Learners of Icelandic have a notoriously rough time. Not only is Icelandic supposedly one of the hardest languages to master grammatically (although some language experts have tried to debunk this myth), but the ubiquity of English across the western world means that even for those who really make the effort to learn, immersion is nigh-on impossible. Pair that with the fact that the available lessons are almost always dry, academic and eye-wateringly expensive, many foreigners who live in Iceland feel that learning the language is an unachievable goal.
It was partly this situation that inspired author Karítas Hrundar Pálsdóttir to write her first book of short stories for learners of Icelandic.
“I love learning languages and in my studies I have read different stories and texts in easy language appropriate to my level many times,” Karítas says. “When I was doing a bachelor degree in Icelandic I studied for one year in Japan and did some teaching of Icelandic as a second language. Being around more people who were learning Icelandic, it became apparent to me that the same variety of stories that I had been able to access as a second language learner, weren’t there for Icelandic learners.”
A new go-to
The resulting book, “Árstíðir”, was published in 2020 and has quickly become a go-to text for Icelandic newbies. Now Karítas has published a second collection of stories, “Dagatal”, which is aimed at slightly more advanced readers, while still focused on straightforward grammar and accessible text.
Similar to Árstíðir, Dagatal is a series of extremely short stories—“flash fiction,” as Karítas calls them. The stories sometimes take on different or quirky forms, like a text message conversation, or a short play, making them very engaging for the reader.
“In both of my collections I’ve tried to be innovative and creative in the presentation of the story.” Karítas explains. “So there are some that are set up as poems, or dialogue, as a journal entry, or email or messenger communication.
“But there’s also a lot of diversity in the content and the genre,” she continues. “Some are more exciting than others, some are more melancholic, and there’s a lot of funny ones that have a play on words and a punchline of some sort.”
The stories’ length obviously help with their readability for those newly acquainted with reading Icelandic fiction, but Karítas also feels like she is able to express her own creativity through this style as well.
“It’s about capturing a moment in time, or just an emotion,” she says. “Of course it is a strict form, linguistically, and sometimes creates limitations. But that’s also the beauty of the writing process, of being creative within a restrained form. Many writers do that in different ways. For instance in poetry and playwriting there’s a strict form, but then you get creative within it.”
Icelandic life in context
As well as introducing learners to the grammar and structure of the language, it was important to Karítas that her books give people some context to Icelandic life, culture and customs. To that end, the main theme for Dagatal is around calendar days and the special events that only Iceland celebrates.
“There’s a lot of introduction of main traditions and how they might be different in Iceland than elsewhere,” says Karítas. “Even though we do celebrate the same holidays as many countries, we also have our own individual unique things.”
“I hope that the books help people advance their reading competence, but I also hope that it adds to cultural literacy and gives people an insight into Icelandic values, traditions, and views on life,” she adds.
It’s clear that a huge amount of care and thought went into the overall design of the book to make it appeal to readers. The presentation is sleek and stylish, steering well clear of anything infantilising or that might feel textbook-y. Karítas worked with cutting-edge artists and designers Krot & Krass to produce the look, including creating individual icons which indicate the language level of each story, without being intrusive into the experience of reading the book.
“How the stories are presented is important,” Karítas confirms. “It’s important to honour learners as general readers. The style gives them a sense that reading should be a journey, and reminds them that it should be pleasant. I’m trying to make language learning fun.”
The best way to learn
Until Karítas’s stories were published, it was common for Icelandic learners to be recommended children’s books in order to be able to practise their reading and comprehension skills. However, Karítas says that this approach is not always effective.
“Icelandic children’s books may be about simple topics, but have complicated grammatical structures that children learn early but second language learners learn later,” she explains. “Adult learners might need that simple grammatical linguistic structure, but they’re able to handle different topics. They have a bigger world view.”
Another issue that Karítas has seen in the teaching of Icelandic is how it is almost always delivered through English, making the process of learning very difficult for those who come from different backgrounds.
“It excludes people from other language backgrounds who don’t have strong English, like is the case for some people from Eastern Europe or the Middle East,” she says. “Because of that I wanted my writing to be inclusive, and the best way to do that was to have only Icelandic in the book.”
This includes the prologues of both Árstíðir and Dagatal, which are both written by non-native Icelandic speakers. First Lady Eliza Reid wrote the forward for Árstíðir, while the intro for Dagatal was written by Claudia Ashanie Wilson, a prominent human rights lawyer.
A more tolerant approach
Karítas believes that having strong role models is an oft-overlooked aspect to encouraging non-native residents in Iceland that learning the language is more than possible. Beyond that, she feels there needs to be a broader cultural shift in order for learners to feel more comfortable in using their newly adopted language.
“There’s a lot of things the government and employers could do to facilitate easier access to Icelandic language courses, reducing fees or eliminating them,” Karítas says. “But it’s also about society being more tolerant.”
By any means, Karítas’s books are a step towards making that tolerance and understanding a reality. Luckily for learners, she has no plans to stop writing.
“I would definitely say I’m not done yet,” she says with a wry smile. “I have more ideas for stories to come.”
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