In the Spotlight – Linda Lambrecht

Linda Lambrecht

Photo: Linda Lambrecht addresses the audience during the 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation held at UH Manoa in 2013

As one of the longest-tenured members and advocates of the Hawai’i Deaf community, Linda Lambrecht has seen her share of milestones.

For years she has been a staple with the Aloha State Association of the Deaf (ASAD), the state affiliate of the nation’s premier civil rights organization of, by, and for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing individuals. She has taught American Sign Language (ASL) for over 40 years, including at Kapiolani Community College (KCC) and Honolulu Community College (HCC). Lambrecht also champions the Deaf kupuna community, as well as the alumni of the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind (HSDB). Just this past year, she rolled up her sleeves to start the first-ever Hall of Fame at HSDB.

But for this “In the Spotlight” piece, Lambrecht wanted to discuss another issue, one she considers to be deeply personal and dear to her heart. In fact, it involves one of the prouder moments in her life of advocacy, which took place earlier this decade.

In 2013, a research group (which included Lambrecht) based in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa – announced the confirmation of the existence of a previously undocumented language in Hawai’i called Hawai’i Sign Language (HSL). Since then, Lambrecht has tirelessly advocated for the proper documentation and preservation of HSL.

“It is one of our culture’s greatest treasures,” Lambrecht said of HSL. “It is so important that it is preserved, and this is what keeps me up and about these days.”

HSL is the indigenous language of Deaf people in Hawai’i, and is only one of two known surviving sign languages in the United States. The other is American Sign Language (ASL), the primary language of many within the Deaf community in the U.S. Lambrecht, who is one of six siblings born to hearing Chinese parents, grew up fluent in both ASL and HSL. She attributes this to being the youngest of her family’s three Deaf children, where her two older Deaf siblings served as her language models.

For centuries, signed language was considered by society as a primitive form of gestural communication. Thanks to advances in research, signed languages have been recognized as complete, natural human languages. Signed languages – like spoken languages – have their own full-fledged vocabulary and grammar. The Linguistic Society of America has emphasized how signed languages offer the same rich opportunities for expression and communication that spoken languages use, but through use of a different sensory modality.

While ASL was recognized as a language in the 1960s, HSL remained undocumented for most of Lambrecht’s life. The idea of recognizing and preserving HSL was first presented to her by a linguist in the 1980s, though no serious effort was put forth until 2010.

Through support from various entities, including UH Manoa’s Department of Linguistics, Lambrecht was able to lead a team that located and interviewed elderly Deaf people and adult children of Deaf parents on four of the Hawaiian Islands. Lambrecht explained how analyses of video records of those interviews identified a substantial set of vocabulary items and grammatical features of HSL.

With HSL officially recognized as a bona fide language, the challenge now is preserving something that is on the cusp of linguistic extinction. For Lambrecht, they key to preventing this lies in working with supporters with a greater sense of urgency. She is currently working with UH Manoa and other stakeholder groups to further efforts to properly preserve the language she grew up with.

“The people of this state for many years worked together and fought to preserve the Hawaiian language and culture,” Lambrecht recalled. “I feel the same effort must be put into preserving HSL – without it, Hawaiian Deaf Culture will never be the same.”

For more information, contact Linda Lambrecht at aslteal@gmail.com.