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There are five primary distinct Inuit language dialects spoken throughout Canada. These dialects are: Inuvialuktun, spoken in the Inuvialuit region in the Northwest Territories; Inuinnaqtun (primarily in some communities in western Nunavut); Inuttitut (Eastern Nunavut); Inuttitut (Nunavik); and Inuttut (Nunatsiavut). While some of these dialects have many speakers, others have very few. In this report, these dialects are collectively known as Inuktitut.
Inuktitut is one of only three Aboriginal languages in Canada spoken by a large enough population base that long-term survival is likely.1 While the language remains strong overall, knowledge and use are declining. In some communities and regions, there are few speakers.
In 2006, just over 32,200 Inuit, or 64% of the total, reported Inuktitut as their mother tongue, down from 68% in 1996. (Mother tongue refers to the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood by the individual at the time of the census.)
Also on the decline is the proportion of Inuit who speak Inuktitut at home, the best place to pass on the language to younger generations. In 2006, about 25,500 Inuit, 50% of the total, reported Inuktitut as their home language, down from 58% in 1996. (Home language refers to the language spoken most often at home by the individual at the time of the census.)
A higher percentage of Inuit (69%) reported that they spoke Inuktitut well enough to carry on a conversation, although this, too, was a decline from 72% in 1996.
Inuktitut was spoken equally by Inuit in all age groups. About seven in 10 young, middle-aged and older Inuit could converse in Inuktitut.
The census found evidence of Inuktitut revitalization, as some Inuit appear to be learning it as a second language. For example, 11,100 Inuit youth aged 14 and under, 63% of the total, reported an Inuktitut mother tongue. However, 69%, or 12,200, said they could speak it well enough to hold a conversation.
Inuit in urban areas were much less likely than those in the North to speak Inuktitut. In 2006, only 15% of Inuit in urban centres could converse in Inuktitut, compared with 84% in Inuit Nunaat.
Most of these were older Inuit. Among Inuit aged 14 and under in urban centres, only 12% could carry on a conversation in Inuktitut, compared with 23% of Inuit seniors aged 65 and over.
The national picture hides many regional differences in the strength and use of Inuktitut. While the language is strong in Nunavut, and especially Nunavik, this was not the case in the Inuvialuit region and in Nunatsiavut.
The Inuktitut language was strongest in the region of Nunavik, as virtually all Inuit (99%) in this region could speak the language well enough to have a conversation, the same percentage as in 1996.
The vast majority (91%) of Inuit in Nunavut could hold a conversation in Inuktitut, but this was down from 94% in 1996. In the far western and far eastern Inuit regions, the situation was very different.
In both 1996 and 2006, in Nunatsiavut, just over one-quarter (27%) of Inuit could hold a conversation in Inuktitut. In the Inuvialuit region, 20% could do so in 2006, down from 23% in 1996.
There is evidence that Inuktitut is being learned as a second language. In Nunavut, 83% reported an Inuktitut mother tongue, while 91% reported they could converse in the language. In Nunatsiavut, 22% of Inuit had Inuktitut as their mother tongue, compared with 27% who said they knew it well enough to have a conversation. In the Inuvialuit region, 14% reported Inuktitut as their mother tongue, while 20% said they were able to hold a conversation in it.
Data from the 2001 Aboriginal Peoples Survey showed that the large majority of Inuit adults in each region stated that it was very or somewhat important for them to keep, learn or relearn Inuktitut. Nine in every 10 Inuit parents stated it was very or somewhat important for their children to speak and understand Inuktitut.2
Table 12 Percentage of Inuit population who reported Inuktitut as mother tongue and as home language, and knowledge of Inuktitut, Canada and regions, 1996 and 2006