From Iceland — Why Is Learning Icelandic So Damn Tough?

Why Is Learning Icelandic So Damn Tough?

Published January 9, 2013

Why Is Learning Icelandic So Damn Tough?

You’re either angling for better work here, studying at the university, or have been wooed by the thick, thick skull and sodas of Egill Skallagrímsson. In any case, you’re a foreigner learning Icelandic now and can’t get past its toughness. Aside from the usual sympathies from Icelanders and platitudes about its challenge, how do expert speech pathologists assess its difficulty?

Brass grammar tacks

Assistant Professor of Speech Pathology at the University of Iceland Dr. Jóhanna Einarsdóttir says the basic components of a language are its pronunciation, vocabulary, sentence-level grammar and pragmatics—or the ways in which context particularly contributes to meaning. Of these four, the lion’s share of difficulties learning Icelandic source from its grammar.
“The difficulty of different languages manifests at different stages,” Jóhanna says.

In Icelandic’s case, taking that first crack at the grammar is daunting.
In Icelandic, verbs are conjugated variously for tense, mood, person, number and voice—active, passive or middle. Heavy inflection generates a staggering list of possible ways to say, in one well-known example, the numbers one through four. And although the Icelandic vocabulary has far fewer lexemes than that of a language like English, a single Icelandic word can have a phenomenal range of meanings depending on the particles with which it is used. Consider “halda,” literally “to keep,” which can become “halda fram” for “claim/maintain,” “halda upp á” for “celebrate,” “halda uppi” for “support” and so on.

There is also a tendency to compound Icelandic words, often extemporaneously, for a non-dictionary word brought to life for just a moment. These include “augnablikssamsetningar,” or “instant-compounds,” which describes with cake-mix convenience the words thus formed for temporary use (another well-known example).
Thinking in strictly abacus terms, it’s easy to feel intimidated by Icelandic’s tallies for obliqueness and snowballing.

Why, then, contrary to public opinion, do both Jóhanna and Dr. Elín Þórðardóttir, associate professor at McGill University’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, dispute Icelandic’s relative difficulty when compared to other languages?

Sound pollution

The grammar is a tough skull to crack, but Icelandic is characterised by intuitive speech prosody. As Johanna points out, stress on syllables is predictable and clear in the form of stressed-unstressed. A language like Danish, conversely, has more elusive prosody, sometimes relying on tricks like laryngealization. In terms of that fourth facet, pragmatics, both experts acknowledge the challenge of speaking in the same patterns as native Icelanders, but don’t believe it’s an issue separate from speaking many other languages.

They highlight the external factors instead. The history of foreigners coming to Iceland from abroad to learn the language is a short one—extending only back to the first post-war decades. Contrast that with the well-trodden paths toward fluent French or German, and well-funded institutions within each of those countries promoting that goal.

Even for motivated speakers, Iceland’s language environment is studded with obstacles to frustrate immersion. Perhaps because it lacks this history of foreign language students, Icelanders themselves have what Elín describes as particularly “little patience” to listen as foreigners transmute the foibles and fortes of their native tongues into Icelandic. Furthermore, there is remarkably little difference in the accent spoken between different Icelanders, phonetically speaking, which creates friction when foreigners with their own accents try to assimilate.

English, meanwhile, is everywhere—on YouTube and TV shows, at concerts and summer camps, even in insidious local English-language magazines. While the language has a reputation for simplicity, the speed with which it is learned internationally can be attributed in part to the ease with which one can rack the abacus up with “hours at task”—Elín’s term—of attentive listening and immersion.

Practice makes perfect

“Count the amount of time you actively use Icelandic each week,” Elín says. “If you’re studying, that can count, but how often are you on the street talking to people in Icelandic? If the answer is half an hour, you can see why you’re not making real progress.”

Elín dismisses the easy portraits of language students here as lazy, or Icelanders as frigid guardians unwilling to part with their national treasure. Whatever the situation, she believes the mathematics of language learning in any form have already been proven.

“It’s simply the number of hours at task,” she reiterates, noting too that the phenomenon of adults’ brains hardening to language learning past a certain age is largely exaggerated.

“They have problems recreating sound, yes, but if I put an adult in a room next to a child and ask them to memorize vocabulary, the adult wins easily. The child can imitate sound better, but they only seem to move faster in general because they have years of ‘hours at task’ on the adults. Adults are just as capable, and progress in a language is a question of time spent.”

To that end, reams of shamelessness and Icelandic friends to make accountable for error correction and speaking practice will go far, as will education that puts a premium on ‘on task’ speaking and listening.
It’s not until you start speaking and interacting that it suddenly all makes sense because of a process you arbitrarily set in motion with a heavy investment in time. Adequate language resources and an understanding of how you learn are critical, but with Icelandic, it’s best to just dive in.

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