Dissolving Language Barriers in Hauula


Article Contest 1st Place Winner

Our ward in the Laie-Hawaii Stake includes many families from the South Pacific who make valuable contributions to the celebrated Polynesian Cultural Center. While most are fluent in the English language, some are not. There are grandparents, homemakers, and newly arrived relatives who lack English skills or are reluctant to use what little English they do know.

As a member of the Hauula First Ward Relief Society, I became accustomed to seeing groups of Polynesian sisters dismiss to adjoining rooms for classes where Tahitian, Tongan, and Samoan were spoken. Then they would reappear in time for the closing song and prayer. I always stayed in the English session, watching those women come and go, never knowing their names, where they lived, or what they discussed. I knew nothing of their backgrounds or of their families and had no conversations with them, feeling that I couldn’t communicate because of the language barrier.

Having the sisters taught in their respective cultural languages had been a long-accepted practice in many wards, despite the problems of calling special teachers to accommodate the needs of a few. And though there was an underlying awkwardness in the division, all of us, including the Polynesian sisters, acknowledged the separation of classes as a necessity—the only way everyone could understand the message. Ironically, we were missing the greatest message of all.

In August 1977, the stake presidency called a special meeting for Relief Society stake and ward officers. The presidency, themselves of Samoan, Hawaiian, and Tongan ancestry, gave us the inspired challenge to dissolve the language sessions in order to unify the sisters as daughters of Zion. They admonished us to teach with skill, patience, and love.

The news had a numbing effect on us, but the Spirit’s influence was there. We shed tears in response to testimonies borne by two Polynesian sisters who felt that this new policy was indeed inspired.

Still, the actual implementation of the directive made some flounder in a sea of new problems. Some sisters were confused or bored or incensed at the change. Teachers complained about communication problems. Ward “cultural leaders,” called to assist in the transition, were unsure of their responsibilities.

In my own calling as Spiritual Living teacher, I pondered and prayed over the challenge. I did not know how I was going to meet it, but I knew in all certainty that the Lord would show the way.

The answers came to me like baby steps, one focused effort at a time, through the monthly in-service lessons. Each time I received a specific teaching principle, I examined possible ways it could enlighten the sisters who didn’t speak English.

The first concept was “reaching the one.” Determined to reach those who had stopped coming because of the combined classes, I photocopied a number of lessons from a Spiritual Living text printed in Samoan, marking main ideas and scriptural references for study. Then, with a shoulder-borne baby, a tailing two-year-old, and a prayer in my heart, I walked through clusters of Polynesian homes and cheerfully distributed the lessons to the sisters. I received stares, chuckles, polite thank-yous, and, twice, brush-offs in return. As an American of Chinese-Hawaiian heritage, I was amused to hear children referring to me as the “Japanese” or “Filipino lady outside.” Some families were suspicious of me: “What’s this one selling … or collecting?” If they had only known what I was trying to collect!

The following week, two Samoan sisters came with their photocopies of the lesson and their scriptures. Others, who spoke only Tahitian and Tongan, were each given a written lesson summary, previously elicited from bilingual ward members. The nods, the thoughtful expressions, the collective scripture-searching told me we were moving in the right direction.

Other in-service concepts given in the next few months dealt with communicating effectively, teaching with variety, focusing on the main idea, and using real-life problems. I methodically applied them all, my lesson preparation becoming more sensitive to the Spirit as precept built upon precept. It took hours of effort, not only on my part, but on the part of stake leaders, ward officers, and bilingual brothers and sisters. I used visual translations and live interpreters many times, but felt that they should only be incidental to my own preparation. The responsibility to teach Spiritual Living still rested primarily with me, and I wished to avoid having the spirit of the lesson lost in the mechanics of language.

Quiet progress became evident after a while. The attendance increased markedly. Sisters became accustomed to seeing and sometimes reading aloud language subtitles that punctuated the main ideas or posed questions for thought. Among the panorama of mounted visual aids were displays of their own fine mats, quilts, and family portraits, each creating an avenue of interest toward the objective. They heard bits of island wisdom which paralleled gospel truths; they participated in role-playing situations where names and circumstances were adapted to “hit home”; they heard returned missionaries and themselves on tape; they hummed or sang prelude music, Polynesian-style, when there was no pianist. One time the “social” seating pattern was subtly rearranged by color-coded smile stickers, and preassigned leaders conducted the women in uninhibited small-group discussion. Sometimes I used much-rehearsed cultural greetings, synonyms, expressions of gratitude, and requests for participation.

With all of its redirection and occasionally unusual methods, the bilingual teaching approach did not cause suffering among the “ninety and nine”; they had never ceased to be a part of the action. Instead, a meeting of the minds and a genuine feeling of sisterhood began to develop between the two groups. Thoughts on child discipline, home management, and spiritual growth were freely exchanged as usual, but the atmosphere was heightened with an extraordinary awareness from all sides. It seemed that the crutch of language classes had actually hindered some women in successfully interacting with their sisters, but now there was a mutual enjoyment of humor, talent, and testimony.

The English-speaking women sensed that linguistic differences did not imply inferiority: the South Pacific sisters not only began to exhibit admirable command of a second language, but they also revealed personal histories wrought with strength and sacrifice for the Church. They discovered in each other former MIA teachers, Relief Society officers, labor missionaries, and Primary presidents who had dedicated much of their lives serving Heavenly Father.

The language barrier was significantly crossed one day when I preassigned three English-speaking sisters to read a scripture in Tahitian, Tongan, and Samoan. They self-consciously mouthed their way through the assignment, the smiling Polynesian sisters nodding them on at every hesitation. A Samoan sister then read the scripture in English: “John 13:35. … By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” At the close of the meeting, babies found themselves caught in huddles as sisters embraced in love and praise.

“Very good!” I heard a Polynesian sister say to one who had read, patting her cheek.

“It’s good. I see!” a Tahitian sister said happily.

I had to gulp my swelling emotions. We were all beginning to “see.”

Then one day, after I had presented a lesson on turning our weaknesses into strengths, a sister stood, weeping while bearing testimony in her native tongue. Suddenly she rushed over to where I sat and embraced me, kissing me time and time again.

“Thank you, thank you!” she sobbed.

The revelation hit me with unexpected force. We were truly sisters in God’s kingdom! She was not just a Samoan sister; she was my sister, and I really loved her. With so many previous dawnings of knowledge, I should have been prepared to experience this realm of the Spirit; yet I was trembling, and the tears flowed unrestrained. Language and culture were not classroom barriers to understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ. I had seen and felt the Spirit transcend these earthly differences many times over.

We feel that the challenge to dissolve language classes was certainly inspired for the women in our ward, although we recognize that language classes and branches may continue to be appropriate in other areas of the Church. It is understandable that solutions to challenges are not always universal.

As for the Hauula First Ward, four years ago it was divided into two wards. Now, as the novice president of the Hauula Third Ward Relief Society, I hear no disgruntled questioning of why we should all meet together. Our women have adapted well, and I am grateful for the excellent teachers who are sensitive to their sisters’ needs, linguistic, cultural, or otherwise. Looking about our crowded Relief Society room, I feel blessed to learn the gospel with sisters from all walks of life, from different age groups, from many rich heritages. Recently in a closing hymn, a verse from “Onward, Christian Soldiers” struck a chord within me:

We are not divided,
All one body we,
One in hope and doctrine,
One in charity.

(Hymns, no. 128.)

And my heart sang out above my voice.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Jillair Henrie Robinson