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‘Moana' Hawaiian Version Seeks to Save Endangered Language

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Moana was a hit movie released in 2016. It was produced in over 40 languages and shown in theaters around the world.

Moana is unusual because it was the first Walt Disney Studios film ever to be re-recorded in the native language of Hawaii.

Now, the Hawaiian version is being provided to schools across the state in an effort to get students interested in the language.

English and Hawaiian are the two official languages of Hawaii. But for many years, Hawaiian has been in danger of disappearing.

The Hawaiian Islands were made by volcanoes. They lie in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about 4,000 kilometers from the United States mainland.

Hawaii's native population came from Polynesia, a collection of hundreds of islands in the North and South Pacific.

In 1778, the British explorer James Cook and his men landed in what is now Hawaii. At the time, the local population spoke only the Hawaiian language. Later, Christian missionaries wrote the language down and produced books for the natives.

The area became a protectorate of Britain and was later ruled by a king. Over time, a large foreign influence over Hawaii's politics and economics led to English being declared the official language. In 1896, schools banned use of the Hawaiian language.

Maleka Benjamin, 9, of Honolulu, listens to her 3rd grade kumu (teacher) Nakoolani Warrington at Kikula Kaipuni o Anueanue, a public Hawaiian immersion school in Honolulu, March 9, 2005. (AP PHOTO/Lucy Pemoni)
Maleka Benjamin, 9, of Honolulu, listens to her 3rd grade kumu (teacher) Nakoolani Warrington at Kikula Kaipuni o Anueanue, a public Hawaiian immersion school in Honolulu, March 9, 2005. (AP PHOTO/Lucy Pemoni)

The United States annexed the territory in 1898 and Hawaii became a U.S. colony two years later. In 1959, Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state.

During the 1970s, a movement began to seek wider use of the Hawaiian language. Education officials again permitted the use of Hawaiian in schools. But today, the language is still not widely spoken on the islands.

The cultural agency of the United Nations – UNESCO – lists the Hawaiian language as "critically endangered." Hawaiian state officials estimated in 2016 that only about 5.7 percent of people living in the state speak Hawaiian at home.

For this reason, officials in Hawaii decided to try a fun, new way to increase interest in the language among the younger generation.

The University of Hawaii launched the project to re-record Moana in Hawaiian. Officials said the production was a major effort involving the translation of about 10,000 words and new recordings of 4,000 pieces of audio.

Moana insists the demigod Maui teach her to sail.
Moana insists the demigod Maui teach her to sail.

The movie tells the story of Moana, a teenage girl from ancient Polynesia who decides she must act to save her people. She uses the help of a demigod named Maui, who guides Moana through a series of exciting, often dangerous experiences.

Auli'i Cravalho is a native Hawaiian actor who starred in the 2016 film's lead as Moana. Her voice was used in the English version. But she also got the chance to re-record her parts in Hawaiian.

Cravalho said at the movie's Hawaiian language launch that she believes the project will go a long way to help more people hear and study Hawaiian.

"It is amazing to know that I'm making a difference in my community, that this language will be able to be heard around the world, that Hawaii, and Hawaiian, is on the map - that it's a proud culture."

Other native Hawaiians were chosen to voice other parts. Kaipu Baker provided the voice for Maui, the movie's other main character.

"Seeing us become native Hawaiian performers in our own language. That's really what this project is about for me."

Kalehua Kawa voiced the part of Moana's grandmother.

"This is a nice showing not only to our students, but to everyone, that ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi is here, it is an official language of Hawaii. It's out here, it's in the community."

The University of Hawaii said in a statement the Hawaiian version of the movie is being given to all schools across the state for free. They are hoping the film can be a starting point to encourage students to learn the language.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

missionary n. person who travels to another country to teach people about religion

annexv. to add to something; to take for oneself

critically adj. extremely serious or dangerous

translation – n. the act of taking spoken or written material in one language and putting it in another language

demigod n. a person (in ancient stories) who is partly human and partly a god

proud adj. feeling pleased and happy about one's self

encourage v. help someone to feel confident and able to do something

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