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Preserving Inuktitut in a digital world

Inuktitut is a language spoken in more than five Canadian provinces and territories.
Digitalization of the Inuktitut language is getting increasingly important as younger generations relies on technology for education. Felix Charron-Leclerc/NNSL photo

Inuktitut is a language spoken in more than five Canadian provinces and territories.

It is recognized as one of the official languages of Nunavut.

Although more than 35,000 Canadians spoke the language based on a 2016 Statistics Canada report, teaching the language remains a challenge.

“Many times we don’t have qualified Inuktitut teachers, and when we do, we often don’t have enough teaching material for teachers to use,” explains Inuk author, business owner and ex-university educator Jeela Palluq-Cloutier.

The author recently won the 2022 Nunavut Literacy Award. She explains, “production of resources and having more qualified teachers is the challenge. The Department of Education is working on a more thorough curriculum for teaching Inuktitut. It’s very important to have our language not just visible but presented in high quality, with high standards of grammar and vocabulary.”

Palluq-Cloutier recently turned her focus on yet another mission to save her mother tongue: helping Facebook translate more than 11,000 words in Inuktitut.

“The goal was to have an interface as an option so the language can be used through social media,” she said.

When it comes to online resources for learning Inuktitut, the options are few. The language is not available on the bigger platforms such as Duolingo or even the Canadian giant LingQ.

Steve Kauffman, Founder of LingQ, said, “We have to have a minimum of content. We have a library for every language which consists of audio and texts to make mini stories. If people were willing to do that for Inuktitut, we would put it up, for sure!”

Someone has already applied for the language to be added but hasn’t put up enough content to be made public, according to Kauffman.

“We can’t say we offer Inuktitut, and you show up and there’s nothing in our library,” he said.

Help with syllabics

Another challenge is technology itself. Typing in syllabics, which is the alphabet of the language, is still inaccessible for most.

Thomassie Mangiok, creator and school administrator, is trying to fix this issue. His application “Inuktitut” will be made public this week. The app available on IOS devices will permit users to type with a syllabic keyboard. A similar application was created in 2015 by the Pirurvik Center but hasn’t been available in the last few years.

It took about two months for the creator to develop the application.

“The goal was to be able to text in Inuktitut with my daughters. It was very frustrating because my children couldn’t even chat in their own language,” said Mangiok.

“It’s modern technology that has brought us to an increase in quality of life. The larger part of the population in Canada has been operating in English and French, what happens to minorities; we’re isolated from the digital progress. Culture, safety, social skills, economy, politics, basic needs are met through communication, it’s essential.”

When it comes to technology advancements, being able to type in syllabics isn’t the only challenge the Inuktitut-speakers are facing.

“We need better internet speed to have access to digital courses. Not only that, we need it to create content. It is very expensive to have basic internet in the North,” Mangiok added.

Although there are many challenges, Palluq-Cloutier is optimistic for the future of Inuktitut.

“I don’t think it’s going to disappear because of the work we are putting into preserving it. The reality of our language is very different from community to community. In the Kivalliq region, the language is much lower than in the Baffin region, and in some communities it’s as high as 90-98 per cent.”

She concludes on a positive note.

“My hope is that our language will not just survive but thrive. The way it can be done is by producing teaching, reading material supporting the education system, material that can reach the youth.”

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