Language in Nunavut: Let the people speak!


Brigitta O’Regan
Special to Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT — April l, 1999, the official birthdate of Nunavut, is just around the corner. In anticipation of this important event, the divisional boards of education in the Kitikmeot, the Keewatin, and Baffin, have proposed a new model for the Nunavut school system.

But while the efforts of the three divisional boards to restructure existing educational institutions and services have received some play in the media, relatively little information has been made public about the steps the boards have taken toward planning a language policy for the new territory.

It was in the late seventies that the strong link between identity, language, and achievement among aboriginal people was first recognized. Since then, aboriginal groups have made the revival of indigenous languages their priority. Yet, in spite of these efforts, the use of aboriginal languages continues to decline.

In 1492, when Columbus arrived in North America, there were more than 1,000 indigenous languages spoken on this continent; today there are only about 200.

As one of the six aboriginal languages in the NWT, Inuktitut is spoken in most homes and is the language most Inuit children first learn to read and write in the eastern half of Nunavut. Compared to the poor status of aboriginal languages spoken in other parts of the world, Inuktitut is doing quite well.

But this is hardly the time to be complacent, for statistics show that English is rapidly gaining ground on Inuktitut, especially among the young who make up a third of the Nunavut population.

Over the years, the Baffin Divisional Board of Education has strived to be true to its mission of promoting a culturally sensitive learning environment in schools. The board has spent time and money on producing culturally appropriate curricula including picture books and other Inuktitut materials for Inuit children.

Yet, despite the board’s efforts, most educators and parents will agree that children’s language skills in both Inuktitut and English are less than adequate.

Do board policies work?

Currently, the BDBE policy on the language of instruction for Inuit children requires that Inuktitut be used exclusively for the first few years of schooling and that a transition be made to English around the Grade 4 level. But, is this policy working for the children?

The policy is based on the latest available research in language learning, the so-called CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency) theory, a hypothesis first put forward by Jim Cummins, an authority on second language acquisition at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

He claims that children are able to transfer cognitive academic skills across languages, provided they are able to read and write in their indigenous language first.

Surprisingly, this theory is considered valid even if the indigenous language does not use Roman orthography. In theory, then, a child should have no problems transferring cognitive skills gained from reading and writing Inuktitut syllabics to the learning of English.

But not all educators are convinced that this theory works. Inuit patents, too, are doubtful that reading and writing in Inuktitut exclusively in the early elementary grades will improve their children’s language skills in English. As a result, some parents have started to enroll their children in the English language stream.

The question is: Are these parents doing the right thing?

Naturally, parents want the best for their children. They want them to be healthy and happy, to do well in school and to be able to compete for well-paying jobs and-or go on to college or university.

English: The language of power

For Inuit parents, choosing English as the language of instruction for their children is based on the economic reality of day-to-day life in the Northwest Territories. It is a fact that most of the well paying jobs are held by English or French speakers or bilingual Inuit.

An elder in Iqaluit put it this way: “You only have to look around this town to see who has the good jobs, to know what language has more power.”

The elder has a point. The evidence is there — English still has superior status in the larger communities. Next time you are in Iqaluit, visit the local stores and look at the signs. For the most part, what you will see are unilingual English signs.

Perhaps it is time for the silent majority to speak out. For it is up to the Inuit to decide upon a language policy for Nunavut that will designate which language will be used in the public sphere. After all, it is their children and grandchildren who will suffer the economic as well as the social and psychological consequences of a language policy that does not address their needs and aspirations.

Ordinary citizens should be involved

How can the ordinary citizen — the parent, the teacher, the elder — be involved in deciding upon a language policy for Nunavut?

This is by no means an easy task. Holding a plebiscite, which would give the people of Nunavut the opportunity to decide which aspects of public life to designate as bilingual and which ones as unilingual, may be one option.

Another possibility would be to hold a series of town hall meetings in communities across Nunavut, so that everyone would have an opportunity to participate in the process of language planning.

In addition, such meetings would provide an ideal forum for informing people as to what is happening in aboriginal communities around the world. This would enable all stakeholders to reflect upon the issues and make informed decisions based on fact rather than speculation.

But, back to the issue of the language(s) of instruction in the schools. It is not only the parents who feel that the NWT school system is failing their children, but there is also a sense among teachers that the education Inuit children receive in elementary school is not preparing them adequately for the high curriculum that is taught in English, of course.

High school teachers concerned

Recently, some teachers from Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit expressed concern about the level of academic performance of some of their students and suggested that English instruction for Inuit children should begin in the early elementary grades.

No doubt this well-intentioned proposal was made with the hope that children would be more successful in their studies and become bilingual in the process.

At first blush, bilingualism for Inuit children seems to be highly desirable. Unfortunately, studies show that only if both the mother tongue of the majority of the people and the other official language or languages are designated for specific use, will the mother tongue survive.

Research further suggests that “only in situations where two ethnolinguistic groups are equal in status and power, but not necessarily in size, will large sections of the population become bilingual.”

If the latter theory is applied to the situation in Nunavut where English is still the more powerful language in terms of social and economic status, the school children of today could well be the last generation of Inuktitut speakers. Obviously this is a possibility too painful to contemplate.

But what is the alternative?

Different models of language planning

Around the globe, different models of language planning have been tried. Since the 1960s, which witnessed the birth of newly independent nations worldwide, some aboriginal states and territories have opted for internationalization.

Internationalization is the practice of adopting a non-indigenous language, usually the language of the colonial past, for wider communication or international trade, while designating the indigenous language for use in parliament and-or the media.

With regard to education, there are several models that have met with success. In Singapore, for instance, English, Mathematics, and the mother tongue of a child — all core subjects in high school — also make up 80 per cent of the elementary school curriculum. Therefore, the transition from elementary school to high school is made much easier for the children.

In several European and African countries, some elementary and secondary school subjects are designated to be taught in the indigenous language, others in a non-indigenous language from elementary school through high school. This model seems to work equally well in developed as in developing countries.

Whether holding a plebiscite or setting up town hall meetings in the communities, the important thing is that the voices of all stakeholders — parents and children, elders and teachers — are heard before a decision is made as to the appropriate model for language planning in Nunavut.

It would be a serious mistake to leave language planning to the bureaucrats or experts alone, for the simple reason that there is too much at stake for the people of Nunavut.

This would be a timely opportunity for the Nunavut Implementation Commission to create a public forum — such a forum would allow all citizens of Nunavut to take part in the discussions.

Set policies first

And while the more immediate linguistic concerns like syllabics versus Roman orthography, or the question of dialects need to be addressed, research has shown that it is the nonlinguistic aspects of language planning that need to be sorted out before deciding upon a language policy for a newly-founded nation territory.

Ideally, Inuit and non-lnuit must take part in the process, but most important is that the voice of the Inuit be heard, so that the language policy for the new territory reflects the will as well as the heart and soul of the people.

A little over 40 years ago Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist and anthropologist, first put forward the hypothesis that the structure of a language influences how its speakers make sense of the natural and social world around them.

If language does indeed influence our interpretation of the world around us, then losing Inuktitut, their mother tongue, would amount to nothing less for Inuit than foregoing their identity as a people, for as the Irish nationalist Thomas Davis put it

A people without a language of its own is only half a people.

Brigitta O’Regan is language consultant with the Canadian Educators Group in Kamloops. B.C. She’s currently working with the Nunavut teacher education program.

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