Inuit Youth Speak Out: Language on the Line

Photos by Eilís QuinnLanguage experts may be divided on how to ensure the survival of the Inuit language across the North, but they do agree on one thing – getting more young people interested in speaking the Inuit language will be key to its long term survival.

So when Eye on the Arctic travelled North this year, we sat down with young people from across Nunavut to hear about their struggles with language, identity and what they think it will take to revive the Inuit language across the Arctic.

Eilís Quinn recorded her conversations about language with four Nunavut youth in this special report.

Click to listen to Eilís Quinn’s conversations on language with four youth from Nunavut:


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Eric Kitigon, 17

Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
High School Student

Eric Kitigon from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Photo by Eilís Quinn

Audio: High school student Eric Kitigon talks to Eye on the Arctic about language loss and identity struggle in his community.

Listen: {play}/media/jukebox/Eric.

Eilís – What’s the language in your community?

Eric – Well the language used to be Inuinnaqtun. But now it’s dying slowly because of all the youth that are not taking part in their culture. They’re not embracing it. For example, if you listen to the way I talk, you can tell that I’m English more than I am Inuinnaqtun. I do feel that we should be speaking our language but I love English. It’s in my blood. I don’t know if I can ever learn (Inuinnatqun). (But) within my school, I do feel that we should speak it though.

Did your parents speak English in the home?

Yes. Like every day. When they talk to me, they always talk to me in English. No Inuinnaqtun at all.

How do you communicate with the elders in your community?

I talk slow with my grandparents in their house. That way they understand what I’m saying. And if I rush too much, they won’t understand. My grandfather would talk to my grandmother in Inuinnaqtun to understand what I said.

Do you think it would be a good thing for Nunavut if there was a standardized language?

If Inuinnaqtun was protected like English and French in Canada, then it would definitely be very helpful and grateful if we could like have a standardization on what language to speak in Nunavut.

 If you don’t speak the language of your community, do you still feel you have a strong cultural identity?

I don’t know if I have any image of myself being Inuinnaqtun. Sure I may have Inuit blood in me but that doesn’t mean that I can be Inuk. In order for me to be Inuk, I’d have to be more cultural, more (Inuinnaqtun) language spoken…

What does it mean to be Inuk now for young people like you?

That’s a good question, what does it mean to be Inuk? Like I don’t even know that answer at all yet. Until I figure out that, we, as a culture, can figure out together, like, what it is to be Inuk.

Heather Arqviq , 19

Gjoa Haven, Nunavut
Recreation Co-ordinator Trainee

Heather Arqviq from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. Photo by Eilís QuinnAudio: Heather Arqviq describes her community, how she lost her language and how she’s working to get it back.

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Eilís – If I was walking down the street in your community, who would I hear speaking the language and who wouldn’t I hear speaking the language?

Heather – Our dialect in Gjoa Have is mainly Natsilingmiutut dialect. There’s other dialects too but they’re all pretty much almost the same.

You would hear adults and elders 35 years of age and older speaking Inuktitut. Youth, 25 and under, would be speaking English.

How good is your Inuktitut?

I use it only at home. I don’t use it outside of home. There’s some days where I could speak it really fluently and there’s some days I get tongue-twisted. I think it’s because I get nervous.

I grew up with grandparents, I used to speak (Inuktitut) really well. But when I started going to school I started speaking English and I wasn’t around my grandparents very often anymore.

I still have that language and I think all I need to do is just build up on it and just keep practising. That’s what I’m going to be doing and what I’ve been doing the past couple months.

I’ll make mistakes. It’s really good that my grandparents and my parents and anyone I try to speak it to, they don’t make fun of me. They just encourage me to keep trying and they’ll give me the right words. It helps a lot. I’m really happy and I’m really proud that I’m not being discouraged in trying to learn my Inuktitut language.

If you’re in your community and school and speak to someone in your class in Inuktitut, what are they going to think?

People in Gjoa Haven are mostly Inuit. But I think they would just be confused. Because most of them, I think, won’t know how to answer back…. I believe they can understand it but they just won’t know how to answer back.

People like (Canadian Inuit leader) Jose Kusugak have been talking about a pan-Canadian (Inuktitut) dialect – and even saying there should be a pan-Inuit dialect across the circumpolar world. What do you think?

There’s both pros and cons about it. But it would be really interesting that one day we could all speak the same dialect so we could have books translated into Inuktitut. There’s so many dialects all across the circumpolar world that it would be really expensive to get them translated in so many dialects. It would be really interesting if someday there could be a standardized dialect or language. Just so we could have that opportunity when we go on the Internet, if we want to watch some kind of movie or if we want to read a book, like a Harry Potter book.

