Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Around the Arctic February 08, 2011 - 12:40 pm

Could iPad save the Inuit language?

”The technology needs to empower the culture”

See this iPad screen? The multi-touch applications and keyboard common to this new device, as well as telephones, is what could save Inutktitut syllabics, a  U.S. researcher says. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)
See this iPad screen? The multi-touch applications and keyboard common to this new device, as well as telephones, is what could save Inutktitut syllabics, a U.S. researcher says. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)

Inuktitut syllabics need a user-friendly computer format to keep Inuktitut strong, says a U.S. communications expert and linguist.

Roman orthography is the choice of most literate Inuit who use popular social networking sites such Facebook and instant messenger services.

Inuit who communicate in Greenlandic or Inuinnaqtun can easily use these computer applications and services — but the same doesn’t apply to Inuit in the regions of Nunavut and Nunavik who write Inuktitut in syllabics.

More and more they dump syllabics and even good Inuktitut, resorting to a kind of patch-work language to communicate, like this example taken from Facebook: “tomorrowauppa morningraalukkut awakelalirivit.”

But the future doesn’t have to be broken Inuktitut, according to Tim Pasch, an assistant professor of communication at the University of North Dakota, who says it would be easy to integrate Inuktitut language tools right into Facebook, Bebo and instant messenger services.

“It would be easy to get Inuktitut syllabics on to computers using an overlay. This would be the kind of touch keyboard now found on iPhones and iPads, but it would be for Inuktitut. No more special keyboard and complicated key strokes touches required,” Pasch told Nunatsiaq News.

All a user would have to do is activate the keyboard.

Pasch wants to see the inclusion of a package of easy-to-use language tools, such as dictionaries, grammars, syllabic templates, fonts, put right into Bebo, Facebook, and other information and communication technologies — and, with support from U.S. granting agencies, he’s already explored the possibilities.

Pasch was able to study Inuktitut with language experts Mick Mallon and Alexina Kublu, visit Nunavik and produce a 350-page doctoral dissertation in 2008, called “Inuktitut Online in Nunavik: Mixed-Methods Web-Based Strategies for Preserving Aboriginal and Minority Languages.”

His study left him more convinced that culture shouldn’t have to change to adjust to the technology.

“The technology should have to adapt. I think the technology needs to empower the culture instead of diluting it. I’d like the technology to enhance the culture,” Pasch said.

And now that technology exists to make this reality, he said, due to the virtual keyboards, which are common to new electronic communication devices.

What’s more, it’s even possible to supercede a conventional computer keyboard with a virtual keyboard.

The problem with the older syllabic keyboards is that “young people won’t use them — it’s a nightmare.”

With social networks like Bebo and Facebook being so English-oriented, there’s little encouragement for Inuit to even try to use syllabics.

But touch screens has opened a way to changing this, said Pasch, who’s working with the Montreal-based company NunaSoft to develop the free multi-touch ware for Inuktitut.

“It has to be easy, fun and attractive to use,” said Pasch — and free if support from the National Science Foundation to preserve the language on-line comes through. “It’s so important for it be easy and fun. There’s nothing worse than something that looks clunky and hard.”

But why preserve syllabics when some would like to see this system, first started by missionaries in the 1800s, dumped?

Pasch says syllabics are part of Inuit history and “syllabics can also express the language [sounds] more accurately.”

A similar debate about the use of characters is going on in Japan, where some want to get rid of the symbols used for writing Japanese in “Romaji,” which Pasch, who also speaks Japanese, calls a way of writing Japanese in English. And some of the sounds are lost, he adds.

In Nunavik, the Internet is already seen by many as a danger to Inuktitut, Pasch found.

“Elders said they’re worried because they can’t communicate with their grandchildren,” he said.

About 70 per cent of computer users in Inukjuak also told him their Internet use wasn’t helping with their use of Inuktitut.

But with the multi-touch technology, Pasch said more youth would become proficient in syllabics because
“the more you use it, the better you get.”

The multi-touch Inuktitut ware could be used as a learning tool in schools.

“It’s not just to give you the option to write in syllabics, it’s to let you see the syllabics in real time, and it would be simple,” he said.

In addition to the introduction of multi-touch screens, Pasch would also like to see more training for Inuit Internet technology specialists, more use of YouTube to get Inuktitut out on the Internet and more instruction on Internet safety.

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