Sour Grapes - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Sour Grapes

Sour Grapes

Published May 4, 2007

Dearest Ed & Grapevine,
Allow me to apologize for my previous letter to Grapevine and its suggestion to alter your national treasure of undead 13th century grammatics. If was a respectless and misdirected act, brought out mostly of despair, and I will be the first one to point out that nobody forced me to come to Iceland, and I do feel very privileged to be in this enchanting and well functioning land and learn more of its truly poetic language.
You can make this very easy for yourself and put all the responsibility on the foreigners and their perceived lack of effort, and ignore the shortage of good learning materials and ignore the fact that too many people who teach Icelandic to foreigners are not professional teachers and don’t really know how to teach an adult a foreign language; not no mention the fact that Icelandic language classes are not even available to all foreigners who want to learn.
But if you choose this attitude, you will eventually end up with a simplified Icelandic grammar, because we immigrants are here already, and widespread grammatical generalizations will come to use if the richer details of the Icelandic language treasure cannot be presented in a more accessible way.
And some of us won’t feel so very sorry about it, because we feel that we really tried but were left out in the cold.
I think of it this way: In Sweden, no small part of our cultural heritage is our many well preserved castles, filled with a splendid collection of really good furniture and art we robbed from Germany and its surroundings. In the UK, the cultural heritage is invaluable treasures and Egyptian corpses the British plundered from countries they colonialised.
But when it came to Iceland, everything that wouldn’t fit in the boat during the long trip would ultimately have to be left behind. Upon what tangible to focus the greatness of the Icelandic culture for the disheartened? By safeguarding the native medieval literature and magically keeping its language alive over centuries, ready-to-use at any time of the history of man, along with this seasons blend of recycled vocabulary. Very goth.
I arrived to Iceland ten weeks ago. I just graduated from medical school, and in order to start working as a physician I need to acquire a patient-safe level of listening comprehension and speaking skills, while I imagine a stoical secretary could do wonders with my written Icelandic.
I started an intensive course at Mímir in March, and the teacher was very sweet and friendly, but did most of the talking during class herself, and most of it in English. We had people coming half an hour earlier to class just to copy the homework from someone else, so that the teacher wouldn’t notice that they hadn’t understood what homework they were supposed to do, and that they wouldn’t have been able to do it had they understood it.
Our teacher was absent a few times, and we were taught by Þorbjörg Halldórsdóttir (one of they who developed the learning material used at Mímir), who was outstandingly good and spoke Icelandic all the time. It felt even worse going to class with the other teacher afterwards.
Since I came here just ten weeks ago, I haven’t really had time to shop around in the different language schools, and in that sense I must confess I am making sweeping generalisations. But I’ve discussed this with immigrants from other countries who have been in Iceland for years, among them a person who is active in the Red Cross, and the common view appears to be that it is a general problem that many who teach Icelandic to foreigners are not qualified.
It’s good that language courses for foreigners have become subsidized. It is good that there is awareness in the Icelandic state that foreigners more help to learn the language.
But only more hours of non-structured good-will is not well invested tax money. The overall quality of teaching must be improved, especially at the beginner level, when oral and written communication is as most limited and other means must be used. And we do need more learning materials. A good beginner grammar, a verb bible, a substantive bible (with all inclinations written out) and a similar adjective bible would be on top of my wish list. Perhaps in a portable electronic media?
If I had my own magazine targeting the foreign community in Iceland, I would have some poorly paid lad invest one hour of his sad life to phone up the language schools for foreigners in Reykjavík and ask them how many of their teachers that actually have a teaching degree. If I had another two hours to spare, I would go and speak to those approaching the end of their beginner course, especially targeting those from former Eastern Europe and more exotic places, and ask them if they find the help they need to develop their Icelandic skills. And if I were Icelandic, I’d speak to my cousin’s father-in-law’s neighbour’s brother’s aunt at the Ministry of Education about this and have them come up with an urgent plan to keep a good and readily available educational standard.
Grasp that the Icelandic language has been preserved close to its original form over centuries, by means not only of conscious striving but also through vast amounts of surrounding waters. Now Iceland Express flies low-fare every day.
Best regards,
Hanna Westesson

In the interest of full disclosure, let it be stated that this is an abbreviated and condensed version of two long letters I received from Hanna Westesson regarding my answer to a previous letter of hers on the same subject that was posted in the Grapevine. I have chosen the most relevant parts for publication. Hanna’s first letter was written with a lot of irony, most of which was obviously wasted on me at the time. I suggested she should give up drinking and try to attend the classes she was signed up for. I regret not paying more attention to her complaints at the time, and for dismissing it out of hand.
I think Hanna might be making a very genuine complaint. Language lessons for foreigners are probably far from being of the appropriate standard, and most likely a thorough revision of textbooks, methods, and teacher qualifications are in order. Hanna, consider this my plea to my cousin’s father-in-law’s neighbour’s brother’s aunt at the Ministry of Education.


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