The notion of fluency

Wali. Wali. Turn it over in your mouth a few times. Feels good, yeah? The definition above speaks of smooth poi and supple bodies of dancers. What it doesn’t show, though, is the common colloquial use of this word to talk about a person speaking a language well or fluently.

Ua wali loa ka ʻōlelo iā ia – S/he speaks with such fluency/so well.

Was does this phrase really mean? Does it mean a person has a fluidity to their speech? That their language is of a desirable consistency to the ear? That it has been so long in their mouth that it comes out smoothly when spoken? That their tongue is supple and limber, able to manipulate the language in ways that sound really ʻono, like how well-pounded poi tastes? No lumps and bumps, but a smooth and lovely finish? Like how finely mixed ʻawa slides down the throat?

ʻĪ akula ʻo Kamalālāwalu iā Lonoikamakahiki: “E hele kāua i ka heʻenalu a hoʻi mai ua wali ka ʻawa.” (Ka moʻolelo o Lonoikamakahiki) – Kamalālāwalu said to Lonoikamakahiki, “Let us go surfing and when we get back the ʻawa will be mixed.”

Those images are the way I like to think about wali. It is a great visual for me when trying to improve my own ʻōlelo: smoothness, a fine consistency, good texture and flavor, pleasant going down. Sometimes I feel like it’s just ʻūʻū and ʻāʻā when I try to express myself. Harsh, I know, but the reality of being raised in one language and trying to become fluent in another. 

O ka hapanui o na olelo o ia leka, aole hiki ia Eseparana ke hoomaopopo he ai paakiki wale no e hiki ole e ai e wali ia ia (Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, 24 November 1927) – The majority of the statements in that letter were unintelligible to Eseperana, like tough food she could not chew soft

Listening to native speakers has been my saving grace. I think I might have lost steam along the way had that not become a major obsession. All thanks are due to my Hawaiian 101 & 102 teacher, Kapulani Antonio, who handed me a stack of Ka Leo Hawaiʻi cassettes back in early 2002. That simple gesture of gratitude changed the course of my life entirely.  The practical, grounded wisdom of the kūpuna helped me to find my footing at a time when I was still unsure about certain parts of my identity and how to articulate all that swirled around inside of me. Neither of us knew I would go on to get a masters degree in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi using those same tapes for my thesis project.

In retrospect, and all frankness, it feels like all that degree did was take the training wheels off my bike. Now I am free to wobble around and explore, supposedly on my own steam and using my own balance. The main thing I learned is that there is SO much more to learn. And my teachers would probably say that they were successful if that was the outcome.

But I feel like that was just the beginning. Since I graduated in 2014, I have been wishing there was somewhere else I could go to be around other speakers and up my game.  2014 also happens to be the year that Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo, the school for excellence in te reo Māori (the Māori language), celebrated a decade of existence

This place of learning helps deeply committed students to attain a level of excellence in te reo Māori that is hard to get elsewhere. Co-founder Pou Temara says, “We take our students from a level of fluency [in the language] to its mastery.” I think speakers like this might be a step or two above wali, or poeko or ʻōlelo paheʻe. Maybe mīkololohua? This very question is proof we need a school like this.

And my hopes for one might soon be answered. Kaliko Baker is one of several people interested in starting a school modeled off Te Panekiretanga. A nice piece on it aired not long ago on the Māori language news show Te Karere that you can watch here with subtitles. Te Wānanga O Aotearoa also did an awesome piece you can watch here.

What about you, e ke hoa? What helps you to build your fluency? What do you need to help you on your language learning journey? Pehea e wali ai ka ʻōlelo iā kākou? Leave a comment below.

E ola ka ʻōlelo o ka ʻāina!