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From The Other Side Of The Atlantic, French-speakers Learn Inuktitut
by Sarah Rogers - Nunatsiaq News
"If we don't try, the divide remains"
Kuujjuaq-based student Isabelle Dubois, left, and classmate Maryse Turcot join Marc-Antoine Mahieu's Inuktitut class every Tuesday morning by videoconference. The students can communicate with Mahieu, who is pictured standing in his Paris classroom. (photo by ISABELLE DUBOIS)

Johanne Morel considers herself a life-long learner of the Inuit language.

The Montreal-based doctor travels regularly throughout Nunavik to work from community health centres that serve the local population.

As a francophone working in an Inuktitut-speaking milieu, Morel and her patients communicate most often in English.

But Morel has worked for years to build her Inuktitut language skills, learning basic conversation pieces and how to read syllabics.

She's done that in recent years in an unlikely place—through a language institute based in Paris, France, the Institut national des langues et civilisations oriéntales, which offers the only university-level Inuktitut language certificate in the world.

"[My Inuktitut] is still very limited," admits Morel, who's now enrolled in Level 4, the last of four levels offered through INALCO [Institut national des langues et civilisations oriéntales].

"But more and more, I understand sentences. And I can read syllabics written on posters around town."

Morel acknowledges that she'll never be completely fluent but the Inuktitut she has learned goes a long way toward helping ease barriers with her patients.

"It's really to express respect to the people we serve," she said. "There's a big cultural difference between Qallunaat and Inuit… and if we don't try, the divide remains."

Morel is on the phone with Nunatsiaq News from Kuujjuaraapik, where she's working from the local health centre in late September.

From there, she can log onto the centre's videconferencing system to take part in the class; thanks to her efforts, French-speakers in Nunavik and Montreal connect with INALCO's program through Quebec's Télésanté network.

From Paris, teacher Marc-Antoine Mahieu instructs a group of local students while the classroom is also virtually linked into classrooms in Kuujjuaq, Puvirnituq and Montreal.

Sometimes the bandwidth connection in Nunavik can be unstable, but for the most part, Morel said it's enough to see, hear and communicate with Mahieu.

One of Morel's virtual classmates, Isabelle Dubois, shows up to a Kuujjuaq boardroom each Tuesday morning with a handful of other local students to take part in the INALCO class.

Dubois started the course when it was first offered to Kuujjuamiut in 2012. Today, she's reached the program's top class, Level 4.

In her most recent class, the students read a children's book called Piita kigutiartaujuq, a story about a boy named Peter who goes to the dentist.

Dubois, who has called Kuujjuaq home for 16 years, has an Inuktitut-speaking partner and a nine-year-old daughter who is also learning Inuktitut at school.

Her goal is to develop basic conversation skills, and she's made good progress.

"That's what we're working on," said Dubois. "I had learned the basics before to make very simple sentences.

"But was very hard for me to understand certain rules, like why do certain words end with a q or a k?" she said.

"Many Inuit couldn't explain those rules, because it's an oral language and they've always just spoken it that way."

But the instructor is a linguist, and a French-speaking one at that, so the francophones taking Mahieu's class find that he's able to break the language down into pieces to help students better understand how it all fits together.

Mahieu himself learned Inuktitut over a series of research periods spent in the Canadian Arctic. He's quick to note that he's not perfectly fluent and owes much of the success of his class to help he's received from fluent Inuktitut speakers.

"I cannot speak Inuktitut as naturally as an Inuk," Mahieu said. "I don't think any non-native can."

Students of Inuktitut can listen and imitate native speakers to a point, he said.

"Many people believe that adults can learn any language as children do, by simple immersion. This is not true," he said. "You need a linguist to explain how a language works."

Mahieu has had Nunavimmiut Inuktitut speakers record short phrases to analyse in class, exercises which help native French-speakers identify the root word in a phrase to which other suffixes are attached.

"I am aware of my debt to Inuit friends who agree to share their language with me and the students," Mahieu said.

Over its four-year run, Mahieu believes the class has been of benefit to everyone involved: to the institute, to broaden its over 100 language class offerings, to French and Québécois students seeking instruction, and hopefully for Inuit, he added, who can be proud that their language is taught on both sides of the Atlantic.

"In the end, [Inuit] are probably better understood by those who've made the effort to learn their language and taken the time to close the cultural gap," Mahieu said.

For more information about taking one of INALCO's Inuktitut courses from Quebec, write to

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