Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Use of Inuktitut in Nunavut

I've been reading on the news recently regarding the Nunavut Tunngavik's Annual Report on the State of Inuit Culture and Society where the President highlighted some long-standing issues of federal funding disparities between the 600 or so francophone Nunavummiut and Inuit of Nunavut ($4,460 vs $53.71) for minority languages promotion.

Things haven't changed much since the first annual report after Nunavut Social Development Council was absorbed by NTI. In fact, the figures have stayed exactly the same over the years that it was first mentioned in the annual report when I worked there.

Though this funding is very important for both Inuit and French language translation services of the Government of Nunavut, the monies are not slated for anything that the Inuit themselves could use for Inuit Language promotion initiatives - such as what Qikiqtani, Kivalliq and Kitikmeot Inuit Associations access through Aboriginal Languages Initiative (federal funding) which provides funding for publications and other Inuit language related activities. The other Inuit regions, like Inuvialuit, Labrador and Nunavik get part of this funding pot to do very important work with their partners, such as Nunavut Bilingual Education Society and Inhabit Media for the Qikiqtani region.

Qikiqtani Inuit Association gets about $100,000 a year to produce Inuktitut language material, all of it very professional quality thanks to NBES and Inhabit Media (which was recognised recently by a major national literacy award). Kudos to Neil Christopher and Louise Flaherty!

But the money that NTI's Annual Report on the State of Inuit Culture and Society talks about is only meant for the Government of Nunavut ostensibly for translation and Inuit language services, but because it's not really accountable to the Inuit of Nunavut, Inuit do not really have a say on how that money is spent. It's strictly a government-to-government contribution agreement.

The issues that Inuit language face here in Nunavut have little to do with funding but come down to the Inuit themselves and only Inuit can initiate the meaningful changes and change-of-heart so necessary for the betterment of our language's lot. Well, the schools have a role to play and so does Nunavut Teachers' Education Program. But no amount of high-tech gizmos and gadgets will change the situation any.

We, as Inuit, need to start talking about Inuit education in a serious manner. Though I believe Inuit elders have a role to play, we shouldn't foist the whole responsibility on them but start examining the more technical aspects of pedagogy, or the nature of learning and teaching, and ourselves and what we value (in the Socratic sense).

Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living. We make a big deal about the syllabic writing system but in all my years of being a linguist, a translator and as a policy analyst, I've found that someone who actually reads Inuktitut briefing materials in countless meetings (on very important issues) a rare bird indeed. Most Inuit delegates say that they can't be bothered to read the material "because it's written in a different dialect" when it invariably becomes perfectly clear people from different communities have no problems communicating with each other in the meetings and conferences.

It has to do with comfort and competency in operating in the syllabic writing system (both reading and writing, and translation quality for that matter). Some of the Inuktitut translated material obey no rhyme or reason of the Inuktitut grammar because some translators assume that English and Inuktitut (or any other language) should have a one-to-one correspondence and literal (rather than meaning-based) translation is how things should be done. Some of the problems arise from poorly-written/highly technical English material that translators are forced to translate into Inuktitut.

Research skills are often lacking and there is a heavy reliance on off-the-shelf dictionaries which may not be the most appropriate resource, so the first entry in the dictionary (whether it be a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb) gets put into the Inuktitut without much regard for the grammatical structure such that the Inuktitut version looks kind of like a cut-and-paste job.

The problem is compounded exponentially given the quality of education in Nunavut schools, which does not teach Inuktitut as a social phenomenon but rather as a purely academic subject (the same way English used to be taught in Japan not too long ago with no end goal in mind but so as to get marks for taking the subject). The whole language approach regards isolated words and labels as "teaching" a language when words in isolation and labels have little or no communicative value.

Language is a social phenomenon, where the narrative is key to capturing and engaging the student. But the last time I heard Dept of Education HQ regards as unspoken policy Inuit myths and legends as religious material so something that uses the Inuit language in the most natural and grammatical way is precluded right from the start.

With little or no available literature and no meaningful Inuit elder employment in the schools to verbally tell stories and expose Inuktitut grammar to Inuit children (Inuit are often just employed for vague "cultural programming" without orientation or training) the Inuktitut instruction proper falls to how to write syllabics and concrete words like "door", "light switch", "atausiq, marruk, pingasut...", etc. which passes for Inuktitut instruction.

I think I've also said more than once in this blog that I think Inuit Language instruction should seriously consider using ICI standard roman orthography where morphemes and grammatical elements are easier to discern and spelling can become more consistent, and sight-reading is possible. The non-standard and inconsistent use of syllabics is killing our language and our visceral impulses and defensiveness regarding a writing system that so few can even read are helping the death and morbidity along.

Developing linguistic competence and language acquisition do not require high-tech gizmos and gadgets nor even money and funding that will never be given in sufficient amounts; only our engagement and participation in the social phenomenon called language as human to human can we make the difference. The Inuit narrative has so much to offer, especially when we reflect upon not just our long-long history as an Arctic people but also as contemporary society working it out through recent colonialist past and all the teachable moments inherent in that experience. In telling our story do possibilities become real objects of contemplation and imagination.



  1. Jay

    It's not simple to post a comment here.

    I want to ask you a question. Will you get my e-mail address along with this comment? If so, can you drop me a line so I can reply with my question? It's regarding citing some paragraphs from your post in something I am writing. Thanks,
    Shawn Selway

  2. Hello Shawn,

    I didn't realize that it was difficult to post comments on my blog (I'm such a techno peasant I wouldn't know how to correct that one). You can email me: