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Revitalization of Inuktitut: Using Government Funding to Implement Technology to Strengthen an Endangered Language

June 11, 2019

Author:

Haley Blair

Inuktitut is a precise and unique language that has developed over thousands of years. It contains nuances and environmental observations that the English language cannot capture. Over the past century, Inuit communities have been subject to assimilation as a consequence of colonialism and globalization. Attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Western society have resulted in the erosion of traditional culture in many Arctic communities. This cultural degradation has had a tremendous impact on all aspects of Inuit identity, and its influence is especially obvious regarding the vitality of Inuktitut.

One of the main goals Nunavut attempts to achieve is the protection of Inuit identity, language and values (The Government of Nunavut, n.d). As stated by the former Minister of Education in Nunavut, Paul Quassa, “That’s the whole reason why the land claims took place, because we were losing our language…I think that’s part of the whole land claims process. Once you have the language the culture is strong” (Quassa qtd. in Martin, 2017, p.1). While the establishment of self-rule is a step forward for the preservation of Indigenous culture, the usage of Inuktitut in Nunavut households is still on the decline. From 1996 to 2011, the number of families using Inuktitut at home plummeted from 76% to 61% (p.2). At this rate, it is predicted that the number of Nunavut households using Inuktitut will be a mere 4% by 2051 (p.2). What is even more alarming, however, is the prevalence of language loss among Inuit youth. Only 66% of Inuit under the age of 15 regarded Inuktitut as their primary language at home, as opposed to 97% of elders ages 65 and older (Nunavut Bureau of Statistics, 2017, p.2).

The current public education system in Nunavut is doing little to ameliorate this growing language gap. In 2008, the Nunavut Education Act was passed, which states the following: “It is the responsibility of the Minister, the district education authorities and the education staff to ensure that Inuit societal values and the principles and concepts of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit are incorporated throughout, and fostered by, the public education system” (Nunavut Education Act, 2008). Despite the passage of the Nunavut Education Act, the Department of Education reported that only 11 out of 27 schools were able to offer Inuktitut language courses from Kindergarten to Grade 3 during the 2015-16 school year (Office of Language Commissioner of Nunavut, 2016, p.184). This deficit is partly due to a shortage of qualified teachers. In 2016, Nunavut failed to meet the requirementsof the Nunavut Education Act by 230 instructors (p.184). Ultimately, this lack of language education may lead to the extinction of Inuktitut and to the loss of thousands of years of precious Inuit knowledge, oral tradition, and identity.

Thus, schools and local communities need to implement a policy–one that is fundamentally different from prior attempts–to supplement the instruction of Inuit language in order to ensure the longevity of Inuktitut. This paper asserts that focusing on providing funding for online programs in and outside of the modern education system will be a more viable step towards language revitalization.

Policy Recommendation

The Government of Nunavut and the Government of Canada should authorize subsidies or grants in order to implement online Inuktitut courses for public schools and at-risk communities. There are numerous case studies demonstrating technology’s efficacy in other parts of the world to save endangered languages – the Puliima National Indigenous Languages and Technology Forumin Australia, for example, showcases how technology has been successfully utilized to help preserve endangered languages (Noone, 2015). Another example is the way that members of Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico are promoting the Pueblo languages spoken by their Indigenous students through a digital-learner driven, intergenerational learning program (Noone, 2015). Thus, it is entirely feasible for the Canadian Government, through the Government of Nunavut, to provide educational grants to those schools failing to meet the provisions laid out by the Nunavut Education Act.This supplemental funding would be applied towards the digital learning departments of these schools so that Inuktitut instruction can be continued from primary through secondary schools. This technological approach alleviates the issue of in-school instructor shortages; a greater number of students could be provided language resources that do not require the physical presence of a teacher, such as fully automated curriculums. This policy goes one step further than other attempts to aid language learning in Nunavut by also specifically addressing the needs of at-risk communities. “At-risk,” in this context, designates Nunavut communities in which the population of the community is majority Inuit, and in which the percentage of Inuktitut spoken at home falls below Nunavut’s usage average of 61% (Martin, 2017, p.2). Government aid–in the form of subsidies or grants–would be provided to any in-need resident of Inuit identification in these communities. This allows a greater amount of people to reclaim their language and preserve their identity at no cost who may otherwise have missed the opportunity to do so, including those already having graduated secondary school or those who did not finish public schooling.

This policy strives to achieve several goals. First, it will align with the values of Inuit society by incorporating IQ into the educational system that successfully passes the instruction and usage of Inuktitut on to Indigenous minors and adults. Second, this would also develop stronger ties between Inuit youth and elders. Ability to communicate can increase multigenerational participation in oral cultural activities that would otherwise have been lost with the language. Finally, it would ideally serve to inspire Inuit citizens–whether they be school-aged or middle-aged–to pursue a higher education, potentially in language studies. In this way, Inuit citizens can, themselves, help to provide Inuktitut-learning opportunities for a greater number of people, as well as pass their knowledge on to whomever they desire.

Barriers to Implementation

While this policy is vital in revitalizing the Inuit language at a structural level, there are some barriers to implementation. Limits on funding can be an impediment to any political project, thus funding could potentially be an issue for this policy. A common issue facing most grants is determining from where money will be diverted to pay for programs. This policy, depending on its success, could become an ongoing resource; therefore, its viability and financial priority would ultimately be up to the judgment of the Governments of Canada and Nunavut. This could also create an issue of funding stability, meaning that there may be significantly less funding available some years. Another issue is the Arctic’s lack of reliable telecommunications. This is a drawback to an online-based curriculum because the lack of reliable internet connections would affect both the availability and the quality of the proposed program. Nevertheless, this policy would be extremely beneficial to Inuit and Canadian society and is worth investing into.

Concluding Thoughts and Moving Forward

Years of assimilation into Western society have worn much of Inuit culture down, including Inuktitut, its native language. An overhaul in language programs–in both the public school system and communities at large–must be done. The government can repair what has been lost by providing grants or subsidies to help implement online Inuktitut resources for the public. Determining an adequate amount of funding to meet the community needs may require further deliberation and experimentation. It may be advised that the government test this program with a few small communities and observe the changes in usage of Inuktitut in these households first, before implementing a larger policy, in order to determine how much funding need diverted into this project. Research can also be done in order to determine which online learning resources are most effective and cost efficient, to determine which online system is most beneficial for the public. Whichever way the early stages of this policy unfold, it is certain that this program will help to mend the damage done to Inuit culture and to revitalize their language.

References

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This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.