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Leilani <span aria-label="Poliahu">Poliʻahu</span> Kamalani
Leilani Poliʻahu Kamalani

***Pepeluali (February) marks Mahina ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi or Hawaiian Language Month

Every weekday, Hawaiʻi Public Radio (HPR) listeners are greeted by a familiar and lively Hawaiian guitar strum that marks the beginning of a 30-second Hawaiian language lesson. The popular ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) segment features a Hawaiian word of the day, a staple on HPR since 1994 and will mark its 30th anniversary this July. Hosted by Leilani Poliʻahu, a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa alumna, the series explores ʻōlelo (words) encompassing everyday objects, people and places in Hawaiʻi. Interestingly, Poliʻahu assumed the role of the series’ voice while she was a haumāna (student) at the Mānoa campus.

“Radio seemed less intimidating than TV because nobody has to see you, they just hear your voice,” said Poliʻahu.

From classroom to airwaves

Newspaper photo
(From right) File: 1994, Poliʻahu and UH Mānoa student Kumulāʻau Sing read the news in Hawaiian at HPR. (Credit: Ka Wai Ola News, Office of Hawaiian Affairs)

Poliʻahu, who now carries her husband’s surname of Kamalani, recalled the idea to launch an ʻōlelo of the day segment stemmed from Hawaiʻi musician Keith Haugen who was taking Hawaiian language classes with her at UH Mānoa. Haugen proposed the segment, along with a brief ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi newscast, to HPR. The result was the debut of “Ke Aolama” in January 1994, featuring five-minute long news reads narrated by UH Mānoa Hawaiian language students such as Poliʻahu and Tammy Hailiʻōpua Baker. Baker went on to become a UH Mānoa kumu ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language teacher) and an award-winning director of the university’s first-ever Hawaiian theatre program.

Poliʻahu’s passion for ʻōlelo blossomed at UH Mānoa while pursuing an accounting degree. The Kāneʻohe native took Japanese classes all through high school but decided to try Hawaiian in college. After just four years, she achieved semi-fluency in Hawaiʻi’s native tongue.

“The teachers really did a great job of getting us to love it,” said Poliʻahu. “A lot of Hawaiian language students that were in class with me became teachers.”

A new destiny

Family photo
Poliʻahu and her parents (bottom row), husband Keao, five keiki (children) and moʻopuna wahine (granddaughter).

After graduating from UH Mānoa’s business school in December 1994, Poliʻahu had her heart set on becoming a Hawaiian language kumu and pursued additional studies to earn elementary education certification from the College of Education. In fall 1995, she contributed to the opening of Ke Kula Kaiapuni ʻO Ānuenue, a K–12 Hawaiian language immersion school in Pālolo. Today, she continues her role there as an academic coordinator.

“It’s more than a job. It’s kind of a mission. It’s an extra reward knowing that we’re doing something valuable for the lāhui (nation), for the Hawaiian people.”

Hawaiian word of the day airs on Hawaiʻi Public Radio weekdays at 7:30 a.m. and 5:29 p.m. on HPR-1, and at 3 p.m. on HPR-2.

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