Teaching Inukitut is a tough, uphill battle in Iqaluit

For Joamie School’s dedicated Inuktitut teachers, it’s a struggle to get many Inuit students to understand even simple instructions in Inuktitut.


While educators met behind closed doors this week in Iqaluit to discuss Inuit language and culture in the schools, out on the front lines a handful of devoted teachers at Joamie were continuing their brave stand against the all-powerful English language.

Iqaluit’s Joamie School has 272 students — a relatively small number — but its students will likely produce many of Nunavut’s future leaders.

Joamie’s students live in Iqaluit’s prosperous yuppy neighbourhoods — Happy Valley, and most of their parents are affluent government bureaucrats.

It’s fair to say that if these kids are to end up speaking Inuktitut as their working language when they grow up, they should be using it now.

Yet in Joamie’s hallways, it’s not Inuktitut, but English you hear in those typical childhood “you-pushed-me-first, no-you-did” discussions, while, in the classrooms, Inuktitut-language teachers fight a losing battle in persuading kids to speak to them in Inuktitut.

This unsettling dynamic is even obvious during a special afternoon event in honour of Inuktitut Language Week, when a group of elders are invited to the school.

The girls and boys are helpful, politely serving the elders a meal of caribou and bannock. Later, some show off their talents at Inuit games, throat-singing, and drum-dancing.

Inuit culture is very much in evidence, but little conversation takes place in Inuktitut between young and old.

Joamie’s staff realizes it’s not the fault of their students, who are just kids, that everyone speaks English inside the school.

“Our vision is to have Inuktitut-speaking classes, but outside everyone is talking English,” said Joamie School principal David Serkoak. “It’s out of our control.”

Around 70 students at Joamie are enrolled in Inuktitut immersion classes in kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 2, and Grade 3.

Inside Meeka Kakudluk’s combined Grade 1-2 classroom, Inuktitut is everywhere. Giant-sized syllabic mottos decorate the walls, along with huge cut-outs of an ulu, a qulliq and a kamik.

Students read aloud from syllabic story books, and enthusiastically join in singing Inuktitut songs, but despite Kakudluk’s Inuktitut-friendly environment, some kids still whisper to each other in English.

Meeka, originally from Padloping Island, is a bit discouraged about the increasing use of English over Inuktitut.

“I used to think in the 1980s it was getting strong, but now it feels more like it’s going down,” she says.

In Louise Joanas’ Grade 3 Inuktitut class, she’s teaching students the difference between duals and plurals. Louise repeats instructions carefully, so that everyone understands what to do.

She also tries to get her students to interact with her, to answer simple questions — in Inuktitut.

To get students to speak to her in Inuktitut, she’s established a “secret code” — that is, Inuktitut.

“If they want to speak to me, they need to say it in Inuktitut,” Louise says. “I’m not going to give up.”

It seems to work, but her year with them is the last one they will have, wholly in Inuktitut.

After Grade 3, they’ll begin studying in English in Grade 4, and by Grade 5 they’ll have only around 40 minutes a day of Inuktitut instruction.

Melia Oyukuluk Dobson from Arctic Bay has the job of teaching Inuktitut as a second language at Joamie. In one class she encourages students to work on their syllabics. With another group she goes over books that they’re reading.

But not everyone seems to understand even the simplest directions, and sometimes Melia has no other choice but to repeat them in English.

“When we were living in Arctic Bay, everyone was speaking Inuktitut,” Melia says. “When I came here, I noticed it was different.”

Many of the students in her Grade 5 class have at least one Inuk parent, but most of these say they don’t use Inuktitut at home.

“They’re not speaking at home in Inuktitut,” Melia says. “Lots of parents can’t help them.”

As a result, their grasp of the language is weak, Melia says, but she still keeps at them, offering a patient encouragement, and reinforcing Inuktitut in whatever way she can.

“I worried about it,” she confides later.

But long discussions about how to improve the situation aren’t necessary because the solutions to the present state of Inuktitut at the school are rather easy to come up with.

Government, teachers and parents have to work together, say Melia and the other Inuit staff. They want more resources and more money to hire elders to work full-time in the schools, as well as more curriculum materials for Inuktitut instruction.

They’d also like parents to use Inuktitut in the home, and, they’d like the Nunavut government to help Inuktitut gain the same kind of official status as French or English.

Without this, it’s very hard to see how Inuktitut will ever be a real “working” language of Nunavut — because when Joamie students leave the school, even those who’ve been in the Inuktitut-language stream still won’t have more than basic skills in reading and writing.

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