Let’s save Inuktitut
Inuit need better education and skills training to make it happen
Nunavut’s newly published annual report on the state of Inuit culture and society deserves some credit for considering the standardization of Inuktitut dialect and script.
Why, however, after all these years, does it lack recommendations for implementation? There are many examples of what to do. In Germany and Italy in the nineteenth century, the language of the central government became the official language, but people still speak local dialects.
Attitudinally, the report deals with symptoms rather than causes for the fact that proficiency in Inuktitut is slipping fast. It misses the obvious fact that the foremost barrier to the preservation of Inuktitut is the lack of Inuit filling the managerial and professional jobs in their own land —that is, working as doctors, accountants, engineers, geologists, ships’ captains and army generals.
Let’s join the dots. Preservation of Inuktitut requires that Inuit use it in the workplace. Use in the workplace requires its use by managers and professionals. To get Inuit into managerial and professional positions, young people need the education and skills training for them.
That can’t happen when only a quarter of all students graduate from high school, and even then at a level far below what students elsewhere achieve. The result is that outsiders fill almost all managerial and professional jobs, and almost none of them learn Inuktitut.
Inuktitut is a wonderfully descriptive and flexible language, and it deserves retention on its own merits. However, the foremost prerequisite for retention is for children to learn both Inuktitut and English, in parallel and from infancy, and to start Grade 1 bilingual.
The report correctly notes the importance of pre-school programs, but they will do little good unless they are well run, structured to prepare children for learning in school, and bilingual. (Countering the bigotry of low expectations, note that Maria Montessori, in the slums of Naples in the 1890s, had most children reading and writing by the age of five. And both of Shakespeare’s parents signed their names with an X.)
Retention of Inuktitut has these benefits:
1. It’s a cornerstone of the heritage.
2. Thorough knowledge of any second language enables better understanding of one’s mother tongue, and it enables more efficient communication altogether.
3. The brain is a muscle that strengthens from training. Learning another language is like adding capacity on a computer. It enhances cognitive ability in all areas of mental capacity, even in unrelated areas like maths and science.
Using Roman script would make it possible to have a shirt-pocket two-way dictionary so that people could learn and use an expanded vocabulary. Why, after all this time, does such a dictionary not exist?
I sometimes ask young Inuit: What’s the word for a plumber? Few young people can tell me, and they have no ready means to find the word. If an Inuk speaks of a plumber in Inuktitut to someone who doesn’t know the word, communication is dead in the water without a dictionary in Roman script.
Paradoxically, instruction in Inuktitut above the lowest grades would impede preservation of the language. Yes, students should write essays in Inuktitut — assuming they are required to write essays in any language, as they seldom are now.
But English is the language of maths and science, of computers, entertainment and modern business and commerce. It is probably impractical to develop an Inuktitut scientific and technological vocabulary. There are enough challenges already with English-only use in air traffic control and with medical prescriptions.
Too many young Inuit barely know enough Inuktitut or English to function adequately in either language, let alone to take advantage of today’s exciting opportunities. I know of young Inuit who regard Inuktitut as the language of second-class citizenship, and they don’t care to use it. They regard English as the language of the world they see all around them and on television, and as the language of the world they want to join as equal citizens.
Young people know that who you are is not just what language you speak but what you do. A report on suicide for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples illustrates the challenge in these terms: “Aboriginal youth described both exclusion from the dominant society and alienation from the now-idealized but once-real “life on the land” that is stereotypically associated with aboriginality. The terrible emptiness of feeling strung between two cultures and psychologically at home in neither has been described … in testimony before the Commission.”
I believe the primary reason why Inuit have the world’s highest male youth suicide rate is that young people are not educated and trained for a healthy and productive life — as the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child requires. Few people in rewarding and well-paid jobs commit suicide.
The report quotes consultant Thomas Berger approvingly: “The success of Nunavut will ultimately be measured by the extent to which Inuit are able to participate in their own government and in the changing economic life of the Arctic.”
However, as far back as 1925 the great Canadian anthropologist Diamond Jenness said essentially the same thing! So, in 1967, did the Carrothers Royal Commission.
No government administrators, nor the ubiquitous Mr. Berger, have even now competently addressed the questions: What is the goal of education for Inuit, and how do we achieve it? In Scandinavia most young people get a thorough education and become fluent in two languages, as do many Chinese Canadians. So why not Inuit?
It’s bureaucrat-speak to rely mindlessly on legislation and to call for Inuit to “embrace” Inuktitut. Language preservation requires economic self-reliance. There are far more jobs in the Arctic, and in providing services for the Arctic, than there are Inuit of employable age. In the longer term, few Inuit need to be challenged by unemployment, homelessness, despair and suicide, and Inuit should not need the annual subvention of $40,000 per person (not per family) from southern taxpayers.
With their population doubling every twenty years, Inuit can’t count on getting that forever, inadequate as it is even now for their needs.
Colin Alexander was publisher of the Yellowknife News of the North, and the senior consultant on education for the Ontario Royal Commission on the Northern Environment.