The Inuit of Northern Canada are worried that their language, Inuktitut, will die. They looked to the example of another language, Welsh, that managed to come back from the brink, thanks to some creative and forceful measures. Inuit language specialists sat down recently in Wales to learn about language-revitalization efforts.
I don’t know if the secret is this simple, but here’s one of the most important things that the Welsh are doing:
It’s mandatory for schools in Wales to teach in Welsh from preschool to grade 10.
That means that the language is the means to an end. Welsh is not a subject in school; it is school.
Inuktitut, like any language, will only succeed when it is the most natural end to the most natural ends.
Inuktitut, however, is a subject in school, like French or Spanish. The government requires it to be offered till grade three.
When I wrote about Euskara (Basque), I noted the same thing. Our exchange student learned everything at her Ikastola in Euskara, from preschool through high school, except for Spanish and English, which were taught as subjects. She told me that she had never done math in Spanish, as a matter of fact. She spoke Spanish at home, so she was completely bilingual in both languages.
The number of fluent Euskara-speakers has been on the rise over the past few decades. This system offers a success story like Welsh.
If Inuktitut needed an example, I would think Euskara could help in this area.
How does the language adapt?
The history of Euskara may help, as well.
I wrote previously that Euskara has mixed throughout its history with other languages, such as Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew, in addition to Spanish. Nevertheless, it has held strong. Some believe that the language survived because of its isolation, but in my previous post I showed that the language evidences constant contact with others.
Rather than remaining isolated, the language adapted to the world surrounding it, century after century.
I believe that this is the test for whether a language can survive: not whether it remains isolated, but whether it adapts as the society evolves. The language has to be practical, useable, and efficient for what people—especially young people—want to do.
I disagree with what the Inuit language coordinator said,
We have to make it fun and interesting for them.
I don’t remember anyone making English “fun” or “interesting” for me. I spoke it from my birth (more or less). I spoke it with my grandparents, my parents, my sister, teachers, friends, classmates, football players, and bakers. I used it for every conceivable context. Very useful. I don’t “enjoy” speaking English today, but I speak it every day.
For a child at school for 5-6 hours per day, whatever language you use with them at school will be incredibly practical. If it’s the only way they can communicate with their teachers and classmates, they won’t even know they’re speaking it; it will simply come out of their mouths.
If, however, the language is an object of study, it will be like music or art or math: a nice passtime, but children will eventually choose whether they “like” it or “excel” at it. They will ask the question about whether it is useful or not.
Inuktitut has to move out from its frozen isolation and confront anglophone Canada. The Inuit must create an environment where Inuktitut is the most practical language for children to speak. If speakers of Euskara can talk about math, engineering, clothes shopping, and pop music, the language can live. If it lives isolated to discussions about traditional fishing and dancing, the language is doomed. Inuktitut has to become the everyday currency of Inuit children.
The ideal is for Inuit children not to think of Inuktitut as fun or interesting. The goal is for them not to think about Inuktitut at all, but to think in it throughout the day, whatever they’re doing.