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Eleven official languages and a vast territory: the N.W.T. Literacy Council's linguistic challenge

Marie-Claire Pître
National Adult Literacy Database


The Canadian North is home to the Inuit, the Dene and the Metis. The people of the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) inhabit a region characterized not only by long, cold winters but also by a wide variety of languages and dialects.

In Yellowknife—the capital of this vast territory that stretches from the Yukon to Nunavut—the Northwest Territories Literacy Council (NWTLC) is an organization dedicated to promoting and supporting literacy and essential skills in the eleven official languages of the N.W.T.

Helen Balanoff is the Executive Director of the NWTLC and knows the region well. In the early 1970s, she settled in the N.W.T. as a teacher, first in Cambridge Bay, and later in Yellowknife. She subsequently became a senior public servant at the N.W.T. Department of Education. In the 1990s, she taught in China for six years. Since her return to Yellowknife in 2001, Helen has been working at the N.W.T. Literacy Council, which has six employees.

"Working with the eleven official languages of the N.W.T. is quite a challenge," says Helen. The eleven languages are as follows:

  1. English
  2. French
  3. Inuktitut (Inuit language)
  4. Inuvialuktun (Inuit language)
  5. Inuinnaqtun (Inuit language)
  6. Gwich'in (Dene language)
  7. North Slavey (Dene language)
  8. South Slavey (Dene language)
  9. Tlicho (Dene language)
  10. Chipewyan (Dene language)
  11. Cree (Algonquian language)

Various dialects that are not official languages derive from these languages, including Michif, the language of the Metis. "There are similarities between the Inuit and Dene languages, and people who belong to the same language family can usually understand each other," explains Helen, adding, "These days, aside from the elders, most people speak English."

"We have a huge mandate, and to achieve it we need much more money than we are receiving," says Helen. "Our territory is enormous. Did you know that it is the third largest entity in Canada after Nunavut and Quebec?"

Producing resources

"Producing material in all these languages is difficult because people can't agree on the translations, or on language standardization," explains Helen. "Over the years, there have been attempts to standardize the Aboriginal languages. But changing the spelling of Aboriginal words is not an easy task because people become attached to what they know. In schools, we teach children the new Inuinnaqtun and Inuvialuktun spellings. However, the elders are the experts in these languages. They know the old form, and they still use it in the community. Moreover, many Dene are unable to read or write in their own language."

How can material be produced in so many languages?

"We have no choice—we have to be selective," explains Helen. "We regularly write summaries of the documents we produce. These one- or two-page summaries are published in all the official languages. We also select popular subject matter that people can relate to in their everyday lives. For example, we have produced children's growth charts that people can tape to their walls. This allows them to see the words written in their language every day. Production costs are another factor to consider. A few years ago, we produced televised community announcements. Production was costly and slow. We produced four announcements per year, and it took us three years to cover all the official languages of the N.W.T."

The NWTLC also produces French resources. In 2011, it produced a collection of nursery rhymes and songs titled 1-2-3 Chante avec moi (PDF Version Approx. 1.72 MB) (Help on File Formats) (1-2-3 Sing with me). This year, it produced two French resources for Family Literacy Day: Idées pour la Journée de l'alphabétisation familiale! (PDF Version Approx. 130.19 KB) (Help on File Formats)(Ideas for Family Literacy Day!) and Trucs en alphabétisation familiale (PDF Version Approx. 92.3 KB) (Help on File Formats) pour les parents (Family Literacy Day tips for parents)."

Aboriginal Languages Month

March is Aboriginal Languages Month in the N.W.T. To help mark this month, the NWTLC is inviting people to take a quiz on languages; to read children stories about animals, such as the wolf or the fox; to play string games; etc. "We are making efforts to preserve Aboriginal languages," explains Helen. In September 2012, Kathryn Barry Paddock, Literacy Coordinator, visited the Tsiigehtchic community to produce and record videos of people singing Aboriginal songs to their children.

A true driving force in the vast Canadian North, the N.W.T. Literacy Council is dynamic and relevant. Every month, the National Adult Literacy Database compiles the number of documents downloaded from its digital library—the English resources produced by the N.W.T. Literacy Council always rank among the top 20 downloads. For more information on this organization, visit its website at Northwest Territories Literacy Council (www) English Hyperlink Notice.