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Language of life

New trilingual curriculum in Greenland strengthens English-language education



AASIAAT, Greenland — The students in the senior English class at Gammeqarfik elementary school stare intently at their guest, a genuine Canadian — from the Arctic no less. And they’re anxious to hear what the language they’ve been studying actually sounds like.

Trouble is, few of them can understand a word of it.

English is a required subject for students in Greenland, though they are unlikely to learn enough of it in their nine mandatory years of education to gain even a basic understanding.

The phrase scrawled on the blackboard at the front of the room says something about a brown-haired girl and a small dog, and the workbook asks questions like “What is your favourite food?” and “What is your favourite colour?”

The more advanced of the students have managed to answer the question that asks them to fill in their name.

But a working knowledge of English is not necessary for daily life in Greenland. For the vast majority of the 600 students at Gammeqarfik, their first language is Greenlandic, a dialect of Inuktitut. And as the secondary school curriculum is largely a copy of the Danish system, it fosters a strong knowledge of Danish as well.

But Greenland educators are discovering that if Greenlandic students are to become citizens of the world — to use the Internet and pursue higher education — they must be able to communicate in it.

So just last month, as a new school year began, primary schools in Greenland introduced a new trilingual curriculum, meant to provide the next generation of students with a solid foundation in Greenlandic, Danish and English.

Work began on the new curriculum in 1998. In early 2001, Greenlandic educators discussed their plans with education officials in Nunavut, saying Greenland schools are producing a generation of young adults who can speak only one language, Greenlandic.

And as Nunavut education officials look to Greenland for direction in developing a curriculum to strengthen Inuktitut education, they might also take some lessons in the importance of English.

The “new law,” as Sara Brandt, the leader, or principal of Gammeqarfik, calls it, introduces not just a new language of study, but also a new type of education.

It’s an experimental system, she says, that will introduce English in the 4th Grade instead of the 7th.

“English — here it’s the second foreign language they learn,” she says.

But the “new law” is not just about language-instruction, it will also create a new type of educational environment, one that will allow parents to direct their child’s education.

“It’s a completely new form of school study — at your own level instead of classes,” Brandt says.

Parent involvement allows Greenland schools to focus strictly on academics and modern studies, while leaving traditional education to the family. Gammeqarfik’s music room is filled with enough equipment to outfit several rock bands, but not one cultural troupe.

“There is not much drum dancing, but drums, guitar, the new music,” a school official says.

So by the time they get to secondary school, there’s much more time for subjects like chemistry and biology, because students already have a thorough background in kayaking and whale hunting.

In fact, despite the school system’s focus on academics, Aasiaat, a fishing village in the Disko Bay region of northern Greenland with a population of 3,500, remains one of the most traditional communities in the country.

“The dream of every young boy in Greenland is to stand on a boat and be in command,” says Gert Molgaard, a math teacher and administrator at Avannaani Ilinniarnertuunngorniarfik, Aasiaat’s secondary school.

The school, known commonly as GU Aasiaat, unabashedly immerses its 250 students in a strict academic system — based almost entirely in Danish.

“The goal in public school is teaching in Greenlandic, but not here,” Molgaard says. “It’s important they learn to work with Danish as a language. If they go on from here, they have to go somewhere to get higher education.”

But too few students go on to higher education, Molgaard says, estimating less than half of his school’s students will pursue university training.

A strong background in English may give future students more options, and even the confidence to go abroad.

But studies in Danish and English won’t change the importance of Greenlandic in village life. Molgaard says his job, as an educator, is not to alter that reality.

“If you have any job whatsoever, you have to understand Greenlandic.”

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