From Iceland — Big Business vs. Icelandic

Big Business vs. Icelandic

Published November 8, 2007

Big Business vs. Icelandic

Last month, the board of Reykjavík Energy, a publicly owned company that supplies Reykjavík citizens with energy, accepted a merger between the privately owned Geysir Green Energy and Reykjavík Energy Invest, a company owned by Reykjavík Energy; and the subsequent sale of Reykjavík Energy Invest to private investors. As a part of the agreement to sell Reykjavík Energy Invest, the board of Reykjavík Energy signed off on an agreement that guarantees Reykjavík Energy Invest exclusive rights to technical expertise in the field of geothermal research, as well as planning and marketing on behalf of Reykjavík Energy, for the next 20 years. The contract was submitted to the board at the meeting, but only in English. According to reports, it seems that some board members didn’t fully understand the implications of the contract.

Now the question emerges: why does a group of Icelanders meet to carve up and merge companies whilst speaking Icelandic; yet simultaneously discussing a contract written in a language in which they possess intermediate skills at best? This question brings to light the tension between big business and the Icelandic language itself.

The Beginning of the End
Last September, Ágúst Ólafur Ágústsson, VC of the Social Democratic Party, wrote a controversial article in the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið where he proposed a bilingual administration. He soon revised his idea in a blog post and called for a governmental administration in two languages. His articles provoked a serious row over the predicament faced by Iceland and its language: Should Icelandic give way to its bigger cousin English?

According to Ágústsson, the global village’s ignorance of Iceland, presumably due to the “language barrier”, is preventing foreign companies from coming over here to invest. However, this statement lacks a certain substance when held up to scrutiny. Hitherto, “an obscure language” has not stopped companies from investing here: Alcan (soon to be Rio Tinto), Alcoa and so forth. The list might not be flattering but the companies are still international. The buck, quite simply, does not stop with a stuffy Viking language.

Likewise, the global expansion of Icelandic companies abroad, in Britain, Denmark and now Indonesia, has hardly gone unnoticed. Why, then, should the Icelandic government take up a second administrative language, when there are companies here in Iceland that already dole out advice and deal with foreign parties regarding investment opportunities?

A conversation with the Minister of Commerce, Björgvin G Sigurðsson of the Social Democratic Party, helped clear up some of the obfuscated discussion surrounding the matter. It is difficult to disagree with the Minster’s statement about an administration that would “ensure that information is accessible to foreigners as most government institutions already have information in English.” It is in the government’s own interest. Legislation in a foreign language, however, is another affair altogether.

Even though there are fundamental problems to be considered when discussing the use of English versus Icelandic in the business world, both Sigurðsson and Ágústsson elucidate serious pros of a “bilingual” public administration: a more transparent market and, perhaps, a fairer business environment bringing competition from abroad. On the other hand, there are still obviously a few hurdles to overcome. The cost, for example, would be enormous, as Katrín Jakobsdóttir, VC of the Left Green Party, implies.

Another problem she explained is the manner in which these changes will be implemented, a factor that should be addressed. Will the private market actually hire English and Icelandic experts? Does an MBA automatically eclipse, say, an MA or BA in linguistics, Icelandic or English? And will the task of translating the aforementioned legal and administrative documents be handed over to novices? In fact, that would be a mute point and will be touched upon below in relation to Icelanders’ proficiency in English.

Furthermore, if the Financial Supervisory Authority and the Competition Authority were “to ensure the trust of foreign investors in Icelandic business” and “be able to answer all queries in English, both quickly and well, and publish its results accordingly” as Ágústsson writes online in his explanation, it would call for a total overhaul of what is often referred to as “the business environment” in Iceland.
To be fair, Ágústsson stresses that Icelandic should still be our official administrative language, but he states that “it does not matter if we translate a few documents into English” as this will have little bearing on Icelandic. But many, including myself, are very unclear about what he really means. What are a few documents?

An argument for taking up English to a greater extent is that it may demolish monopolist companies and practices. As the Minister of Commerce, Sigurðsson, points out, “it could possibly entice foreign investors to come here, either in the financial sector or in commerce in general, due to the fact that we live in a monopolist society and we have overpriced commodities and service. We are most certainly not implying that Icelandic should step down and lose its place, which is a preposterous distortion of our ideas.” Nonetheless, isn’t it more reasonable for us to speak a myriad of languages, or at least not to focus solely on English, as not all foreign investors are English speakers? Isn’t it more plausible that the business “ethics” that are practiced in the global and domestic market have nothing to do with the language itself? Greed is a more internationally recognized language than English.

