From Iceland — Thoughts On Learning Icelandic

Thoughts On Learning Icelandic

Published July 20, 2011

Thoughts On Learning Icelandic

Why don’t those damn foreigners just learn Icelandic? Language learning is highly subjective and, as Icelanders love to tout, the language is complicated and difficult. It takes many years to reach ‘communicative competence,’ many more to acquire the level needed to read about politics in the daily paper. Samuel Lefever, Lecturer at the University of Iceland, states, “If citizens are to play a full role in today’s Europe…they will need competence in a range of languages as well as positive attitudes towards speakers of languages from outside their immediate community.”
Hmm… “a positive attitude,” you say?  The general attitude towards any other languages here in Iceland, especially in the job market, is negative (with some exceptions for other Nordic Languages and English). Here is a random quote from an anonymous Icelandic teenager on the website “I just hate those foreigners that come to Iceland to live here but don’t have the decency of putting some effort into learning Icelandic (they never even try) I really dislike that kind of group.” Whether or not you agree with the teenager’s statement, you cannot deny that you’ve heard it many times.
Linguistic distance
The concept of ‘linguistic distance’ regards the extent to which two languages differ from each other. One of the reasons why immigrant groups differ in their overall acquisition of the Icelandic language is the distance between Icelandic and the individual’s mother tongue. Although there are no figures to relate Icelandic to other languages, we can use English as a yardstick, because English and Icelandic have a rather short linguistic distance from one another. The highest levels of language acquisition are Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch, while language learning is at its lowest levels of acquisition for Asian languages such as Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese as well as Arabic.
One can assume that if since the difficulty for English speakers to learn Asian languages is great, the difficulty of Asian born immigrants to learn Icelandic is relatively equal. I believe that part of the reason why a large group of Icelanders share the anonymous student’s view about the Icelandic language is because most Icelanders speak English very well, and usually at least one other Nordic Language. They might think: “If I can learn another language then so can these lazy immigrants.”
Should I stay or should I go?
There are an estimated 350.000 Icelandic-speakers in the world, whose population is now close to 7 billion. This means that less than 0,04 % of the world speaks Icelandic. I, and most citizens, new to Iceland, appreciate the age, beauty, and preservation of the language, yet feel it is important keep in perspective how tiny Iceland is and how little relation to intelligence the skill of speaking this language actually has.
Within the theme of non-discrimination, a dialogue about the small dog syndrome, which plagues Iceland, should be opened. For the future of people who settle here, many temporarily, devoting large amounts of time to learning the Icelandic language is impractical. Where will they use it? The likelihood of ever running into another person who speaks Icelandic outside of Scandinavia is very slim. Combine this with the fact that most come here to work not to study.
Upon their first arrival, most immigrants see Iceland as a stepping-stone and not a permanent home. Because of the country’s isolation and the weather, people initially assume that this is not the place they want to root themselves, yet after a few harsh winters they might come to realise that this is a wonderful place to raise a family and decide to stay. In the meantime, they often focus their efforts on learning English or working. Therefore, there is an initial delay in many immigrants’ efforts to learn Icelandic and, unlike other languages, there is almost zero chance of someone arriving here having already learned it at school or University.
Language of the Gods
Iceland is a haven for nature lovers, a safe place to raise a family, and generally a great place to live if you accept your role as a foreign-minimum-wage worker. If Icelandic isn’t your mother tongue and you have big dreams, this can become a land of discontent. It is rare that a foreigner masters the Icelandic language well enough to study law or medicine or philosophy, even after years of study. I am not advocating that a person with non-perfect Icelandic should become an Icelandic poet, nor am I advocating not protecting and promoting this beautiful language, I am only calling for a realistic look at language in general, within a pluralistic society. We know that the ability to learn languages is akin to a talent and lends itself better to certain types of personalities and learning styles. Despite having no natural ability for language learning, one can work very hard to reach a certain level of communicative competence, which is the new goal in language teaching. The new aim in language learning is “the ability to communicate competently, not the ability to use the language exactly as a native speaker does.”
How do you like Iceland?
When I open my mouth to butcher the sacred language of Þór and Óðinn, the most common reaction is often that all dialogue stops and I am obliged to answer a series of questions. 1) Where are you from? 2) Why are you here? 3) How long have you been here? And 4) How do you like Iceland? For the record: I love it! My relationship with language is, however, rocky. While I once strove to perfect my Icelandic so that I could speak without my awful southern accent distracting from what I was saying, I recently adopted an attitude of acceptance. I will never be able to roll my Rs, nor will I be able to properly explain why an entire chapter in my ‘Pronunciation of Modern Icelandic’ textbook is dedicated to the seven different ways one should pronounce the letter “g.” However, I can communicate competently and continue to improve. 

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