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Inuktitut: A rich cultural imperative

Teevy Mackay

Please click here to read this article in inuktitut.
By Teevi Mackay
I have been writing this youth column for almost a year now. I have received feedback from people about it, one of which included that they liked the fact that I share my own personal stories. This is interesting because that was the toughest part when writing — the internal debate I would have — about whether I was being too personal, but I think it has proven to be very powerful for readers.

I am about to write about my personal Inuktitut (learning) journey. I am not fluent in Inuktitut but I am able to understand more than I can speak. Definitely in the last five years I have become better at understanding and speaking Inuktitut because I have made more of an effort in this area.

I was born in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, and moved to Iqaluit when I was just three-years old — in the midst of my formative years. I am sure that I was able to understand and speak Inuktitut before moving to Iqaluit. Almost instantaneously after moving to the mostly English-speaking community of Iqaluit, I lost the ability to speak Inuktitut. My gears at this age quickly switched to speaking English.

It is incredibly difficult and heartbreaking to be unable to speak your own language. This is something that I struggle with and yet I know that if I tried hard enough I could learn it and become fluent. I have sought encouragement from family to learn Inuktitut and I remember my late cousin Nigel telling me “try your best.” These words of encouragement have always rung strong with me and still do today.

I know that many Inuit have strong opinions about Inuktitut, as we should. I have had discussions in the past with classmates who believe that understanding and speaking Inuktitut is a fundamental part of our culture and identity as Inuit, and rightly so. I also believe strongly today and know that encouragement is so important in this area, rather than discouragement.

I have heard a common dialogue from many Inuit over the years about being shy to speak it in fear of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves. I even had a childhood friend say to me that it would sound strange if I were to speak Inuktitut fluently which I feel today was a form of discouragement because I know that it did, indeed, discourage me because I then felt insecure in that area. However, recently I have heard quite the opposite from a close friend of mine who is fluent in Inuktitut and who has been instrumental in being that encouraging voice and mentor in the area of my Inuktitut acquisition.

Part of maturing is becoming aware of these social nuances between yourself and your peers. I have become attuned to who genuinely encourages and aware of those who either directly or indirectly discourage you to become better.

I have listened to the Inuktitut radio as a friend of mine suggested it as it helps with learning Inuktitut. Learning Inuktitut songs while I was enrolled at Nunavut Sivuniksavut (an eight-month training program for Nunavut Inuit) was also an important part of becoming better at speaking Inuktitut. I do know that immersing yourself in the language within a community where Inuktitut is strong is probably the best way to learn it.

A childhood friend of mine from Iqaluit, Franco Buscemi, told me about his experience regaining Inuktitut fluency. He said that he had to “overcome a few myths that have presented themselves as obstacles and fear” of becoming fluent in Inuktitut. The first myth: he is not good at learning languages. However, he was able to do it anyway. Buscemi says, “Speaking publicly or speaking with people who prefer to use Inuktitut has been effective in building my fluency.”

The second myth against Inuktitut acquisition, according to Buscemi, is having no time to learn Inuktitut. He says, “this is a validation [to not learn Inuktitut]; there is always time — I determine how I allocate it.” Buscemi says that you will always be criticized but “there are far more people who will support and foster the development of learning Inuktitut than there are critics.” Additionally, you should not be discouraged to learn Inuktitut because of the dominance of English because that is just an excuse.

My uncle told me once that when you are fluent in Inuktitut then you become more attuned and closer to the land as Inuit are closely connected to our land, animals, and one another through communities and ultimately through our language.

This is something that really intrigues me. I also feel an incredible connection when I speak in Inuktitut — a connection to myself, Inuit, Inuktitut-speakers, and ultimately, to my culture. The ways in which Inuktitut expresses thought and thinking is powerful and crucial to who I am and where my family comes from.

I feel more encouraged than ever to learn Inuktitut and I want to encourage others to feel that same confidence. It is paramount for our cultural livelihood and for our own personal identity. I also want to encourage non-Inuit to learn Inuktitut as well. Tapping into the richness of Inuit culture is a beautiful thing and is likely to make a difference in your life.

The last myth associated with Inuktitut acquisition that Buscemi shared with me: “Inuktitut is a hard language to learn.”

Actually, Inuktitut isn’t a difficult language to learn. It can be learned, should be learned, and must be learned.

Teevi Mackay grew up in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Currently she is in her third year of journalism and law studies at Carleton University. Follow Teevi Mackay on Twitter: @tiivai