So is Big Business Really Looking Out for Icelandic?
In fact, it seems rather odd that English, above all other languages, should be considered the lingua franca and automatically receive a guaranteed place here as a second language. Glancing at the homepage of the National Statistical Institute of Iceland it becomes apparent that this argument might be seriously flawed given that almost five thousand immigrants, as of 2005, do not have English as a native language, not including residents of Nordic countries. This includes people from, e.g., Poland, the Philippines and Germany. However, Eastern Asian speakers are clearly at a disadvantage when it comes to English. There are linguistic reasons for this, something which paramours of English ignore.

Also related to this discussion is whether or not Iceland ought to join the European Union. The Minister of Commerce, Sigurðsson, like many members of the Social Democrat Party, considers the EU a step forward. Despite that, he does not believe we should consider focusing on languages such as French, German or Polish as viable possibilities instead of English. He referred to the plethoric influence of English: everything from films, news, the Internet and all forms of entertainment. While nobody will dispute that fact, the European Commission states that there are over 450 million citizen within the EU and it specifies among its main goals for all common members “The long term objective for all EU citizens to speak two languages in addition to their own mother tongue.”

Admittedly, English is the most commonly spoken second language, but German and French are not unworthy alternatives, each boasting around 63 million people who speak them as sec- ond languages. And interestingly enough, when one looks at the percentage of countries in which people speak two languages or more, it becomes apparent that the Benelux countries along with the Scandinavian ones are far ahead of, say, Italy, Spain and Great Britain, in their knowledge of second languages. However, in a recent article in Morgunblaðið, Vilhjálmur Egilsson, Secretary General of the Confederation of Icelandic Employers, was quoted as saying that “you need to make a clear distinction between public service and administration when you speak of a bilingual administration”. The latter, as he points out quite correctly, has legal basis in our government; our decision- and policy-making is and will be in Icelandic. Public service on the other hand must be bilingual in the least – and, as Mr. Egilsson points out, “English is not necessarily the default main second language here; Polish, for example, might be more appropriate”.

Pidgin English?
As odd as it may seem, Icelanders have always been proud of their skills in foreign languages while at the same time exulting in their own language as one superior to others. Strangely enough, this veneration of Icelandic and its heritage seems to be fading. Sölvi Sveinsson, former principal of the Commercial College of Iceland, speaks an alarming truth when he says, “once a nation loses its sense of nationality, it loses all self worth; and becomes a desolated, backwater nation.” Sveinsson says, “we need to have considerable knowledge and command of our mother tongue, i.e. in addition to having at least two other languages “within our grasp”” thus echoing the European Union charter.

An important factor when discerning language ability is cultural awareness; while you may speak the language, understanding the nuts and bolts of a culture and nation is not a given. An obvious example would be immigrants seeking naturalization in the United Kingdom or the United States; both countries apply tests of knowledge of the language and culture as criteria in certain cases. According to the BBC, the purpose of the Life in United Kingdom test is for “people [to] integrate and share in British values and traditions.” Or, to quote Sölvi Sveinsson, “when you learn French, not only do you learn the language itself, you also learn its customs, history and culture – even its culinary mores”.

Since we are constantly being bombarded by English in all facets of life and entertainment, you would think that the English that is being spoken and written here in Iceland would be eloquent and of a very high standard. However, that does not seem to be the case. There is a slew of examples of Icelanders being culturally blind to English, not only in a grammatical sense but in the way they do not understand the cultural and linguistic fabric in which the language is built, whether it be an inside reference in the Simpsons or Friends, or nuances of difference amidst verbs or nouns. Even more importantly you need to have a sound knowledge of literary sources, particularly if you want to call yourself above average. As Sveinsson reminds us, “English is a challenging language which only a few actually master. People can speak it, and even use it daily; however, when the need arises to communicate in more specialized areas many Icelanders run into “onerous difficulties.””

