Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Some points to ponder in Inuktitut education (part ii)

One of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of Inuit rights advocacy (and I suspect it's the same for aboriginal rights advocacy in general) is in trying to distinguish the political (the why) from the technical (the how). If nothing else, this distinction is key to "critical thinking". And yet it's something that I feel has isolated me and conscientious people like me from communion with our own with the devastating help of "minions" of the system.

Now, I am not being paranoid. To be honest, the whole discourse on aboriginal rights is replete with these minions of the system. One of my colleagues when I was a policy analyst was fond of saying that all the (generic) "white man" needs to unravel years' worth of advocacy work is five minutes alone with an Inuit elected official to get the concessions he needs. This is because it is so easy to dissuade a "political" stance with "technical" reasons that the position holds no water. And why aboriginal peoples cannot seem to get anywhere in dealing with governments - I mean "governments" in plural because our own Nunavut Government's real interests and long-term agenda are at odds with Inuit interests and the rights the selfsame governments claim to recognize.

And we help them along. We help them along with our (aboriginal) ready need to distinguish our unique cultures and identities, our whys. We say: Inuktitut-only instruction from K to 3; we have our own writing systems, our own dialects; we do not need standardization; etc. etc.

These are laudable political statements, what are called "motherhood and apple pie". But they are just one side of the equation - the why - and without the "how" are just platitudes.

As I said in my earlier blogs that though we have our syllabics writing systems we cannot, must not, ignore literacy - literacy is not just the ability to read and write (syllabics); literacy is being able to comprehend and articulate the thoughts behind the text. In linguistics this is called, linguistic competence.

Linguistic competence is a technical distinction from linguistic knowledge: the former feeds the latter, and allows language learning to take place. In other words, what competence is to knowledge is what language is to text. The rub here is that linguistic knowledge can be and is largely passive - as syllabics learning in Inuit children so well illustrates. Linguistic knowledge allows for "passive" bilingualism. One can learn the syllabic writing system without ever learning Inuktitut. This is insidious.

The need for standardization of orthographies is different from the need for standardization of a language. Standard orthography does not threaten the integrity of language or dialects; it reinforces linguistic competence by allowing the essential reference points (if you like) to take hold in the student in a consistent, "standardized" way which also, by extension, brings out regional/dialectal distinctions between readers and writers without sacrificing either one's uniqueness.

The technical advantages of "roman orthography" over syllabics is that it is amenable to and allows sight-reading which comes with familiarity. But not only that, there are no visual jumps between symbols (ie, doesn't have superscripting of finals). But not only that, "roman orthographies" clearly and easily distinguish similar morphemes that may cause confusion and lack of clarity for the readers/learners - such as: [-mik]; [-mi]; and [-mit] - or where gemination of consonants (or lack thereof) is grammatically significant - such as: [-nngit-] vs [-ngit] - or where vowel quality makes a difference - such as: [-siuq] vs [-suuq-].

Now, I'm not suggesting that Inuit children learn all these technical subtleties and think of them consciously but that Inuit language instructors/teachers have some working knowledge of them to structure their teaching methods and to assess/evaluate learning in clearly positive and defensible manner.

There are excellent technical reference books out there (like Louis-Jacques Dorais' Inuit Uqausiqatigiit: Inuit Languages and Dialects, the COPES series on Inuvialuit by Rowe, the Labradorimi Ulinnaisigutet: an Inuktitut-English Dictionary of Northern Labrador Dialect, the Inuktitut dictionaries developed by Inuit elders, etc.) and Inuit language instructors/teachers need to learn to decipher to open up the treasure-troves of usefulness that lay within these already extant books.

We need to "professionalize" these key people we call our Inuit language teachers; we need to teach and equip them with the technical aspects of language instruction; we need writing systems that have flexibility and adaptability and efficacy and clarity and consistency and simplicity to really teach and pass on our language, to advance our knowledge and to base our own on technically sound and solid footing. We need to think in evolutionary terms to keep our language relevant for future generations and provide real currency for new learners.

Jay

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