Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Some points to ponder in Inuit (Inuktitut) education

I heard on the radio this morning an announcement from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami regarding an Inuit Education Strategy. I was pleased to hear such a thing, and fully support such efforts, especially when/if it covers the whole Inuit Nunaat (Inuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut).

But one thing that's always a concern to me here in Nunavut is the degradation of Inuit Language though it's been exclusively Inuktitut from grades K to 3 for a long time now. The problem, as I see it, is not so much the policy but the lack of investment in Inuktitut (Inuit) teachers who are no longer taught basic Inuktitut grammar/linguistics in the Nunavut Teacher Education Program; that is, if they've gone through the NTEP program. Couple this substandard Inuit Language programming at the NTEP level with lack of teaching material (from what I've heard the individual Inuit teachers are expected to develop their own materials and methodologies) and it is no surprise these dropping rates in stats on Inuit language use.

When the Inuvialuit signed their land claims, the Committee for Original Peoples Entitlement did the most brilliant thing possible by commissioning a linguist (Ronald Lowe of Laval University) to document and publish a series of books on Inuvialuit grammars and phonologies (for Siglitun, Uummarmiutun, and Kangiryuarmiutun (a form of Inuinnaqtun)) to form a solid scientific basis for their then future language reclamation efforts and orthographic reform.

When I was a policy analyst for an Inuit organization here in Nunavut I was part of the national Inuit selection committee (project proposals) that was in charge of the Inuit portion of the federally funded Aboriginal Languages Initiative (which was forever in "sunset" mode - bureaucratese for "winding down for program death"). While there, I would sometimes speak of the Inuvialuit linguistic corpus above, and the need for similar efforts and development for all of Inuit regions of Canada.

But I seem to have this unfortunate habit of speaking over other people's heads. I know my heart is in the right place and my intentions are good. But this is the way I speak... sad but true.

Anyhow, I think an Inuit Education Strategy requires a development  for the other Inuit regions like what Inuvialuit did for their languages.

One other thing that needs to be looked at seriously is teaching methodologies for Inuit languages. There is clearly enough room for both syllabic and latin script-based orthographies to co-exist in the classroom. Though Inuktitut syllabic system is much-cherished and jealously guarded, the system is not really amenable to sight-reading because each syllable needs to be sounded out and requires much time and effort to become proficient in. Besides its unweldy nature, it is difficult to "see" the regularity of the grammatical elements which are so key to learning text-based Inuktitut.

Though syllabic systems are currently not-up-for-negotiations, this protectiveness is purely political in nature being that syllabic writing systems are seen to be "uniquely" Inuit (though the Cree also use a similar system). I can understand this reaction being Inuit culture is attacked, it seems, from all sides. But this uncritical and visceral protectiveness of syllabics is galactically misplaced and extremely counter-productive to language preservation and advancement because in the current state of affairs all that is taught (here in Nunavut) and passed for Inuktitut language instruction is learning to read syllabics (as opposed to learning Inuktitut).

The simplicity of syllabics is that it can be taught in a couple of days to adult learners who've already got knowledge of the basic grammar. But it can also be taught to people who have little or no knowledge of Inuktitut at all. Since it is phonetically based (sounding out, not text based) regularized spelling is difficult to teach.

For example, the morpheme -nngit- (negative) is liable to be rendered in syllabics as -nngit-; -ngit-; or, -git-. And the complementary distribution laws of voiced and unvoiced segments [q] and [r]; [k] and [g] are often confused, if not totally ignored and omitted. This is not so bad. But the same thing happens with the grammatically significant endings [-mik]; [-mit] and [-mi] - respectively: direct object marker; "from"; and, "in".

I've often heard from Inuit parents how very good their children become in writing syllabics (which is natural if all they're taught is the writing system). But the self-same parents complain that Inuit children can no longer speak Inuktitut (which is natural if all they're taught is the writing system).

The Inuktitut teaching methodologies should begin with latin-based text (the so-called roman orthography) based on Inuit Cultural Institute standard writing system (developed with the help of and much advocated for by the late Jose Kusugak) so the children not only learn regularized spelling of grammatically significant subtleties, such as [-mik]; [-mit]; and [-mi] but also acquire a writing system that will ease the transition to English from Inuktitut. They can learn syllabics at their leisure for the rest of their school years.

The Inuktitut-only from kindergarten to grade 3, then English from grade 4 on need not be so traumatic for Inuit children some of whom never recover from the quantum leap and remain stunned for the rest of their academic careers. Some of this existential confusion, I strongly suspect, is one of the causes of suicide later in life. My attitude is: anything, even small subtle things, that can give a leg up for our children.

Besides this shift to text-based (as opposed to spelling-based that is syllabic learning) methodologies, a huge Inuktitut translation effort should be made using the major dialects for the classics (preferably psychologically insightful literature) as well as directed and sustained development of literature based on Inuit legends and mythology. These books (written in a major or even mixed dialect(s)) can then form the basis of classroom discussion and comparison of dialects unique to the individual communities to make the language and grammar conscious within the Inuit child.

This system-wide effort is not as difficult as it seems: some great work (by people from Nunavut Bilingual Education Society, and Inhabit Media Inc. in partnership with QIA and GN Dep't of Education) have already published works in Inuktitut and laid the groundwork for more. These efforts need the support of all Inuit because they can also be used to strike Inuit inter-regional partnerships, and pooling-of-resources and, at the least, knowledge sharing opportunities.


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