Silence is golden; however, living in a world with nothing but that can be the antithesis of anything bright and shiny. Inhabiting a nation where the native language is miles away from your mother tongue can seem quite lonely at times. When surrounded by native speakers you usually find yourself faced with two options: become invisible or find something really pretty to stare at until someone realises that you have no idea what’s going on.
However, fear not my fellow newcomers, there is a third option. You can bite the bullet and actually learn the language. As we all know, mastering any new language can be a daunting task. Moreover, the idea of learning Icelandic can mirror the concept of a person trying to climb Mount Everest wearing a wetsuit with a surfboard strapped to their back. The motivation is there, but everything you’ve come with is all wrong. The entire process can be even more discouraging if you’re like me and your native language is grammatically and verbally on a different planet from this seasoned vernacular.
As English is one of the most widely used language in the world, it hasn’t been too difficult to communicate and get around in Iceland. Nevertheless, it does not negate the fact that Icelanders always prefer to speak Icelandic and that there are myriad setbacks if you cannot converse in the local language. For example, having three separate degrees of higher education does not qualify me for a job above cleaning a school kitchen. Initially I was offended, but it quickly forced me to come to terms with the reality of my limited language skills. An additional hindrance is the wall that separates you from getting to know Icelandic people intimately. Individuals are more likely to reveal who they are when they can express themselves in their own language. Despite the notion that most Icelanders would rather go streaking in the middle of winter than openly express how they feel, connections are more apt to form with a mutual understanding of one another.
Furthermore, when you dwell in any place you want to have your ear on the street and a sense of what’s happening around you. Not being able to read the newspapers and understand the news leaves you in an empty and isolated state. You also aren’t as interested in investigating major domestic issues when they aren’t as readily accessible.
At present the Icelandic government has also felt a push in assisting foreigners with becoming acclimated language-wise. In 2007 the Icelandic Ministry of Education will spearhead a project offering free Icelandic lessons for up to 2,000 foreigners over the next three years. The 100 million krónur provided for the program is said to be utilised for the education of teachers, developing materials and curriculum. To be honest, I’m a little sceptical about government-run projects for foreigners that do not incorporate the perspectives and experiences of those they purport to be helping. Many government programs focused on immigration are established with good intentions but oftentimes fail to meet the standards of a high-quality program. I could be wrong and the program could go off without a hitch; however, based on my first experience in taking an Icelandic course in this country, the government is going to need all the help it can get.
Last month I endured a ten-week course conveniently named “Icelandic for Beginners.” Although I did not assume I’d walk out of the class with a level comparable to that of the Son of Iceland, Leifur Eiríksson, I did want to at least be able to engage in simple conversation. Unfortunately, I was (sadly) too optimistic. Not only can I not even ask my husband to turn the soccer game off in his own language (because clearly he conveniently refuses to understand English at these times), I walked out of the class feeling as if I should have been paid for those ten weeks. Yes, it does take two to tango and I could have put in many hours of practise, however, one of the major problems was the actual method in which the language was taught.
As a former educator myself I do know a few things about how to convey material to a class of beginners and it does not commence with the telling the class, “You just have to get a feeling for it.” Are you kidding me? How do you just acquire a feeling for sounds and words that have never grazed your tongue before? Based on the complex grammar and the forever changing pronunciation of each word, learning Icelandic is not an easy course to run, which means it needs to be taught by skilled professionals trained in the discipline of linguistics. So my caveat to the government is that they spend their money wisely so that students walk away feeling motivated and satisfied with their decision to no longer sit in silence.