How to save a dwindling language: Inuit fly to Wales and back

On the personal invitation of Prince Charles, a delegation of Inuit from Canada headed to Wales last week. Their mission? Learn from Welsh language speakers on ways they can work to preserve their traditional language.

'Without the language, we're lost,' says Maatalii Okalik, president of National Inuit Youth Council

Inuit from Canada's North were personally invited to Wales by Prince Charles to learn how they are preserving the Welsh language. (submitted by Paul Pigott)

Inuit in Canada are worried that their language may soon be lost.

That's why a delegation flew over to Wales last week in pursuit of saving their language.

"Without the language, we're lost," said Maatalii Okalik, president of Canada's National Inuit Youth Council, who was a participant.

Members of a national Inuit advocacy organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, were invited by the Prince of Wales himself after hearing of their efforts to revitalize Inuktitut by creating a unified writing method for Inuit across Canada's Eastern Arctic.

Inuit learning from the Welsh Books Council in Wales on how to preserve the language. (submitted by Paul Pigott)

The group visited castles and, even dined with Prince Charles, but their mission was clear: learn from the Welsh about how to protect their language.

"I'm here with the most urgency to be able to see this come to fruition. Because otherwise, the identity crisis that exists within Inuit in Canada will continue to rise," said Okalik.

Colonialism 'jeopardized' traditional languages

Both Welsh and Inuktitut are at risk of being a lost language due to colonialism.

"Because of the impact of past government actions, of residential schools, so many of the languages are in jeopardy," said Matthew Rowe, a spokesperson for Prince's Charities Canada that helped organize the visit.

Inuit participants look at the first Welsh bible published in Wales. (submitted by Paul Pigott)

"So we only have a very narrow window of time to bring these back and to ensure that these cultures, these oral traditions, stay alive."

Okalik agrees.

"Part of the reason why we are where we are today is because of colonialism. So I definitely see this as an opportunity on the path to reconciliation," said Okalik.

According to Statistics Canada's 2011 numbers, around one in five people who identified as of aboriginal descent could speak an aboriginal language. Nearly two in three Inuit can conduct a conversation in an Inuit language, according to a 2011 survey.

The number has decreased by 8.6 per cent since 2006. 

Teaching in Inuktitut

It's mandatory for schools in Wales to teach in Welsh from preschool to grade 10.

Maatalii Okalik, president of Canada's National Inuit Youth Council, shaking the hand of a representative from the Welsh Dictionary Council (submitted by Paul Pigott)

"The language is strong. It's taught in subjects across the board. It's not just a subject," said Peter Geikie, who works for Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. He said he was was impressed by the years of work that Wales put in to revitalizing their traditional language.

On the other hand, Inuit schools require lessons be taught in Inuktitut until grade three, but it is taught as a subject, similar to core French or Spanish classes, starting in grade four.

Monica Ittusardjuat, the national Inuit language coordinator for Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, says that the language policies adopted by the Welsh could serve as a model — and it's now up to the Inuit to learn from other cultures and apply it for their children.

"They can pass it on to the next generation," she said. "We have to make it fun and interesting for them." 

with files from Elyse Skura, Mike Salomonie