Inuktitut teaching session

From left, Walter O'Toole (UW English major), Caitlyn Evans (UW law student and FLAS Fellow), Alexina Kublu and Prof. Mick Mallon.

UW students learning Inuit language with help of FLAS fellowship

 

By Melanie Eng
UW News Lab
December 3, 2013

Inuktitut, the indigenous language of the Inuit peoples of Northern Canada, shares no roots with any other language in existence.

It is spoken by only 35,000 people – with nearly all of them living in tribal communities in Arctic Canada. With its complex glottal sounds and unique set of written symbols, Inuktitut is rare to hear and difficult to learn.

But thanks to the University of Washington’s FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) fellowship program, UW law student Caitlyn Evans is getting that chance.

The program awards tuition and living stipends to undergraduate, graduate and professional students to pursue foreign language and international area studies.

Fellowships are awarded through the Jackson School of International Studies’ eight National Resource Centers, each of which organizes training and research focused on a different world region: East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Middle East, Canada, West Europe, Russia/East Europe/Central Asia and Global Studies.

These resource centers receive Title VI funding from the U.S. Department of Education to support students gaining competencies in 66 global languages and a variety of area topics.

“The objective is to have U.S. citizens and permanent residents in a wide variety of fields who can operate in foreign languages and with expertise in various world regions,” said fellowships coordinator Robyn Davis in an email.

Evans, an aspiring environmental lawyer interested in indigenous land rights in the Arctic territories, was keen on learning the Inuit language “to build a cultural connection with the Arctic” upon first starting law school.

Luckily for her, Inuktitut was one of the languages offered for a FLAS fellowship in 2012. Not so lucky was the fact that UW doesn’t offer any way to learn it on campus.

In fact, after calling nearly every U.S. and Canadian university with a distance-learning program, Evans thought there was no pathway for her to learn Inuktitut in all of North America.

That’s when Mick Mallon entered the picture.

The retired language professor and former head of the Language Commission in the Inuit territory of Nunavut is one of the best qualified Inuktitut teachers in North America – not to mention one of just “four living white guys” fluent in the Inuit language today.

Canadian Studies Associate Director Nadine Fabbi first reached out to Mallon in 2004, on behalf of former JSIS student Tim Pasch who was interested in applying for FLAS in Inuktitut. Fabbi said Mallon has been an invaluable learning resource ever since.

“Given the fast-increasing outside interest in the Arctic, Inuktitut is becoming a strategic language for U.S. security,” Fabbi said. “We are extremely fortunate to have resources to teach the Canadian Inuit language here at the UW.”

Since Mallon lives in Victoria, Canada, the Canadian Studies Center had to get creative in setting up the curriculum for Pasch’s fellowship. Traditional classroom lessons were clearly not an option, nor was going through an official university distance-learning program.

So, they turned to Skype. In addition to their lessons on the UW campus, Mallon now conducts semi-private lessons over the Web for Evans and her only other classmate, Walter O’Toole. O’Toole, an undergraduate English major, hopped on board when the class was resurrected for Evans’ fellowship this quarter.

O'Toole grew up hearing stories about Inuit culture from his father, who used to work in the Arctic, and plans to take a trip north after graduating. He says he was interested in learning Inuktitut to “be exposed to something different.”

“It’s a beneficial cognitive exercise to learn a rare language,” he said.

Evans and O’Toole both say Inuktitut is tough to learn, despite the fact that it’s a very logical language in terms of semantics, phonetics and structure. (The Inuk word for education, for example, is at the beginning of the words for student, teacher, school and learning.)

“There’s a lot of word making, instead of sentence making,” O’Toole says. “Mick compares Inuktitut to Lego blocks, while English is like a string of beads on a necklace.”

“My favorite part of teaching any students who persevere with this difficult and fascinating language,” Mallon said, “is that moment when suddenly they start to glimpse the logic that holds the whole thing together. From then on, they're hooked.”

Mallon immigrated from his native Belfast to Ottawa, Canada in 1954 to take a job as a high school teacher “set for a nice, boring life.” But a chance encounter with the director of Canada’s Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AANDC) program – and the incredible stories he shared – inspired a trip to the Nunavik territory of Arctic Quebec.

A lifelong language aficionado (who enjoyed “temporary” fluency in French, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Portuguese and Japanese throughout his life), Mallon decided to settle up north and slowly master the indigenous language of the Inuit people.

Over time, he grew fluent enough to switch from student to teacher and launch a prominent career in indigenous linguistics education. He said it wasn’t exceptional talent that allowed him such prominence in the field, but the fact that he was teaching (and speaking) Inuktitut at all.

“In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” he says.

Mallon also spearheaded the development of various indigenous language curricula in Arctic Canada, and published the only textbook written on Inuktitut.

He also served as the head of Nunavik’s Language Commission and set up an Eskimo Language School in the Inuit territory of Rankin Inlet.

“I taught Canadian government workers, Inuit children, college students,” he said. “I even taught a few American Baptist missionaries - they were the best students I ever had!”

At 80, Mallon says he still “jumps at every chance” to teach Inuktitut – doing his part to keep the language alive.

Helping teach Evans and O’Toole is Mallon’s wife, Alexina Kublu, a fellow Inuktitut linguist and former pupil of Mallon’s. As an Inuit native, she adds a unique cultural dimension to their lessons.

“Kublu brings in cultural stories a lot,” Evans said. “There are a lot of stories. She offers the Arctic perspective.”

Kublu and Mallon both say it doesn’t matter who learns the language, just as long as someone is learning it.

“We’re very much concerned with the language disappearing,” Mallon said. “The worst enemy of the indigenous languages of the world is the English language. It’s like a cancer, and television is like cigarettes.”

“We’re losing the battle,” Kublu added.

Mallon and Kublu say most younger-generation Inuks don’t even speak their native language. They say this is partly due to the globalization of English, and partly because resources to learn it are limited - even in traditional Inuit communities. Setting up the Eskimo Language School in Rankin Inlet was Mallon’s response to the latter problem.

But according to Kublu, not all hope is lost. She said the advent of social media is helping tremendously in connecting Inuks around the world, and giving the language a platform for global exposure.

“YouTube gives people everywhere access to Inuktitut singing, for example,” she said.

“A friend told me: ‘if we want to save the language for young people, we’ve got to make it cool,’” Mallon said. “And it is cool!”

MELANIE ENG is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.