Montreal hospital hosts Inuit language incubator
Fledgling speakers get weekly lessons
MONTREAL — Learning a new language is no easy task, least of all where there are few places to actually speak it.
Take Inuktitut in Montreal, where the number of fluent speakers adds up to no more than about 1,000 people in a city of almost two million.
But two nights a week, a room in the Montreal Children’s Hospital is filled with the sound of Inuktitut, as Montrealers learn the basics of the Inuit language.
Kazumi Nakagawa, a liaison nurse with the Northern Quebec Module, sits at the front of the class, its windows overlooking Atwater Street.
Nakagawa, who works with Inuktitut-speaking patients and escorts from Nunavik on a daily basis, is taking the beginner course for the second time since classes began last fall.
In front of her, instructor Georges Filotas, a former manager of the Fédération des Coopérative du Nouveau-Québec, scribbles simple phrases on the board in yellow chalk.
Aalasi qakutamik qimmijualik. (Aalasi has a white horse.)
Lucy nasatsiaqartuq. (Lucy has a nice hat.)
And this: inaluujaq, which means “resembles an intestine.”
None of the phrases are profound or impressive, but they help students understand the basic structure of the language, considered to be one of the most difficult to learn.
Nakagawa knows she has her work cut out for her, but she says that a little Inuktitut goes a long way.
“We’re in constant contact with patients,” she said. “The problem is that sometimes elders’ escorts aren’t always there when you want to communicate with them.”
Nakagawa admits her Inuktitut offerings are usually limited to Qanuippit, Nakurmiik or Ilali.
“But they always smile, they’re happy to hear it,” she said.
Marie-Pierre Gadoud, a PhD anthropology student who works at Avataq Cultural Institute, wants to master “small talk” with the Inuit she works with in Montreal and on occasional trips to Nunavik.
Gadoud needs an interpreter when she interviews Inuktitut-speaking elders, but she hopes to eventually connect with those elders outside of work.
“I’d like to be able to make a link with those people I work with, although I know I’m still far from it,” she said. “It’s a way to really reach out and touch that person.”
That was the goal of a group of health care professionals at the Montreal Children’s Hospital who worked to launch the classes last fall.
Many, like Dr. Johanne Morel, had been travelling to and from the region for years and faced barriers communicating with their Nunavik patients.
“The tools of a health practitioner are mostly words,” Morel said. “[And] when you are suffering, it is also important to be able to express yourself in your own language and be understood.”
Morel first began to learn the language over the phone with French linguist Michèle Therrien, who worked in Salluit during the 1970s.
But soon Morel saw the local demand for classes, and arranged for Filotas to give a beginner class in September 2011.
While the fall class was filled mostly with health care professionals last fall, Morel said she’s pleased to see others come to learn Inuktitut out of interest.
Vincent Bastien Masse, a hospital technician, says he took beginner Inuktitut classes this spring for the fun of it.
“I don’t really have many links to the North,” he said. “But I was curious to learn, and it’s going pretty well.”
More than halfway through this session, these beginners’ accents are starting to form as students reach back into their throats to pronounce the Inuktitut-language uvular q-sound.
But most students admit they leave the three-hour evening class feeling tired and sometimes overwhelmed with all the new information they’ve gathered.
“My more advanced students will finish off the session able to say a few different phrases, but even they’re left feeling overwhelmed by the volume of things to learn,” said Filotas. “I call it being “snowed under.”
But Filotas, who is fluent in French, English and Inuktitut, says it can be just as challenging to teach the language.
“It’s one thing to speak Inuktitut; it’s another thing to teach it,” he said. “There hasn’t really been sufficient trial and error in the teaching of Inuktitut.”
The real difficulty for native English and French speakers is understanding the mechanics and structure of the language, because it differs so much from Latin or Germanic languages.
And most languages around the world have extensive learning programs and exercise materials already in place for instructors to use.
“[So] I use pretty much whatever is available as curriculum,” Filotas said.
To reach a wider audience, including Nunavik’s communities, course organizers hope to offer the course by videoconference in the fall.