The Inuit are gradually losing their spoken languages, Inuktitut and Innuinaqtun, according to a report issued last week, and the government of Nunavut needs to do more to encourage their usage. Cathy Towtongie and Jack Anawak, respectively president and vice-president of the NGO Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc ( NTI), released the group’s annual report for 2009/10 at a press conference in Iqaluit last Wednesday.
The report, titled Our Primary Concern: Inuit Language in Nunavut, argues that encouraging Inuit parents to use their native languages in their homes will make the difference in whether or not they will continue to be used in the territory. Inuktitut is used throughout most of the territory, except for the extreme western end, where Innuinaqtun is used in the two communities of Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk.
But English has become the predominant language of most Inuit youths, rather than the languages spoken by their elders. The report outlines three goals aimed at keeping the traditional languages strong: the status of the native languages should be promoted among young people; the uses of those languages should be advocated in homes; and the schools should try to graduate fully bilingual students.
The executive summary of the report summarizes the issue. “Presenting the Inuit language in ways that appeal to young people is essential for use and transmission in informal settings. Unless the language is seen as socially affirming—colloquially speaking, cool—English will continue to overshadow Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun as the single language of status, power and opportunity.”
The government of Nunavut and Inuit organizations need to get involved, to make sure that young people and their parents will encourage the use of the native languages, and not just the language of power, English.
Towtongie said that her organization had looked into the issue of whether or not outsiders who reside in Nunavut long-term bother to learn an Inuit language. It found that they generally did not have a commitment to it. They just looked forward to their retirements. The report urges that non-Inuit residents should be offered training in Inuktitut as soon as they arrive, during the period when they are normally still interested in learning it.
Anawak said at the news conference that NTI expects the government to do more to encourage the uses of the Inuit languages—and not just among the young people. Outsiders, government officials, everyone should learn it. “It’s unacceptable today for our elders not to be able to speak their language, when they have a message or a demand for the government, if the person answering at the other end of the phone does not have the capability to speak Inuktitut.”
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the report was the finding that the usage of the Inuit languages is declining. From 2001 to 2006, their status as the first spoken languages in Inuit homes had declined from 57 percent to 54 percent.
Towtongie commented at the press conference that the federal government spends $4,460 dollars per Canadian French speaking person for the promotion of spoken French in Canada, and $53.71 per Inuit language speaker for the promotion of the spoken Inuit languages. The report concludes that if that imbalance is addressed, if promoting the Inuit languages is made a higher priority, and if that goal is funded adequately, “it will be possible to stabilize the Inuit language in Nunavut and eventually see its resurgence in the coming years.”
The full text of the report is available on the NTI website.