Inuit language conference an English-only event

Dialects pose barrier to common understanding by delegates

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

When delegates to an international youth conference on Inuit languages met in Iqaluit last week, they were unable to conduct any of their working sessions in their native tongue or dialects.

Instead, the group of about 20 youth and elders at the Inuit Circumpolar Youth Council’s first symposium on Inuit languages found they had to speak English to be understood by everyone.

Although many of the delegates from Greenland, Russia, Alaska and Canada could speak their native tongue, it was often difficult for others at the conference, held in Iqaluit’s Legislative Assembly, to understand each other’s dialects.

That’s just one of the obstacles for young Inuit who want to see their languages revived.

The Government of Nunavut, for example, says it will make Inuktitut its working language by 2020, but it lacks a comprehensive strategy to make this happen.

In Alaska, as well as in Canada, delegates learned, there are few Inuktitut speaking teachers, and the ones that are produced are often poached by government departments seeking bilingual staffers.

There are other problems, such as a shortage of materials for people learning an Inuit language, or studying academic subjects in their native languages. When there are materials, the standards are often not as high, and there are fewer steps in the editing process than one might find in English textbooks.

Young people who can speak their language feel the weight of the responsibility this brings, and an urgent need to impress the importance of speaking Inuit languages upon their peers.

One way they hope to do that is to make Inuit languages “cool” said Miali-Elise Coley, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Youth Council, in her opening speech at the symposium, which she offered in Inuktitut and English.

For that reason, delegates at the symposium worked on a “hipification” strategy report, coming out in February 2006.

During an opening session of the symposium, delegates explained – often in a language incomprehensible to others, why they were there.

“Language is a part of our culture,” said Greenlander Ivaaq C. Poulsen when asked why it was important for him to be at the conference. “We have this ability as Inuit to open a door to get guidance from spirits.”

“I wish being at home was more like this,” said Qaiyaan Harcharek, who traveled from Alaska to attend the three-day event. “Hearing young people speaking Inuktitut.”

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