From Iceland — Celebrating The Magic Of Multilingualism

Celebrating The Magic Of Multilingualism

Published March 20, 2024

Celebrating The Magic Of Multilingualism
Photo by
Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

A new children’s book highlights the power of languages

It may come as a surprise to some, but Iceland is an increasingly multicultural country. Roughly 18% of the nation is now made up of immigrants, their diversity adding welcome life and colour to the fabric of the country. So great is the diversity in some Reykjavík neighbourhoods that it was in the news mid-February that one Reykjavík school was celebrating all the languages represented by students in the sixth grade and it was found that 60 languages were represented — just in one grade!

Alondra Silva Munoz and Helgi Silva Þorsteinsson are familiar with the linguistic diversity of the country, not only because Alondra immigrated from Chile to Iceland and brought her mother tongue with her, but because the two share a three-year-old son who is growing up with two cultures and two languages.”He actually took a long time to start speaking Icelandic,” Alondra says, “he struggled a lot with it, mostly because we were speaking Spanish to the largest extent in our home — he has the most exposure to that language. When he started leikskóli (playschool) he almost didn’t know any Icelandic and he felt really frustrated. And we felt like the school did not see him as his full potential.”

With a background in intercultural communications and experience teaching bilingual kids, Alonda was frustrated by some of the attitudes and comments being made about her son’s language progression. So Alondra and Helgi harnessed some key points and teachable moments from their son’s experience, coupled it with their own knowledge, and wrote a children’s book on the wonders of speaking multiple languages.

The Plot

Töfrandi fjöltyngdur heimur Áka Tahiel or Áki Tahiel’s Magical Multilingual World tells the story of a six-year-old boy who speaks both Icelandic and Spanish at home. Áki is transitioning from playschool to elementary school and is finding himself frustrated about languages — sometimes he cannot find the right words or has trouble being understood. The book runs through the range of emotions often experienced by multicultural children anywhere, but centres the story on Iceland, where the education system and social perceptions are not always open to Iceland-born children not having mastered Icelandic from their first word.

He starts to realise that the more languages that he speaks, the more friends he can make and the more he can bring people together.

Eventually, in elementary school, Áki Taheil is playing with his Icelandic-speaking friends when a new classmate arrives from Colombia speaking no Icelandic. Being multilingual, Áki Taheil is able to speak with this new classmate and his other classmates, using language as a tool for inclusivity and winning football matches (you’ll have to read the book for that plot point).

“He realises that this is like a type of magic for him,” Alondra says of the protagonist. “Reflecting more on the experience, he realises that [languages] are not just magical for football, they are for everything. He starts to realise that the more languages that he speaks, the more friends he can make and the more he can bring people together.”

The DIY Approach

Determined to bring their story to life and not wanting to compromise on the message, Alondra and Helgi took the self-publishing route. They wrote the story, which is presented in both English and Icelandic, and brought on illustrator Verónica Pinto, who worked remotely from Colombia to bring Áki Taheil’s world to life on the pages.

Working with an illustrator abroad meant having to teach her about Icelandic aesthetics. “I had to explain everything,” Alondra recalls. “I had to take screenshots of the clothes that kids wear here, because I wanted the kids to feel like they couldn’t relate not only with the story, but also with the visuals.”

In the end, the couple was left with a colourful, multilingual book that they printed in 100 copies.

“They’re almost all gone,” Alondra says, a twinge of pleasant surprise in her voice. “We have I think around six left and two of those are for the library in Hafnarfjörður. So we really have just four books left. It’s been wonderful, just happening through word of mouth.”

“One hundred copies sounded like a lot,” she continues. “I had worried that no one would be interested, then what am I gonna do with this book? I’d have a lot of paper stacked in my garage or something! But it was so well received.”

Revise, Reprint, Reimagine

With stock all but depleted, Alondra and Helgi have set their sites on a reprint. They’re revisiting and revising the story while waiting for a response to their application for a development grant from Rannís.

“If we receive the grant, we are going to improve this story, the manuscript, and we are going to translate it into more language pairs. So it’s going to be English and Icelandic, Spanish and Icelandic, and Polish and Icelandic,” Alondra explains of the couple’s goals. “Then we are going to create educational materials at the end of the book. One of them is going to be a glossary of terms around intercultural learning, because people are always asking, ‘Oh, how do you say ‘inclusion’ in Icelandic?’ So we’re going to include a glossary with definitions and translation, as well as some small lessons and learning outlines for teachers or parents to use with their children while reading the story. So they can analyse it and talk about it in the classroom.”

I had worried that no one would be interested, then what am I gonna do with this book? I’d have a lot of paper stacked in my garage or something! But it was so well received.

Beyond bringing more books like Alondra and Helgi’s into the hands of teachers and parents, much needs to be done to improve social services and education for children, whether solely Icelandic speaking or multilingual. “We need to improve the infrastructure, we need to make sure that we are providing services for children,” Alondra emphasises. “Schools put a lot of demands on children to have a certain level of Icelandic, but at the same time, the services are not available for them to do that. If you take speech therapy, for example, it’s just one specialist, and the common denominator that you keep hearing is children being put on a waiting list for two years, three years, four years — and the program only receives maybe 10 people every year. So it’s not sustainable.”

Beyond being an education tool, Áki Tahiel’s Magical Multilingual World is a heartwarming story. Copies can be found to borrow from Móðurmál Library and hopefully soon in more languages.

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