When Peter Olsen was in first grade, the only language he was allowed to learn was Danish.
Now Greenland’s education minister, Olsen said his country has made progress towards entrenching Greenlandic languages in the education system and is particularly strong in primary schools – but there are still much to do, especially when it comes to teaching Greenlandic in high school and beyond.
“Many are educated in Greenlandic, but we also have problems with how many children and young people are educated and then [going] to the next level of education,” Olsen explained.
Greenland is an example that Nunavut can look to, say some Inuit, for inspiration on how to teach Inuktut – which encompasses all dialects, including Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun – in schools. Greenlandic and Inuktut both fall under the same umbrella of Inuit languages, but each has different dialects.
“Because we see…our neighbors being able to do this, we feel that the Inuit of Nunavut should and could do this as well,” said Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI). NTI is the legal organization that represents the Inuit of Nunavut, ensuring that the federal and territorial governments fulfill their obligations set out in the Nunavut Agreement.
NTI filed a statement last October against the Nunavut government, alleging the government discriminates against Inuit students by not providing enough Inuktut education. The claim follows the government’s controversial decision to pass Bill 25, which pushed back the deadline until 2039 for bilingual education in Inuktut and English to be taught at all grade levels.
Kotierk pointed to research commissioned by NTI in 2019 that showed Inuit students were reverting to English in most schools and learning a curriculum that was not necessarily Nunavut-based.
“It is a subtractive type of education, whereas in Kalaallit Nunaat [Greenland]it’s a kind of additive education where you don’t take away a student’s identity and self-esteem of where they belong in the world,” she said.
“There’s a solid foundation of who they are and how they can contribute to the world, and once a person has that solid foundation, they’re in a better position to be able to learn other things about the global community. And I think that is what we aspire to here in Nunavut.
A long history of Greenlandic
Greenlandic history is key to understanding why Greenlandic languages are so strong, Olsen explained.
Until 1953, students in the country learned in Greenlandic. But that year, Denmark officially changed Greenland’s status from a colony to a Danish county, forcing Greenlanders to adopt the Danish language.
It was thanks to student protests in the 1970s that the country once again embraced Greenlandic.
“The young people said, ‘No, we’re Greenlandic. We must be educated in Greenlandic. That’s when the whole change started,” Olsen said.
“It was an important step for more autonomy.”
Over the past 40 years, the government of Greenland has worked to increase the number of Greenlandic-speaking teachers in schools. Olsen said that number had tripled since the 1980s, when about 300 teachers spoke the local languages.
Challenges persist however – Greenlandic is stronger along the coast than in Nuuk – and since there are not as many opportunities in Greenland to become high school teachers, many teachers come from Denmark and teach in Danish .
A work in progress
Alliaq Kleist Petrussen was a high school teacher in Greenland. She said the ratio of Greenlandic and Danish teachers tilted overwhelmingly towards the latter: when she taught, she was one of four Greenlandic teachers in a school that had 40 instructors.
School materials and books were also in Danish, and their translation was expensive.
Kleist Petrussen said part of the problem is that there aren’t enough Greenlandic teachers who have a master’s degree – a requirement if they want to teach high school.
She said it also affects students entering high school who are used to learning in Greenlandic.
“I think a lot of students get lower grades…because sometimes they can’t find the words in Danish, so it can be difficult to express themselves [themseves],” she says.
His mother, Birthe, teaches 5th and 6th grade at Hans Lynge School in Nuuk.
Birthe said the presence of Greenlandic in primary schools is very good. In areas outside of Nuuk, such as northern Greenland, primary school students mainly speak Greenlandic. In Nuuk, many of her students speak both Greenlandic and Danish, which she says opens up opportunities for them.
“When you have only one language, you are [limiting] yourself,” she said.
Olsen pointed out that unilingualism was a growing challenge. Greenland’s problem is the opposite of Nunavut’s, he noted – in Nunavut many people speak English better than their own language, while in Greenland people now need to build their capacity to speak languages other than Greenlandic.
“We don’t have a lot of challenges, because our language is very strong, but there are some aspects where we need to be stronger,” he noted.
Yet Greenland’s efforts to strengthen local languages in schools could also succeed in Nunavut, Kotierk said, if there was the political will and support to increase the number of Inuktut speakers teaching in schools. .
“I think it demonstrates that Inuktut could be used at all grade levels and in all subjects, so that students could graduate with Inuktut as the language of instruction,” she said. .
“I think we can take inspiration from that.”