It would be really neat to see someday in the future.

Otto Apsaktaun Jr., 19

Kugaaruk, Nunavut
Community Volunteer

Otto Apsaktaun from Kugaaruk, Nunavut. Photo by Eilís QuinnAudio: Listen to our extended conversation with Otto Apsaktaun Jr. as he describes his community and how the Inuit language crisis is affecting young people across the Canadian North.

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Eilís – How well do you speak Inuktitut?

Otto – I’m not a great speaker. I’m gonna…. I’ll be a great speaker one day that’s for sure. (Now) I’m not so good. I only speak in English nowadays.

When I try and speak in Inuktitut, I just lose all my confidence. It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel right.

Why, personally, it’s so important for you to speak Inuktitut and to have your friends and other people of your own generation speaking it more?

Our elders’ knowledge is so valuable. The only way we can access their knowledge is through communication. Our elders don’t speak in English at all. They don’t understand it.

What comes out of our elders hearts, minds and souls is very valuable for me personally. What’s stopping me from getting it, is me not learning how to speak Inuktitut.

Can you give us some examples of things that it’s important to learn from elders in Inuit culture in Canada?

When I was younger I would never listen to my parents or my grandfather much. It’s striking me now, I feel.

You guys, who’s ever out there, listen to your parents. Listen to your grandparents. And you guys won’t have to pay for it in the long run, OK?

So, I’m only 19 but I’ve got lots to learn yet. I know how to fish. I know how to hunt caribou. I think I could provide for a small family right now. But it’s not just about hunting, it’s your values in life, your knowledge, your language. It’s important.

What do you think about a pan-Inuit dialect someday?

That’s pretty amazing. I wouldn’t mind envisioning that in the future. But for now, it’s just northern communities in Canada. I’m just taking it step by step. I’m not going to jump into the future.

Everyone has the right to preserve their dialect. But now, there’s so many youth in Nunavut that can’t speak their own language. So I would suggest they have a standardization of language in Nunavut for now.

Our parents, our grandparents, have our dialects. It’s safe with them.

Sarah Jancke, 21

Cambridge Bay, Nunavut

Programs Co-ordinator at Kitikmeot Inuit Association & Cambridge Bay Hamlet Councillor

Sarah Jancke from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Photo by Eilís QuinnAudio: Hear our complete conversation with Sarah Jancke as she introduces her community and shares her views on how language loss in Nunavut could be turned around.

Listen: {play}/media/jukebox/Sarah.

Eilís – What dialect of Inuktitut do they speak in your community?

Sarah – In Cambridge Bay they speak Inuinnaqtun. There’s some Inuktitut too but mostly it’s Inuinnaqtun. (Inuinnaqtun) is specific to the western side of Nunavut like in Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk.

Young people are speaking fewer and fewer Inuit languages in Nunavut. What’s it like in your community?

Our community is one of the bigger ones. There’s a lot of outside influence and there has been for a long time. It’s one of the more central communities so our language loss has started a lot earlier than some of the other communities. So our youth today don’t speak Inuinnaqtun at all or Inuktitut.

It’s not like Iqaluit or the other communities where you walk around and you could see and hear the Inuktitut. In Cambridge Bay, it’s all English.

Do you speak one of the languages in your community?

I don’t, but I’ve been working at it. I’ve tried. It’s become a priority in my life to put that first and start trying to learn Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut.

And why is that important for you?

It’s important for me because it’s our language and especially in Cambridge Bay, it’s dying out. If we don’t start now, then the language is going to be lost forever. It’s important because we need to speak to our elders while they’re here. We’re Inuit and we have to be proud of who we are and where we came from. Part of that is embracing our culture and identity and learning Inuinnaqtun or Inuktitut.

What do you feel you’ve lost if you’re not speaking in your local language?

The connection to the elders is the biggest thing. A big part of culture is language and there’s a huge identity loss within youth and the middle group. We feel it when we come (to Iqaluit) and we see Inuit speaking Inuktitut. Why aren’t we? Like we don’t notice it sometimes until we see it in the other communities.

It’s sad. In Cambridge Bay, our elders speak English to us. They’ve learned to speak English and for me it’s sad trying to speak to them in English. I feel bad because I can’t speak to them in our own language.

What do you think parents, elders or even the Nunavut government could or should be doing to make language more attractive or to do a better job teaching it to youth in Nunavut?

One of my favourite things is elder/youth camps. Embracing the land and embracing the culture more, whether it’s through drum dancing or through going out on the land and spending time with elders. But there’s also a need for teaching proper grammar and just building the confidence of people so they can learn the language as well as use it in their day-to-day lives.

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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