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, for example, admits, “I am not horrendous in English, though I consider myself terrible – and I am not worse than many others I know; yet every time I have to speak about political issues in English I feel as if I’m a five-yearold trying to convey my point”. Despite her modesty, Jakobsdóttir is pretty decent in English as she has experience working in the tourist industry, something that most bankers and lawyers do not have.

When speaking to Auður Torfadóttir, Associate Professor at the Iceland University of Education, she emphasizes that her research, focusing on the vocabulary of elementary and secondary students, revealed that the vocabulary they knew was very basic; not only was there a lack of technical vocabulary in areas such as science, but many were inept at writing simple paragraphs. Torfadóttir even spoke of the increasing concern of university staff regarding these problems. Furthermore, because these students are unable to write coherent essays they fail to uphold the standards set by the Ministry of Education curriculum.

English has a more profound and all-consuming effect in Iceland now than a decade or two ago. Therefore, you might expect the newer generation to be better. However, Torfadóttir mentions that “Results show that Icelandic schoolchildren are capable of communicating verbally in a very manageable manner, or at least when they are allowed to speak freely about their own interests and daily life, however that diminishes in a structured setting.” Furthermore, the results show that schoolchildren who score high grades tend to display this discrepancy between written and spoken language.

Essentially, proponents of English administration make no distinction between listening, speaking and writing skills. Furthermore, secondary school courses, as they are conducted now, are very different depending on the area of specialty. Students of language learn not only more advanced English than students of sociology, science or business, but also over a longer period of time. Most of the people working in the business sector matriculate from business or science courses. To clarify what English proficiency is, Torfadóttir explains that “the Common European Framework divides learners into three broad divisions which can be divided into six subdivisions.” It defines a C2 learner, i.e. a proficient user, as being able to “understand with ease virtually everything heard or read, [being able to] summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation … express[ing] him/ herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.” How many Icelanders qualify for that status?

Icelandic and Icelandic Banks
Interestingly enough, one of the CEOs of Landsbankinn bank, Sigurjón Th. Árnason, is quoted in Morgunblaðið as saying that some companies in Iceland have already started emailing amongst each other in English, “even if the recipients are only Icelandic it is because it is maybe forwarded abroad and any given individual in a foreign country must be able to read and know the background of the these transactions.” Mr. Árnason goes on to mention the apparent need to bolster English teaching in schools, reminding one of the old riddle of whether the chicken or the egg came first. These transactions worry Guðrún Kvaran, Professor at the University of Iceland and curator of the University Dictionary: “At the Icelandic Language Committee, we think it is a grave misunderstanding if the business sector believes that it needs English to communicate better in its expansion abroad. It is more pressing for the companies to educate their employees in communicating efficiently within the Icelandic business sector notwithstanding the English-speaking market abroad”.

Sölvi Sveinsson is adamant about Iceland’s need for a second English college course, to be taught at the Commercial College of Iceland, the International Baccalaureate of Business. Despite having campaigned for this course he stresses the importance of keeping Icelandic in high esteem and that the same demands will be made in Icelandic in the curriculum as for other students. Sveinsson insists that without our national identity and language, Icelanders would never have been able to expand so exponentially in the global market. Losing Icelandic is not an option according to him. The Minister of Education and Culture, Mrs Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, concurs in a recent interview with Morgunblaðið. She understands Ágústsson’s proposal as a way of facilitating communication with the global business world which, in effect, is unnecessary according to her: “it is easy enough as it is now, whether in Nordic languages or English itself. We do not need bilingual administration. And by doing that we are sending a message of sorts that Icelandic be placed aside, something I do not find very feasible”. Conclusion It is obvious that the business sector here in Iceland is speaking another language entirely when it comes to the value of Icelandic. Various opinions are thrown around that have little basis in reality – and the experts are being disparaged as an ancient and conservative force that wishes to hinder Icelanders with Icelandic. The debate is still raging to a certain degree and will continue to do so, but the wheels have already been set in motion and Icelandic seems to be fighting a tough battle. However, a report by the Icelandic Language Committee on Icelandic language policy is imminent, including a resolution specifically on the unfortunate request and extreme development of English in the business sector specifically. Will the fate of our language be decided in boardroom meetings with intermediate knowledge of English?

Text by Marvin Lee Dupree

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