Inuktitut, the language of the Eastern Canadian Arctic Inuit, is one of the few indigenous languages in North America with a good long-term probability of survival, according to a recent journal article. Shanley Allen explores literature on the ways Inuit young people learn and retain their own language in the face of the majority English and French cultures of mainstream Canadian society.

Most Inuit are bilingual in Inuktitut and either English or French, with some exceptions. Many elders over age 50 never effectively learned one of the two dominant languages. Also, 98 percent of young Inuit children in Nunavut learn only Inuktitut in their homes—only 2 percent are raised from birth to be bilingual. Most children begin learning English in school in the third grade, though the patterns vary according to the school and the parents’ choices.

The focus of the article is on the danger to long-term Inuktitut survival of a creeping shift into English by the young people. The author examines research that provides clues to the chances of English (or French) replacing Inuktitut, with the attendant cultural changes such a shift would have on their culture and society. Allen speculates that the greater prestige of English or French, as the dominant languages, may have a significant effect on this potential process. A shift away from native Inuit languages has already taken place, quite swiftly, in Alaska and the Northwest Territories.

Attitudes about the importance of retaining Inuktitut appear to be quite strong in Nunavut, to judge by several published works that deal with learning patterns in Eastern Canadian Inuit schools. One study examined what linguists call code mixing, the usage of phrases and words from different languages in the same utterance, by very young, bilingual Inuit children. The researchers found that the children could easily use words and phrases from English in an Inuktitut sentence and not confuse the very differing grammars of the two languages.

The children tended to use words or phrases from English and easily melded them into the structure of Inuktitut. These children showed little diminution in their use of Inuktitut—they only mixed in English words and phrases in about five percent of their utterances. Sentences with mixed languages were much less frequent than sentences of pure Inuktitut, and the study failed to show any lessening in the strength of Inuktitut by those children.

Researchers in another study investigated the ways bilingual children used subjects in sentences, which are normally required in English and normally not used in Inuktitut. The investigators found that the expected prestige of English did not appear to have any effect on the speaking patterns of the children. They kept the subjects in their English sentences and they did not use them while talking in Inuktitut. The supposition that the use of Inuktitut may be declining among small children due to the influence and prestige of English is not supported, Allen observes.

Allen also examines literature that may bear on the question of whether educating children in English (or French) in school affects the language uses of the children. One study of children in kindergarten and grades one to two, who received some instruction in one of the two dominant languages, showed that their Inuktitut development was severely disrupted. Each additional year of instruction in the dominant language produced increasing disruptions in the children’s facility with Inuktitut.

An interesting aspect of these results is that children who were from native English speaking families, whose language of instruction in school was French, and vice versa, did not show declines in their native languages as much as the Inuktitut speakers did. Allen suspects that this might be due to the greater prestige of the two majority languages compared to the native language.

Inuit parents often express the conviction that their children are progressively losing their ability to speak Inuktitut as they become older and are exposed to more and more classes in the dominant languages. The ones living in the larger towns in Nunavut felt that their children had experienced a greater loss in their ability to speak Inuktitut than young people in the smaller villages. Results of one study of children in grades three through eight who grew up in large and small communities in Nunavut confirmed the suspicions of the Inuit parents.

Another study of children in grades 1 through 12 in Iqaluit, a large town on Baffin Island, focused on whether they used Inuktitut or English with their parents, siblings, and friends. The youngest children tend to use primarily Inuktitut, but their familiarity with the language declines with age. As they mature, children continue to speak some Inuktitut with their parents, less with their siblings, and still less with their friends. By the time the children reach grades 10 through 12, only one out of seven still speaks Inuktitut with their parents, and none in the sample speaks the language with their siblings and friends.

Parents, likewise, reported that they spoke mostly Inuktitut with their young children, but they spoke it less and less with the older ones. They indicated that they preferred to speak it with little children to give them a good foundation in their Inuit identity, but they wanted them also to be proficient in English so they used that language with them as they got older.

The author concludes that, while the use of Inuktitut as the sole language of the Inuit is clearly declining, it does not appear to be in danger of being abandoned. The author evaluates the future of Inuktitut and foresees “a healthy stable bilingualism rather than a warning sign of language loss” (p.532). Proper choices in the homes and schools should allow the Inuit to continue to use English fluently while retaining their native Inuktitut language and the culture it represents.

Allen, Shanley. 2007. “The Future of Inuktitut in the Face of Majority Languages: Bilingualism or Language Shift?” Applied Psycholinguistics 28: 515-536