Inuit language at the crossroads

The Canadian territory of Nunavut, created in 1999, has a population of 26,665, of whom 85% claim Inuit identity (2001 Census data). Of these approximately 85% claim to speak the Inuit language at home. (ibid. “Inuit Language” subsumes two major dialect groupings: Inuinnaqtun in the west and Inuktitut in the East.) With their huge political majority and their geographical isolation, the Inuit ought to have no trouble maintaining their language, but the challenges they face demonstrate that minority language maintenance is a difficult process, even when the odds appear to be extremely favourable.
The government of Nunavut has recently introduced two language-related bills, which have now progressed to second reading in the legislative assembly. The first, Bill 6, is an official languages act which establishes Inuit Language, French and English as official languages of the territory. The second, Bill 7, is an Innuit language protection act that seeks to promote the maintenance of the Inuit Language.
Prof. Ian Martin, language policy consultant to the Nunavut government and to the Inuit organization, NTI (Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated), presented his assessment of the stituation in a talk at Glendon College of York University this past week.

Prof. Martin was cautiously optimistic, while pointing out that the endangerment of the Inuit language is at a crucial juncture. Of great concern is the school system, in which currently pupils are offered instruction in Inuit language up to grade 3; grade 4 is a transition year, and subsequently instruction is in English only, provided overwhelmingly by monolingual anglophone teachers with no background in ESL issues and, as temporary residents from the south, no prior knowledge of Inuit culture. This system has produced two language-impaired generations. The generation of elders, who retain the cultural and linguistic competence of the past, is passing on. Thus, despite the apparent vitality of Inuktitut in many communities (less so, Inuinnaqtun), the tipping point is now.
Bill 7 proclaims the right of all Nunavut residents to “Inuit language instruction” and provides for the gradual introduction of Inuit language instruction through to the end of secondary school. There is some concern, however, that this provision may be interpreted as referring to language classes, while only the use of the Inuit language as a medium of instruction will provide the basis for language revitilization. Even with the more beneficial interpretation, it is by no means clear where the necessary teaching personnel will come from. The bill also provides for the use of the Inuit languages as a [sic!] language of work in the public sector. Private sector compliance is voluntary, but supported.
The bill is not as strong as the famous Bill 101 that has reversed the erosion in the use of French in Quebec, and the main Inuit organizations, NTI and QIA (Qikiqtani Inuit Association), feel that the proposed laws are not strong enough to prevent further decline of the Inuit language.
Prof. Martin pointed out, however, that there are political constraints on the territorial assembly’s actions: since Nunavut is a territory, rather than a province, all the assembly’s legislation must pass through the federal parliament in Ottawa, which would be unlikely to support legislation as strong as Bill 101, given that parts of the latter have been judged by Canada’s supreme court to be in violation of the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms Canadian Encyclopedia).
Much is at stake. If the local political will can overcome the many practical obstacles, Nunavut may provide a model for language revitalization in other territorially-concentrated communities. Should it fail, the prospects for the world’s minority languages will be all the bleaker.

2 thoughts on “Inuit language at the crossroads”

  1. While the bill is good, this is very worrying.
    “There is some concern, however, that this provision may be interpreted as referring to language classes, while only the use of the Inuit language as a medium of instruction will provide the basis for language revitilization. Even with the more beneficial interpretation, it is by no means clear where the necessary teaching personnel will come from.”
    It comes down to putting money and training and time and thought and people into it. ‘language classes’ often end up as an hour a week ‘culture time’ where kids paint pictures and put single words under the pictures. Not healthy for first language development.

  2. From Bill 7…
    Inuit Language instruction
    8. (1) Every parent whose child is enrolled in the education program in Nunavut, including a child for whom an individual education plan has been proposed or implemented, has the right to have his or her child receive Inuit Language instruction.
    Duties concerning education program
    (2) The Government of Nunavut shall, in a manner that is consistent with Inuit
    (a) design and enable the education program to produce secondary school graduates fully proficient in the Inuit Language, in both its spoken and written forms;
    (b) develop and implement appropriate Inuit Language competency targets necessary for the achievement of full proficiency (i) for all stages of learning within the education program, consistent with paragraph (a), and (ii) for an individual education plan, consistent with the individual education objectives determined under the Education Act;
    (c) develop and use measures of assessment, and maintain records concerning individual attainment and education program outcomes overall, in relation to the competency targets established under subparagraph (b)(i); and
    (d) develop and provide (i) curriculum, classroom materials and programs in the Inuit Language relating to the objectives and competency targets established under this section, and (ii) the training, certification and professional development for educators and others, including Inuit Language training and upgrading, that are necessary to produce the number, type and quality of educators required to implement this section.

Here at Endangered Languages and Cultures, we fully welcome your opinion, questions and comments on any post, and all posts will have an active comments form. However if you have never commented before, your comment may take some time before it is approved. Subsequent comments from you should appear immediately.

We will not edit any comments unless asked to, or unless there have been html coding errors, broken links, or formatting errors. We still reserve the right to censor any comment that the administrators deem to be unnecessarily derogatory or offensive, libellous or unhelpful, and we have an active spam filter that may reject your comment if it contains too many links or otherwise fits the description of spam. If this happens erroneously, email the author of the post and let them know. And note that given the huge amount of spam that all WordPress blogs receive on a daily basis (hundreds) it is not possible to sift through them all and find the ham.

In addition to the above, we ask that you please observe the Gricean maxims:

*Be relevant: That is, stay reasonably on topic.

*Be truthful: This goes without saying; don’t give us any nonsense.

*Be concise: Say as much as you need to without being unnecessarily long-winded.

*Be perspicuous: This last one needs no explanation.

We permit comments and trackbacks on our articles. Anyone may comment. Comments are subject to moderation, filtering, spell checking, editing, and removal without cause or justification.

All comments are reviewed by comment spamming software and by the site administrators and may be removed without cause at any time. All information provided is volunteered by you. Any website address provided in the URL will be linked to from your name, if you wish to include such information. We do not collect and save information provided when commenting such as email address and will not use this information except where indicated. This site and its representatives will not be held responsible for errors in any comment submissions.

Again, we repeat: We reserve all rights of refusal and deletion of any and all comments and trackbacks.

Leave a Comment