teach more about Pidgin. Myself and a few other faculty here allow students to write some of their papers in Pidgin. That’s kind of interesting because a lot of times they are kind of like “Oh, I would never think about doing that.” But then they started thinking about it and said “Oh, it would be kind of cool and fun,” and realized that they could do it and a good way of expressing […]. And it’s having an effect, I mean it’s still a long way to go. I think it was 2015 that Pidgin was recognized, it’s now included in the United census as an official language here in Hawaiʻi. So it is gaining here locally and even perhaps to those who know anyway, and nationally, just hoping that people would recognize that it’s a beautiful form of expression. If you’re gonna talk about languages here in Hawaiʻi, you certainly have to talk about the capital “P” Pidgin as a language that’s born and raised right here with us.

[26:10] Interviewer: Yeah, that’s great. And reading your book I realized Pidgin is really the epitome of multilingualism. You have mixing from Cantonese, Portuguese, Tagalog, Japanese and so on, just so many languages add up together to become this thing known as Pidgin today. So I think that’s really worth exploring and learning Pidgin as a language.

[25:58] Dr. Saft: Oh, for sure. And a lot of my information about Pidgin, at least the structure of Pidgin comes from Kent Sakoda from your campus and Jeff Seagull as well, the 2003 book they wrote called Pidgin Grammar. For that chapter, that was one of my biggest sources, and should still be a source for anybody who’s interested in learning about Pidgin as a language.

[26:23] Interviewer: Great. I see, thank you so much for sharing. So the next question, the focus of one of your chapters is on the phenomenon of heteroglossia in Hawaiʻi, which refers to mixing languages. Other terms that people might be more familiar with include codeswitching, translanguaging, and plurilingualism. Why did you choose to use ‘heteroglossia’?

[26:43] Dr. Saft: Yeah, good question. This was a tough decision because as you mentioned there are a number of choices. What I really wanted to point out was how prominent and how creative the mixing of languages is in situations of everyday life in Hawaiʻi. But from an academic perspective, you’re faced with all these choices of what term to use. Ultimately, to make a long story short, I chose heteroglossia just because there’s a connection to the work of the Russian scholar Bahktin. He specifically talks about voices, this idea of multivoicedness or multivocality within speech. Even what seems like monolingual speech there’s all kinds of different historical connections. Then you can use that here in a multilingual speech and then point out not just that you have a mixture of Pidgin, and there’s Hawaiian, and there’s English, and perhaps Japanese, but also the social meanings that are attached to those languages and how they’re played into people’s usage of those languages. So that’s why I decided to go with heteroglossia to make that point.

[28:07] Interviewer: I see. Thank you very much. And the last question. So besides reading your work, what advice would you give to people who are interested in learning Hawaiian, Pidgin, or multilingualism or multiculturalism in Hawaiʻi in general? Are there any useful resources you would recommend?

[28:23] Dr. Saft: Sure, I’ll have to pick and choose here because there are plenty of resources. Well, traditionally not a whole lot of resources but recently we’ve been lucky to get a lot more resources. There are some older texts about Hawaiian society and how it developed. We’re talking about Ralph Kuykendall has a whole set of history and there are other books written by English speakers who were not really Hawaiian speakers. Those of course are good reference points, but I would also definitely encourage- we now have a whole group of scholars with Native Hawaiian background who have the ability to read and write in Hawaiian and write in English, and describe a lot of what’s in the older Hawaiian newspaper that were very plentiful in the 1800s into the early 1900s. It gives a much different perspective—more of a Hawaiian perspective. Noenoe Silva has a couple of books. Jon Osorio talks about some of the- from the Hawaiian perspective. So it’s not just the American kind of perspective there.

[29:40] Dr. Saft: And then the other thing is, if I can, Ann, is if anybody is really interested in experiencing multilingualism in Hawaiʻi, I’d definitely encourage them to get out of our offices and students to get out of their classrooms. I know now with the pandemic it’s a little difficult, but get involved in some activities in society. Play sports, try to find an outside league to play volleyball, basketball, or softball. Join a Hula hālau and other types of dance as well. To me that’s where my eyes are opened, just being out there in Hawaiʻi and seeing and hearing these different languages. And talking to people and befriending people, who had different perspectives. They came from different backgrounds and languages as well.

[30:34] Interviewer: Those are really great advice, especially for those of us who are already living in Hawaiʻi, to get out of our comfort zone and to talk to our neighbors and participate in everyday activities with multilingual speakers and Hawaiian speakers as well.

[30:50] Interviewer: Well, thank you so much for sharing all your insights today, Dr. Saft. I look forward to seeing more people reading your work and learning more about multilingualism in Hawaiʻi.

[31:01] Dr. Saft: Thank you very much, Ann. I appreciate it. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss these fun things with somebody.


Ann Choe (interviewer, post-production editor, & transcriber)

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