Inuktitut ilinniarumavisi? Nunavut’s neophyte linguists

The government of Nunavut has begun to offer Inuktitut language classes to new employees from the South.


IQALUIT — A $200,000 pilot project aims to put Inuktitut into every Nunavut government office in Iqaluit.
The government’s long-term language strategy is still a work in progress, but, nonetheless, around 80 Nunavut civil servants are now grappling with new government jobs and learning a new language.

Divided into groups of 20 students who meet either in the morning or at night, they’re mastering the difference between such words as “qanuippit?” and “kinauvit?”, “iqaluk” and “iqaluit”, “inuk” and “inuit.”

They’re learning how to answer the phone, utter a confident “ullaakkut” or “unnusakkut” and properly pronounce the names of Nunavut’s three regions.

Some students at a recent class session seem confident and eager, others more than a little embarassed. Learning a new language as an adult isn’t easy, but according to one keen student, the promise of improved communication makes this humbling experience bearable.

Administrative confusion

Although the Nunavut government issued a call for tenders to offer Inuktitut instruction last spring, this fall’s language classes were organized — at the last minute — through Nunavut Arctic College.

None of the new government employees were forced to participate, and there were no sanctions against those who decided that they didn’t have the time or interest to take the courses.

But the turnout from some departments is, in fact, extremely high. Non-Inuit personnel in the justice department have enthusiastically thrown themselves into the courses. At one point, they even tacked new Inuktitut words around the office, and Inuktitut-speaking colleagues are lending them a hand.

The students’ gusto has surprised veteran teacher Mick Mallon.

Mallon, who has taught Inuktitut for 30 years, said he’s enjoying the classes much more than he expected.

“It’s as if they already bought into what we are going to do,” Mallon said. “They’ve accepted it as a fact that they’re going to study the language.”

Mallon said some students will go on to the three-week intensive Inuktitut class that’s generally offered at Arctic College in the spring.

Some may eventually become fairly functional in the language, although Mallon said it’s hard for non-Inuit adult speakers to ever become fluent.

“Let’s be honest,” Mallon said. “How good did most of my students get to be?”

Many of Mallon’s former students do speak Inuktitut, but he said he can’t take credit for their success. He said that would be like a kindergarten teacher taking credit for the achievements of a rocket scientist.

A new language school?

But Mallon doesn’t downplay the importance of learning Inuktitut.

He’d like to see the Nunavut government fund a new Inuktitut language school, similar to the federal government’s Eskimo Language School of the 1960s.

This would allow instruction to spread more easily outside Iqaluit reach all of the estimated 1300 civil servants who don’t speak the language and include teaching of the Inuinnaqtun dialect.

“As time goes on, the effort will be made,” said Eva Arreak, who will shortly be leaving Nunavut’s department of Human Resources to become Nunavut’s first Official Languages Commissioner.

Arreak said that using Nunavut Arctic College to deliver the language training makes sense, at least for the immediate future.

But she said that the government won’t back down on its determination to promote Inuktitut as the language of work in public offices and to help civil servants reach that goal.

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