From Iceland — The Student Has Become The Teacher

The Student Has Become The Teacher

Published March 25, 2024

The Student Has Become The Teacher
Photo by
Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

 Derek Terell Allen moved to Iceland to learn the language — now he teaches it

I first heard about Derek Terell Allen after my first ever Icelandic class at The Tin Can Factory, one of the language schools in Reykjavík. An American teaching Icelandic? Really? Given the difficulty of mastering this language and realising how far most of the students in my class were from achieving that goal, I was intrigued. How did Derek go from learning languages on his own to becoming a teacher and attending polyglot conferences worldwide? We caught up with him between classes to hear his story.

I’ve always loved languages. When I was 13, I started learning Dutch. I’ve always been a fan of Top Model. I was raised watching America’s Next Top Model. I discovered they have the show in other countries and decided to watch Holland’s Next Top Model. They were always screaming and crying, and I was like, “Okay, well, what’s going on? I want to know.” So, I started teaching myself Dutch.

That was the first language I ever tried to study on my own. I was reading books and talking to people on the internet. Then, one thing led to another and I got onto Icelandic. When I was in high school in the U.S., we talked about what we wanted to do after high school. I knew I wanted to go to university and move abroad. That’s why I pursued Icelandic — so I could get into an Icelandic university and make things easier for myself. I studied Icelandic as a second language for my bachelor’s degree and Translation Studies for my master’s.

Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

I’d never left the U.S. before I travelled here for the first time. But I’ve always been a global citizen type of person.

After my studies, I worked at a student organisation called the National Union of Icelandic Students, better known by its Icelandic name — Landssamtök íslenskra stúdenta (LÍS). I was actually the president — the union’s first president of colour. Then I started working here [at The Tin Can Factory]. But it wasn’t that quick — I had a period of unemployment and then working a survival job. Then I got this job and now work more or less full-time hours here.

Biting the language bullet

There’s no shortcut to learning Icelandic. The main tip I would give is just to be persistent. The hardest thing about learning Icelandic is actually the native Icelanders because they’re so quick to switch to English. If you look different, they will assume you don’t speak the language. It’s really important to stand your ground. Even to this day, I always have some phrases in my back pocket because people still don’t think I speak Icelandic because I’m Black. Be ready to tell people, “Hey, I speak Icelandic,” or “Would you be able to speak to me in Icelandic?”

“I don’t feel like a foreigner, even though technically I am.”

What I found most helpful was just doing what I wanted. People often say, “Listen to music, watch TV, read, etc.” Those things are important, but, for example, Icelandic music is more like rock or alternative, and I’m more into R&B, soul or hip hop. They don’t really have that as much in Iceland. I’m not going to start listening to music I don’t like just because it’s Icelandic. Find what you like — whether it’s reading, listening to music, or doing an activity of some kind — and stick with it if it helps you learn.

It took me about two years to learn Icelandic. I don’t know if I was fluent, but I felt comfortable. I still made errors, but I was talking enough and people wouldn’t have to switch to English.

Beyond the books

There are so many things that they don’t teach you in the books. The books tend to teach you the whole sentences — the full, long-drawn-out version of things. But in real life, people want to get the words out and they’re very quick. I remember when I first landed in Iceland, I went to Joe & The Juice and an employee said, “Afrit?” All I knew was “Má ég bjóða þér kvittun?” (Can I offer you the receipt?). I didn’t know about “afrit” and that one word conveyed so much meaning.

I learn something new in English and Icelandic every day. I want to learn idioms and proverbs, so I’ve been studying them. There are two books — ​​Íslensk orðtök and Íslenskir málshættir. I’m only reading the first one because it takes me forever to read, but I’ll get into the second one after I finish this one.

I don’t know if my English has gotten worse, but my friends from the States have said, “Derek, you have an accent.” Sometimes, I feel that I say certain things weirdly. I didn’t have that kind of problem seven years ago.

I also speak intermediate Dutch, a little bit of Yoruba and Hungarian, plus a little bit of Hebrew. I would love to learn Urdu and Slovak. I used to be pretty good at Slovak, but then I forgot it after I came back from Slovakia. I can speak a tiny bit of Spanish, Mandarin and I guess Danish, in the way Icelandic people say they speak Danish. 

Derek’s class

At The Tin Can Factory, we have courses A through E and 1 through 7. Most of my time, I’ve been teaching A-E, which are preparation courses, mainly for those whose mother language doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, like Arabic or Persian, or people coming from places where the education system is very different. 

“The hardest thing about learning Icelandic is actually the native Icelanders, because they’re so quick to switch into English.”

There’s a curriculum, but we’re not bound to it — you’re always welcome to put your spin on it. When it comes to tips on teaching Icelandic, I would say abandon all preconceived notions that you have about people because of where they might come from or who they might be. People will surprise you. My favourite thing about the job is meeting people with different backgrounds and stories. Some have tragic stories, but they’re still coming here and doing their thing. I love meeting all these people. 

I know that students in the school have sometimes been surprised that I’m a teacher. I remember one time, I was teaching and then noticed an older gentleman in the hallway. He looked as though he’d been struck by lightning. I could see on his face that he was astonished. He didn’t believe that I was a teacher. Society looks at me and says, “He can’t possibly be Icelandic. He can’t possibly speak Icelandic.” I get that reaction from students sometimes. Some people might be a bit apprehensive at first, like people always are when meeting a new teacher. But then, after one class, they are just like, “Okay, he gets it.” They’re not worried.

Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

Home is where the heart is 

Iceland is home, for sure. Not that I would never want to move elsewhere. I also look at Washington State as home, in a sense, but I still moved. My identity is very complicated, but I definitely feel at home here. I don’t feel like a foreigner, even though technically I am. I feel very Icelandic in my heart.

I like the feeling of community and the feeling of relative safety here. I’m not saying that things don’t happen and that everybody’s your best friend. But I walk around at night and I’m not afraid. I don’t care to talk to the police, but I’m not afraid to per se. I’m more afraid of the weather than the people.


Meet more interesting people from all over Iceland with our Islanders series.

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