New federal language money welcomed

Though Inuktitut is Canada’s healthiest aboriginal language, there are many who worry if it will survive, and in what form it will survive.


Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT – Canada’s national aboriginal groups can expect renewed support this year from the federal government to preserve and protect native languages.

“New moneys were identified,” Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart said last week during her visit to Iqaluit, “and we will build appropriate language preservation and expansion programs that are reflective of the needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.”

A member of the Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC) welcomes the news, and said recently that at least part of any extra money for aboriginal languages should be funneled into Inuit schools.

Despite progress on many fronts in recent years, “we’re going to have to do more work in the classrooms,” Peter Ernerk said.

Inuktitut the healthiest

Inuktitut is regarded as the healthiest of all aboriginal languages in Canada today. Results of surveys conducted for the 1996 Census show that almost three-quarters of Canadian Inuit can converse in their mother tongue.

By comparison, only 35 per cent of North American Indians in Canada are able to speak an aboriginal language.

Although great efforts have been made in the Northwest Territories to promote Inuktitut in education and in official communications, there are those who warn that Inuktitut is no longer immune to the effects of displacement and erosion that have claimed aboriginal languages in the South.

True, Inuit can find Inuktitut content in television and radio shows, on CBC North, on TVNC, and on local FM stations, but its impact is certainly lessened by the overwhelming glut of popular English programming.

Although Inuktitut is formally recognized as one of Nunavut’s official languages and is expected to become the working language of the Nunavut government, observers note that Inuktitut is undergoing a rapid evolution.

NIC language conference next March

Concerns about the fate of Inuktitut are expected to be publicly aired when the NIC hosts its conference on language next March.

Anthropologist Louis-Jacques Dorais, who is studying the use of Inuktitut in Nunavut, observes that English seems to have been “internalized” by so many Inuit that a “bilingual way of speaking” is emerging.

“Especially in a place like Iqaluit,” Dorais says, where “most people” are probably bilingual people.

“It’s as if both Inuktitut and English are first languages for many people. It’s like having one language that comes from two completely different sources, and you just draw on these language resources when you need, and sometimes you jump from one to the other, without thinking.”

In 1984 the NWT’s Department of Education, Culture and Employment received federal funding to begin work on an Inuit curriculum. Elders, educators and parents from each of the regions contributed to the research, which took several years to complete.

Inuktitut curriculum document now in use

The result was a document, published by the NWT’s education department in 1996, entitled Inuuqatigiit.

Conceived and developed as a guide to help Nunavut teachers integrate Inuit history, traditions and language into daily school instruction, practically speaking, Innuqatigit is just a starting point – a foundation on which Inuit education in Nunavut can eventually be built.

The dearth of Inuktitut text books and other educational materials, however, has placed limits on the scope of Inuktitut-language instruction in the schools.

And it is in the classrooms that Inuktitut faces at once a singular opportunity to flourish and the greatest threat to its survival.

A generation ago, the use of native languages in northern schools was almost unheard of, and Inuit teachers decried the lack of teaching materials in Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun and Inuvialuktun.

Teachers made own materials

In fact, had it not been for Inuktitut-speaking teachers who adapted standard teaching materials, students might never have been exposed to classroom instruction in their mother tongue.

Today the teaching of Inuktitut in elementary schools is compulsory in Nunavut, with Inuit students receiving instruction in their mother tongue from kindergarten through Grade 3. In a few schools where there are enough qualified teachers, Inuktitut is used to teach higher-level courses, too.

But Nunavut is still a long way from having a comprehensive Inuktitut curriculum for kindergarten through high school, despite the widespread use and knowledge of Inuktitut in the communities.

Baffin developing Inuuqatigiit materials

At the Baffin Divisional Board of Education, a small team of educators at the Board’s learning and teaching centre have undertaken an ambitious program to develop materials based on the Inuuqatigiit document.

“What we’re attempting to do here is address this need as best as we can,” says Gwen Coffin, the centre’s co-ordinator.

“This means that teachers won’t have to do it all themselves.”

Drawing on the skills of experienced Inuit teachers in four Baffin communities, the goal of the learning and teaching centre is to design and distribute Inuktitut materials that can be used in the classroom to enrich conventional course material.

Of course, the shortage of teaching resources is not the only obstacle to the expansion of Inuktitut instruction: there just aren’t enough qualified, Inuktitut-speaking teachers who can use the material effectively.

New science and math vocabulary?

And other challenges still lie ahead. How do you teach higher-level maths and sciences, for instance, without establishing a vocabulary of mathematical and scientific terms?

“Inuktitut will most probably be preserved 50 years from now,” Dorais predicts, “but maybe with a little more bilingualism than now.”

Dorais says he is optimistic about the future survival of Inuktitut, even if no comprehensive primary and high-school curriculum, such as exists in Greenland, is forthcoming in the near future.

“Technically it’s feasible, but the difference between Greenland and Nunavut is that Greenland began teaching in Inuktitut over 200 years ago – they’ve had 200 years to develop education in Inuktitut, whereas in Canada teaching began some 50 years ago, and up until 25 years ago it was entirely in English.”

The first step toward expanding an Inuktitut curriculum in Nunavut’s schools may be to accept Inuktitut’s limitations, Dorais suggests. Afterall, the evolution of languages throughout history has always entailed some cross-cultural migration of vocabulary.

Borrowing may be necessary

“If you want to teach high-school

science in Inuktitut, then you will have to borrow a lot of English or common international words, which come from Latin or Greek,” Dorais says.

That process of borrowing is already underway.

Inuit elders are concerned at what they consider to be the erosion of their language, but this intermingling of vocabulary needn’t have negative connotations, Dorais says.

Basque people who live in the Pyrenees mountains of northern Spain and southern France speak an ancient language that bears no relation at all in syntax or grammar to either French or Spanish.

Yet, 90 per cent of the modern Basque vocabulary, Dorais says, is borrowed from French and Spanish languages.

“It’s completely different and not understandable by non-Basque speakers. Inuktitut could become like that, in a way.”

Greenlandic speakers, too, have borrowed heavily from Danish, over the years, and many words whose roots can be traced directly to Europe are today considered to be part of the Greenlandic vocabulary.

“As long as people are conscious that their language is different, as long as they use these words in a way that is not the English way of speaking, then even if 90 per cent of the words are English, it will still be Inuktitut,” Dorais says.

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