A year and a half since I first picked up a copy of ‘Teach Yourself Icelandic.’ A year since I realised I’d be moving here and started taking it seriously. Half a year of actually speaking Icelandic. It’s been an interesting ride. And one that I take seriously indeed.
Assuming all goes well with permit renewals, I plan to live in Iceland for the rest of my life. I see it as my new language. My mindset is such that I feel extremely uncomfortable speaking English with people who speak Icelandic, and I often don’t know how to respond when someone tries; they usually get a delayed, awkward response in Icelandic or simply, ‘Ha?’ (“What?”).
I know that other immigrants I’ve talked to find this odd. Apparently immigrants are supposed to want to speak their native language when possible, for example amongst each other. But that’s just not the case with me. In my mind, speaking English with people who speak Icelandic is firmly connected with failure, and a person who starts speaking English with me is telling me, “you have failed at something you’ve been working hard at and is very important to you.” I not only need the practice, but I also like Icelandic and I prefer to speak Icelandic.
I used to make the occasional exception, but there are no longer any exceptions in my life. On the Day of the Icelandic Language (Dagur íslenskrar tungu), I even made a pledge not to speak, read, or write English (to the extent I could avoid) with anyone. I even told my family that if they wanted to talk with me on that day that they’d need to use Google Translate! But just because I always speak the language, whether at work, shopping, or out partying, doesn’t mean that I’m anywhere near fluent. Without anyone to correct me when I mess up (a benefit to having an Icelandic partner), I’ve had some very basic mistakes go uncorrected for long periods of time.
It was less than a month ago that I discovered that the reason nobody understood me at loud parties when I’d say “Ég get ekki heyrt þér, það er of hárt” (“I can’t hear you, it’s too loud”) was because it should be “Ég heyri ekki í þér, það er of mikill hávaði” (literally “I hear not in you, it is too much noise”). Recently I learned that an email that I sent out that contained the phrase, “Mér líður veik” (“I feel sick”) sounds funny in Icelandic, that a person just says “Ég er veik” (“I am sick.”) I anticipate it will be a long time before all of my English-style sentence structures work their way out.
The process of learning to say and understand everything right routinely leads to events that are extremely embarrassing at the time but are simply amusing in retrospect. At the Bræðslan music festival this summer, I was trying to tell someone that I eat lots of potatoes, which of course means declining the word for lots (“mikill”). It should have been “mikla,” but without having time to ensure that I did it right, I said that I eat “miklaða” potatoes. This came across as “myglaða” (“mouldy”) potatoes! Several minutes of very confused conversation followed before the mistake was cleared up.
On the way to the festival I had hitched a ride with a bunch of nice guys who were incredibly impressed with how much Icelandic I could speak versus how short of a time I’d lived in Iceland. They called some of their friends who were already at the festival and talked about how great Icelandic I spoke. We pulled up and the first thing any of them said to me sounded like “góða tjalda.” ‘Tjalda’ means “camping,” and my mind analogized it with the phrases “góða ferð” (“have a good trip”), “góða helgi” (“have a good weekend”), etc. So I said “góða tjalda sömuleiðis!” (‘sömuleiðis’ = “likewise”). Everyone in both cars started cracking up. He had actually asked me, “Góð að tjalda?” (“Are you good at camping?”) and I had replied “Are you good (feminine) at camping likewise!”
These sorts of things make you want to find a hole to hide in when they happen. But in retrospect, they just make you smile.