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What’s language got to do with it?

Editor’s Briefing | Canada’s government wants to improve indigenous-language teaching. The idea could be a lifesaver
Linguistically speaking, it’s just the opposite (Photo: Agent Magenta)

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Editor’s Briefing
After an extended hiatus, The Arctic Journal is reviving its Editor’s Briefing. The briefing itself is a summary of the main points about a current topic, while a list of key reads and resources gives readers a place to begin if they would like to learn more.

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Typically, discussions about multi-lingualism in Canada have focussed on whether French truly is equal to English, as required by the country’s constitution. Under Justin Trudeau, the newish prime minister, and himself a true bi-lingual speaker (as displayed rather nicely in this 2008 video), such conversations are taking a new turn.

Mr Trudeau and his party, the Liberals, are strong proponents of improving the way Canada approaches indigenous groups, to the extent that issues facing them are elements of the official party platform under the ‘Strong Canada’ heading.

He most recently brought up the matter on June 3, when he drew a link between strong linguistic and cultural ties and suicide rates. “As an indicator of pride and identity, belonging and culture, indigenous languages are essential,” he told a virtual town-hall meeting hosted by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, a Canadian broadcaster.

SEE RELATED: Don’t throw the language out with the bathwater

Emphasising the need to strengthen indigenous languages and education follows the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up to investigate the mistreatment of indigenous young people in the residential school system in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Its final report, issued last year, included amongst its 94 recommendations five related directly to language, such as establishing university-level programmes and “acknowledging that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights”.

The government’s intention to implement at least some of these recommendations appears to be more than just talk. In March, for example, Mr Trudeau’s and his government made indigenous peoples “clear winners”, according to the Globe and Mail, a news outlet, in the 2016 budget. Some C$8.4 billion ($6.6 billion) is to be spent over the next five years on improving all aspects of life for Canada’s First Nations, Métis (or mixed-heritage) and Inuit population.

Almost C$4 billion, the largest portion, is set aside for education. Language is just one element of this (others include school construction and renovation, for example), but the overall effect should be the improvement in “pride and identity, belonging and culture” that Mr Trudeau said were essential for bringing down suicide rates.

SEE RELATED: In Nunavut, a less fatalistic word for cancer

This will be a welcome contribution to the efforts already being made by inidgenous groups. The Inuit, for example, have introduced new health terms that reflected changes in both language and technology. One such change was coming up with a new word for reflecting the increased survival rate for people with the illness.

More prominent has been discussions amongst language experts in Nunavut about a possible standardisation of the way its Inuit languages are written.

Nunavut's official languages include both Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun (in addition to English and French). Inuktitut, the more widely used of the two Inuit languages, can be written using either Roman letters or syllabics, but language experts and Inuit leaders suggest that using just one would make it easier to learn and easier to use.

The decision appears to be leaning towards eliminating syllabics, something that would have the obvious benefit of making it possible to type in Inuktitut on computers without needing specialised software or hardware. Some have lamented that this would be a cultural loss, but others argue that syllabics, like letters, were introduced to the language by outsiders, and that losing them is no great loss, particularly in light of the potential benefits doing so would have.

The changes might save the language, but, if Mr Trudeau is right, it may also do a world of good for the people who speak it too.