Language learning: not hard at all

Most babies can learn to speak a language or languages without even trying  — and so can older children, too, as I saw when I started to absorb, then speak, Finnish.

But my success in learning Inuktitut later, as an adult, was less successful.

Jocelyn Barrett, Sylvia Cloutier and Siu-Ling Han participate in an exercise during the 1999 Intermediate Inuktitut class at Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit, which involves "shooting" the right person, according to the command in Inuktitut. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Jocelyn Barrett, Sylvia Cloutier and Siu-Ling Han participate in an exercise during the 1999 Intermediate Inuktitut class at Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit, which involves “shooting” the right person, according to the command in Inuktitut. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Why? For one thing, I was never immersed totally in the language outside my Nunavut Arctic College courses. In Iqaluit there are many English- and French-speakers, and even when in more unilingual communities, there was always the presence of another language somewhere in the background — on television or the internet.

Had I been able to visit an outpost camp and hear no English for a few months, I believe my mastery of Inuktitut could have quickly improved — but that was hard to do with job and family.

On the other hand, although my mainly school-learned French was imperfect,  I quickly became fluent when I worked in a unilingual French-language office as a young adult in Quebec. Perhaps if Nunavut or Nunavik had Inuktitut-only work environments, people would get better at speaking Inuktitut more quickly.

And if all Inuktitut dialects in Canada used Roman orthography for writing,  it might be easier to learn and use the language without mastering an entirely new alphabet. Even now, I can read and understand more of something written in Greenlandic or Inuinnaqtun than in syllabics, which require an additional level of effort to understand.

Based on my experiences, here’s what I think the list of ingredients for language-learning — which could be applied to Inuktitut teaching (or as it’s now called by the Government of Nunavut ,”Inuktut”) — include, namely to:

• start language-learning early when the brain is more open to learning language(s) in schools and child care centres (as is the rule in Nunavik child care centres) and at home;

• provide immersion in the language, at home and in the community, if possible;

• make the language worth learning — that’s because if there’s a need to speak, then you’ll want to learn it;

• draw on the language skills of unilingual elders;

• put the language into situations like social activities, sewing or hunting or whatever —because  it’s much easier to remember that way;

• adopt Roman orthography ASAP;

• put less emphasis on dialects and work on basic communication skills; and,

• foster more publishing of books, magazines and other reading materials.

None of these ideas are new. In fact, the above list reads like the to-do lists of many language specialists in Nunavut and Nunavik.

But although these are commonsense, already-accepted ideas, many have gone nowhere in Canada’s North or moved too slowly to have an impact.

Money isn’t the only issue, either: it’s will — if you just talk to your children in a language, they will learn.

Look for future A date with Siku girl posts on Arctic talk, travel, thoughts and news.

 

 

 

 

 

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