Inuit languages regressing in Nunavut despite “signs of resurgence”

Absolute number of speakers grows but proportion decreases · Report identifies break of language transmission in families, deficient introduction of Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun in schools as main problems

A bilingual Inuktitut-English poster in a school in Nunavut.
A bilingual Inuktitut-English poster in a school in Nunavut. Author: Ocean Networks Canada
Inuit languages are gradually being replaced, mostly by English, in the family environment in Nunavut, the autonomous territory of northern Canada where the Inuit people are the majority population. And yet there are some “signs of a resurgence in the vitality” of these languages, according to a report published this week by Canada’s statistical office.

The report, unveiled last March but not published until now, compares Nunavut language data between 2001 and 2016. And it comes to three major conclusions regarding the two Inuit languages spoken there —Inuktitut, which is by far the most widely used, and Inuinnaqtun.

The first is that the main factor affecting the vitality of Inuit languages is their non-transmission as mother tongues. Nunavut’s Inuit population has grown from 22,500 in 2001 to 30,200 in 2016. Thus, the Inuit make up 85% of the total population of the territory, which amounts to 35,400 people.

However, Inuit with one of the two Inuit languages as their initial language has grown from 19,000 in 2001 to 23,200 in 2016. That is, if in 2001 Inuit speakers were 72% of the population of Nunavut, in 2016 the proportion was 65%.

The study considers that this is caused, above all, by the fact that some Inuit people —particularly those in mixed Inuit-non-Inuit couples— are not passing on the language to their sons and daughters. Thus, among Inuit aged 55 and over, the percentage of speakers of Inuit languages was 97% in 2016. Among children under 15, it stood at 68%.

The second is that very marked “regional disparities” exist. The vitality of Inuinnaqtun is “more fragile” than that of Inuktitut, which in some places is “very good”, although the latter also suffers in “e regional centres with larger non-Inuit populations.”

And the third is that “there was somewhat of a resurgence of Inuktut,” the term used in Canada to refer collectively to Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun, “between 2011 and 2016, particularly in the public sphere.” To draw this conclusion, the report explains that the use of Inuit languages in the workplace has increased among Inuit workers.

Inuit teachers lacking

The report has been published barely one month after the Nunavut Ministry of Education admitted that the introduction of the teaching in Inuit languages at all ages of education will need to be postponed until 2039. In theory, such an implementation had to be ready for the 2019-2020 academic year, in order to provide all students with bilingual Inuktut-English instruction.

The introduction of teaching in Inuit languages only operates so far —depending on the school involved— from nursery to grades 3 or 4, corresponding to children between 8 and 10 years of age. From then on, all teaching is in English.

The Nunavut government argues that there is a serious shortage of teachers who can teach in Inuinnaqtun or Inuktitut. According to another report published in 2019 by linguists Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, Robert Phillipson and Robert Dunbar, 80% of the teaching staff is non-Inuit and has no knowledge of the Inuit languages.

The three linguists accuse Canada of “violating” the obligations to which it has committed itself, with regard to the education of Inuit children, in several international instruments that the North American country has signed and ratified. The experts hold that the current educational system is “involved in processes and practices of linguistic and cultural genocide.”

Besides this, the Nunavut government has also admitted that the public administration will not be able to fully operate in Inuktut until 2040.

The Inuit languages

Linguists do not fully agree on how many and which languages the Inuit people speak. Specialized works often cite a dozen main variants. Ethnologue lists an Inuit language in Alaska —Inupiaq— with two main variants, two languages in Canada —Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut, the latter with two main variants too— and one language in Denmark —Greenlandic, within which three main variants are usually identified that, depending on the criterion, could be considered to be independent languages.

Except in the case of Kalaallisut, which is the basis of the standard Greenlandic language —the only official language in Greenland—, the survival of the Inuit languages is threatened, albeit to varying degrees. Inupiaq barely has 2,000 to 5,500 speakers, and most of Alaska’s Inuit no longer speak it. Some schools incorporate it into their curricula. Inuktitut is relatively healthier, with some 40,000 speakers across Canada, the language being officially recognized and introduced —in the limited way described above— in schools. As also said, Inuinnaqtun is in a more delicate situation, with just over 1,000 speakers and a weaker language transmission in families than Inuktitut.