Diversity, Indigenous Learning, School Community


Sharing the connection of my mother’s language

As my students prepare for their day on a cold winter morning, they walk through the doors with rosy cheeks, bright eyes and smiles. My first words are usually “Qanuippit?” (How are you?), or “Ullaakkut” (Good Morning). There is a unique privilege in greeting and connecting with students in our mother tongue. 

My students speak to me in both Inuktitut and English. I encourage them as much as possible to speak in Inuktitut. It can be a challenge sometimes to remind them to speak their language. I know it is important for them to understand that our language is one we must appreciate and use at every opportunity. I wonder if they really understand what it means when I ask them to speak Inuktitut or why they must feel constrained at times by the reduction of speaking in English. I want them to feel free, as free as they are and can be. Part of my job is to help them to see their own freedom as students, to embrace and appreciate their learning in any language.

The upbringing I received was different from what I imagine many of my students must experience today. I was not allowed to speak English within the boundaries of our home. When I was about 11, I remember my mother turned to me after one of my complaints about her strictness against English in our home and replied in Inuktitut, “I may not be able to give you everything from our culture, but I can give you the language.” That moment stuck with me. The depth of her words would not fully make sense until later in my life, but I attribute my personal strength in the area of Inuktitut to my mother.

Today, I continue to speak Inuktitut and am still learning new words, often ones associated with our school curriculum. I invite Elders to join our classroom to support me and my students in writing quality sentences in Inuktitut. There are also a plethora of words that I do not often use because of my own daily routine. Words that are associated with being on the land, the preparation of skins or traditional foods or the observation of weather, are often isolated to people who are connected to those areas on a regular basis. I have made it one of my goals to learn words outside of my routine and to make them more accessible to my students.

The more we use it, the more language lives and grows. I often see the seeds budding in my own students as I hear some of them repeating words in Inuktitut in their conversations. I feel a great sense of pride and responsibility in speaking to my students in Inuktitut, a language that was formerly forbidden to an entire generation before mine. There is a unique connection when speaking to another person in Inuktitut, if only to tell a joke or repeat a story. The students may not fully appreciate the positive experiences I yearn to share, but I know there will be lasting benefits to the encouragement I can provide and a space that allows them to speak in Inuktitut as freely as they choose. There will be days when they wonder why I am being “strict” when it comes to using Inuktitut, but I truly hope they will come to share and appreciate the joy and benefits of using our language as much as I have.

Photo: Ryerson Clark (iStock)

First published in Education Canada, June 2014

Meet the Expert(s)

Miali-Elise Irralik Coley

Miali-Elise Irralik Coley is an elementary school teacher in Nunavut.

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