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Integrating In Iceland: Tackling The Icelandic Language

Integrating In Iceland: Tackling The Icelandic Language

Jenna Mohammed
Words by
Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published November 10, 2017

For newcomers, integrating into Iceland can be difficult. You don’t know your way around the country or are unfamiliar with social norms and customs. But what makes living here the most nerve-wracking is unable to speak or understand Icelandic. With tourism increasing, and the strength of Iceland’s job market, there is a considerable amount of foreigners from the EU who come to Iceland to work for a short amount of time. While speaking Icelandic is an essential aspect to integration, the majority of the population have a very good grasp on English, so foreigners and tourists would not have a difficult time communicating at a restaurant or bar. But since Icelandic is the primary language, in order to function in society, it’s a good skill to have.

“Some Icelandic guests who come to my place of work are the ones who are offended that they are being served in English. They feel like they are entitled to being served in Icelandic.”

With an influx of non-speaking Icelandic workers and tourists, this changes how locals view everyday life in Iceland. At most shops you walk into on Laugavegur, or anywhere in the downtown core, you will most likely be served in English. Imagine being in your home country and walking into your favorite café and no longer being served in your native language. It’s a little weird, isn’t it? This raises the question of how accessible Icelandic courses are to foreigners, and what the implications are in terms of having workers in many industries that don’t speak Icelandic.

In the tourist-dense village of Vík, Anna Lára Pálsdóttir will be teaching Icelandic for foreigners who are living in the area. Anna is currently the receptionist at Hotel Katla. Over time she has observed how non-speaking staff struggle to integrate into their place of work. Working as a counselor for immigrants, Barbara Jean Kristvinsson has many years of experience in understanding the struggle foreigners go through in obtaining Icelandic language education and how the courses that teach it are operating.

Growing pains

Since the rise in tourism, locals have not been able to keep up with rapid changes in society. Suddenly people realize they cannot walk into a bar or restaurant and speak Icelandic, and people aren’t accepting this as it’s a huge change. According to Anna, “Our society has changed greatly. Only in the last six years there has been an overflow of tourism and with this you need a lot more people to work in tourism and we don’t have Icelandic people to work these jobs.”

“It’s mixed emotions; we can’t have it all and it can never be a win-win situation. Something has to give.

The tourism industry has become Iceland’s biggest employer over the years. In this sector, positions are being filled by foreign labor. “Some Icelandic guests who come to my place of work are the ones who are offended that they are being served in English,” Anna explains. “They feel like they are entitled to being served in Icelandic. I think it’s because people have not fully realized this rapid change in our society.” She believes locals may feel bothered because they don’t want anything to change. But at the same time everyone likes the capital that comes with tourism. She continues, “It’s mixed emotions; we can’t have it all and it can never be a win-win situation. Something has to give. We are feeling the growth pain. Things are changing and it won’t be the same.”

Getting started

In smaller towns like Vík, starting up new Icelandic courses for foreigners can be more difficult than in larger towns. “Icelandic is an extremely important to being part of Icelandic. Out in the country it’s just a logistics problem,” says Barbara. “It’s a lot harder to arrange because it’s private, even though you’re reimbursed by your union. Logistically, if you have 200 people in a small village, even if a large percentage may be foreigners, it’s still difficult to get somebody to go there and open a business.” Barbara claims most companies will attempt to address these issues.

Local tourist boards try to arrange Icelandic lessons for foreigners who are working in a particular field. “If you have a group of people working in a fish factory working in the Westfjords for instance, that factory will either hire a teacher or subcontract with somebody to conduct Icelandic lessons and make it more trade ordinated,” Barbara says. Similar to what Anna teaches, the courses aimed at foreigners give them the tools they need to work in their field.

Seed money

Currently, very little is being done to strengthen accessibility and funding for courses. “Most of the talk around immigration now is more about border control, who is allowed in,” Barbara reflects. “Rather than asking how we are going to make an integrated society with what we have. What happens after people immigrate here?” After the financial crisis, the amount of money put into Icelandic lessons has decreased. Barbara says the amount of reimbursement took a big hit and since then it hasn’t gone back up to the point where the ministry is working on making it stronger. For Anna’s course, if you are part of a union, about 75% of the cost is covered, and the rest comes out of pocket.

“I’ve heard of smaller companies that don’t want this type of accommodation because once people start learning Icelandic, they can start learning their rights.”

Working a full time job and having the responsibility of learning a new language can be overwhelming. It would be ideal if all employers were on board with arranging time for employees to learn Icelandic, and realize how beneficial it is. Barbara claims that many companies have courses for employees, such as the city of Reykjavik, which offers at work courses. Larger fish factories have this, as well as the hospital system. “I’ve heard of smaller companies that don’t want this type of accommodation because once people start learning Icelandic, they can start learning their rights,” says Barbara. Foreigners need to demand these classes and services, but they aren’t very vocal about their needs. Even though it wouldn’t cost much to fund and make it completely free, there’s a lot of prevention. Barbara concludes, “you’re just going to get better citizens if they can function in Icelandic.”


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