Jeela Palluq-Cloutier, executive director of the Nunavut Language Authority, and her 16 fellow travellers are Inuit — representatives from Nunavut, Labrador, northern Quebec and the Northwest Territories. They were invited to Wales by Prince Charles in order to try and learn how to save a dying language.
“In some areas of Canada’s north, the Inuit language is really thriving,” explains Palluq-Cloutier. “But there are communities where it’s gone down to 20 percent. And the speakers are only the elderly people — the youth are not speaking it anymore. So in those areas, we’re trying to bring the language back.”
Wales might seem like an odd detour on the journey to revive an Inuit language but the Welsh language survival story speaks volumes.
Welsh is believed be around 4,000 years old, making it the oldest language in Britain but during the mid-1900s, it almost became extinct. The language was rescued thanks to a concerted campaign over the past 25 years, which saw Welsh declared an official language and Welsh education made compulsory in public schools.
As a result, there are now Welsh road signs, radio and television stations. There is also a Welsh Language Commissioner, whose stated job description is to “promote and facilitate use of the Welsh language.” More than half a million people in Wales (around 20 percent of the population) now speak Welsh. And the First Minister of Wales recently introduced reforms aimed at doubling that number by the year 2050.
For a lesson in language preservation, the Inuit delegation visited Bangor University, the largest Welsh post-secondary institution, where linguistic experts are now teaming-up with software developers. They’ve created a Welsh online dictionary app, which has been downloaded more than 70,000 times. They’ve also built a Welsh-speaking digital assistant computer, inspired by Apple’s ’Siri.’
“If we didn’t provide the technology, we’d face digital extinction,” says Delyth Prys, the head of the university’s Language Technologies Unit. “At work, in your leisure time, you live your life online. And if you don’t have your language online, then your language has had it.”
The visiting Inuit delegation hopes to create a similar digital dictionary, to help standardize and promote a unified Inuktitut language.
The Inuit language in Canada currently includes a dozen dialects and nine writing systems.
“If you see a word in one dialect, you could press a button (on the app) and find out how you say it on another dialect,” says Monica Ittusardjuat, Language Coordinator for the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami advocacy group. “It’s going to be the same writing system all across northern Canada.”
Their week-long visit to Wales also includes stops at the Welsh Books Council, the National Library of Wales and the Welsh Joint Education Committee.
“I’m very grateful for this trip,” says Jeela Palluq-Cloutier, speaking in her native Inuktitut. “For a chance to learn about the Welsh language, so it may help us with our own language, so we can pass it on to our children. It’s the language of our ancestors. We don’t want to let it go.”