For many languages, there are standards of literature that help ease the intrepid polyglot into the new dialect. When I studied French in college, the standard was ‘Les Jeux Sont Faits,’ Sartre’s staple of existentialist French Literature. It accomplished the task of being easy to read and understand while simultaneously growing my French vocabulary. While more recently studying Icelandic, however, I ran into some difficulty finding a book to read that would similarly augment my vocabulary, while not being too difficult to understand. That was until I found ‘Árstíðir’ by Karítas Hrundar Pálsdóttir.
Karítas is a scholar of languages. She studied languages extensively in secondary school, and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Icelandic from the University of Iceland, where she also minored in Japanese. In June last year, she achieved her Master’s in creative writing. ‘Árstíðir’ was based on her Master’s project, but the idea came to her long before she began her graduate studies.
Making it happen
“I got the idea when I was studying Japanese for one year in Tokyo as part of my Bachelor’s degree,” she says. Easy reading material had been a cornerstone in her quest to learn new languages, and she wanted to bring more variety to people learning Icelandic as a second language.
After what seemed like an eternity spent researching and consulting other scholars, ‘Árstíðir’ was finally ready. The book is entirely in Icelandic, so anyone in the world can pick it up and learn from it. Everything about the book, from the friendly yellow binding to the basic language on every page, seems to urge the reader to explore for themselves.
That is exactly what I did when I picked it up. The text is split up into more than one hundred pieces of flash fiction that illustrate a moment in time. The stories are also categorised by seasons, which is what “árstíðir” means.
Perfect for teaching and learning Icelandic
While navigating the book, I noticed that each story has a number of symbols printed above their respective titles. Instinctively turning to the back of the book for an explanation, I discovered that the symbols represent the level of difficulty of each story. One symbol is the easiest, while five is the hardest.
While ‘Árstíðir’ is designed to facilitate learning Icelandic, it doesn’t baby the reader. Some stories are simply more difficult than others, and they are often in close proximity with another story that was easy to read. Karítas explains that that was intentional. “You should be able to read whatever you like. If something more difficult than your ability level interests you, then you’re gonna try harder, right?”
But ‘Árstíðir’ is also literature
In the future, Karítas hopes to make a workbook to accompany ‘Árstíðir’. As she was writing the stories, she had always hoped that they could be used as teaching materials. “But I really wanted to have this book just as literature,” she says. “So my hope is that I’ll have time to write a separate book on how to use the book in learning settings.”
It is Karítas’ hope that ‘Árstíðir’ will not only be used in a direct learning and teaching environment, but also that people will enjoy reading it. “Part of the learning process of any language is to try to enjoy the language and also just read for pleasure and enjoy it,” she says.
Indeed, there is a lot to enjoy about the book. Many of the stories showcase diversity. There are a number of characters of different ages, genders, sexualities, and nationalities. For example, in the Winter section, there is one story that has a main character who is non-binary and prefers to use the gender-neutral pronoun, hán. At the same time, ‘Árstíðir’ gives insight into Icelandic values, traditions, and everyday life, with stories about such traditions as Þorrablót, dancing around the Christmas tree, allowing babies to sleep outside in strollers, and going to ‘réttir’ to see the sheep roundup. There is even a recipe for plokkfiskur, President Guðni Th.’s favourite.
Parting advice: Have fun!
Karítas’ advice to anyone who wants to learn Icelandic is simple: be patient and have fun. “There’s this myth that it’s either easy or difficult to learn a language, that one language is more difficult than others,” she says. “And maybe to some extent, that’s true, but it’s always hard learning a language. You always have to put in the effort, and it always takes a lot of time. So my advice is to be patient and have fun with it. You get a key to the society with the language, whatever language it is.”
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