Can GN meet language deadline when students only speak English?
Struggling to keep Inuinnaqtun alive
CAMBRIDGE BAY – Raven Beardy and Alice Ehalok chat in English as they paint a mural of an inuksuk on Kiilinik Ilihakvik's walls.
Like the other 260 students at Kiilinik high school, they also speak in English in school.
So it's hard to imagine them fluently speaking Inuinnaqtun while at work in 2020, the year the Government of Nunavut wants Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun to become the working languages of the territory.
Bella "Aopak" Lucas, 44, a teacher's aide at Kiilinik and a former Inuinnaqtun teacher, says the government and Nunavummiut must act now to meet this goal.
"If they want to do it, they have to do it right now," Lucas says.
Inuinnaqtun is like "music to her ears," she says, but she doesn't hear it at home or even in the community very often.
English is spoken everywhere in Cambridge Bay, while Inuinnaqtun is spoken mostly by elders or younger people who grew up with their grandparents.
At the local child care centre, tots wear traditional Kikitmeot-style parkas of gingham with hoods rimmed in a starburst of fur. But as these young children play outside, English is the language they speak and hear from their caregivers.
In an effort to revive Inuinnaqtun among youth, a kindergarten program at Cambridge Bay's elementary school wanted to provide Inuinnaqtun immersion, but this year the class lost its teacher and some momentum.
Junior high school students at Kiilinik take hour-long Inuinnaqtun classes several times a week with the school's sole Inuinnaqtun teacher, Connie Kapolak.
During a recent class, her Grade 8 students write about their best friends, using simple sentences to describe their favourite pastimes, such as walking or going to the store together.
Some students enthusiastically draw and write on their computer notebooks. But some, mainly the boys, appear to idly scribble and just pass time until class is over.
Kapolak doesn't see how any of her students, even the best, will be able to work in Inuinnaqtun.
"We're almost at 2020, and none of these kids could do it," says Kapolak.
Kapolak says she isn't sure why Inuinnaqtun, her mother tongue, has faded from daily use in Cambridge Bay. She learned to speak Inuinnaqtun while growing up in Bay Chimo and Bathurst Inlet.
But when she went to school in Cambridge Bay, she boarded at the hostel, where only English was spoken. By then, English was already the dominant language in the community.
Some say the construction of the DEW-line site in early 1950s was the beginning of Inuinnaqtun's decline.
Kapolak hung on to her Inuinnaqtun only because she spoke with elders when she returned home from school for vacations. Today, at 34, she and her sisters are among the youngest fluent speakers of Inuinnaqtun in Cambridge Bay, population 1,500.
Kapolak can count only a couple of students in high school who understand Inuinnaqtun well – but they don't speak it.
That doesn't stop Kapolak from trying to pass on her language to a new generation.
Kapolak comes up with her own materials, sometimes drawing inspiration from exercise books she used as a child. She's decorated her classroom with lists of Inuinnaqtun words and useful bits of grammar she hopes her students will master.
But Kapolak doesn't rely only on pens and paper to teach. When Kapolak wants the students to learn the word "sit" in Inuinnaqtun, she shows them what it means by sitting down.
Kapolak says this helps students to understand the meaning of words. After a "silent period" of about three to four weeks of listening and following directions in Inuinnaqtun, her students are ready to talk, read and write.
But many don't see the sense in learning Inuinnaqtun because it's "always English" in the hallways, playground and home.
Kapolak speaks a mixture of Inuinnaqtun and English to her own children.
But without the reinforcement of speaking Inuinnaqtun to other adults, she says she sometimes forgets words and has to call her aunt in Bathurst Inlet for help. She says she misses speaking Inuinnaqtun because when she speaks the language she feels it's easier for her to express herself fully.
Kapolak says she's looking forward to going back to Bathurst Inlet with her children next year.
But her departure means Kiilinik will be without an Inuinnaqtun teacher.
If the Inuninnaqtun classes stop, she says when she or another teacher comes in it will be like starting from scratch.