Part 1: Meet The Foreigners Learning Icelandic - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Part 1: Meet The Foreigners Learning Icelandic

Published November 16, 2017

Interested in learning Icelandic? Well, today is the annual Day of the Icelandic Tongue, where we honour this unique and colourful language. The number of speakers grows each year, thanks in no small part to the people who move to Iceland and learn the language. Photographer Varvara Lozenko met some of the students who’ve devoted themselves to studying Icelandic and they shared their thoughts on what motivated them to delve into this daunting, but enchanting language.

Mathilde Maindrault

How old are you?

21.

Where are you from?

I am from a small town in France called Chartres.

Why did you decide to start learning Icelandic?

I decided to learn Icelandic when I was an exchange student in high school because I wanted to discover Icelandic culture and the best way to do so was to learn the language. And it was also kind of challenging and I thought it was exciting.

Poet Jónas Hallgrímsson is a national hero in Iceland because of his contribution to the development of the Icelandic language. Can you name a poet from your home country who is similarly regarded as a national hero through a contribution to the country’s language/literature/poetry?

Rimbault, Verlaine, Baudelaire… We have really many so it’s kind of hard to choose one!

How is Iceland similar to your home country? What is the biggest difference?

The biggest similarity that comes to mind between France and Iceland is probably the importance of literature in both countries. The most different things are probably the landscape, the weather and the food.

What is your favourite place in Reykjavík and why?

I really like going to Kaffi Stofan, it’s a very cozy place to hang out with friends.

Is learning Icelandic making your life different? In what way?

I think that learning Icelandic is a very important thing when you live here because the relationship you have with the locals is different from when you only speak English. Icelanders are always very impressed and curious about you when you speak Icelandic with them. They are very supportive and it is very nice, so I guess that learning Icelandic helps you join the Icelandic community.

Are you happy?

YES!

Margrét Ann Thors

How old are you?

29 and 11/12ths.

Where are you from?

Connecticut, USA.

Why did you decide to start learning Icelandic?

My dad is Icelandic and I’ve been coming here since I was old enough to own a passport, so this place holds great meaning for me on a personal level. In some sense, I’ve always felt more at home in Iceland than I do in the USA. There’s something about the combination of extreme natural elements, closely knit family, and proper pronunciation of my name that does the trick. Because the Icelandic language is so central to the Icelandic “consciousness” and culture, I see learning Icelandic as a way to connect more closely with my heritage.

Poet Jónas Hallgrímsson is a national hero in Iceland because of his contribution to the development of the Icelandic language. Can you name a poet from your home country who is similarly regarded as a national hero through a contribution to the country’s language/literature/poetry?

United States culture tends not to place a high premium on literary masters. Authors like Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner come to mind, but I don’t think we have a single “hero” who’s held up above all others. There have been many iterations of “The Great American Novel.”

How is Iceland similar to your home country? What is the biggest difference?

The biggest difference I see between the US and Iceland concerns people’s sense of fidelity and connection to one another. In the US family units tend to be fairly small and most people orient toward an “us vs. them” mentality. In Iceland, because the population is so small and everyone is, in some sense, related (and can open the Íslendingabók app to confirm this!), I see a greater sense of camaraderie and connection among the collective.

What is your favourite place in Reykjavík and why?

I live very close to Snaps Bistro and I love walking home at night because the restaurant is always alive with strung lights and tables full of people celebrating life. I also love to run in Elliðaárdalur, Öskjuhlíð and Fossvogsdalur because nothing beats the Icelandic air.

Is learning Icelandic making your life different? In what way?

Learning this language is so humbling! As a writer, whose command of English is very close to my identity, it’s difficult and sometimes disheartening to bumble around in Icelandic, searching for words and sounding like a four-year-old. This has been (and I suspect will continue to be) a great journey for my ego and sense of self.

Are you happy?

I don’t view happiness as a steady-state emotion, but rather as a feeling we choose to cultivate by pursuing the things we’re curious about and care about. I’m very intentional about the way I spend my time and how I direct my energy and I’m comfortable turning inside myself and locating a sense of peace, truth and contentment regardless of what the outside world throws my way. So, I suppose I’d say yes, I’m happy, actively rather than passively.

Hung Faan Lok (Gary)

How old are you?

23.

Where are you from?

Hong Kong

Why did you decide to start learning Icelandic?

I like challenges. I like jumping through hurdles and dragging myself down the finish line just to prove my humanity. Learning Icelandic has been a significant reminder of my own insignificant existence. Also, the pronunciation is weirdly interesting, so I am hooked.

Poet Jónas Hallgrímsson is a national hero in Iceland because of his contribution to the development of the Icelandic language. Can you name a poet from your home country who is similarly regarded as a national hero through a contribution to the country’s language/literature/poetry?

Lyricist and singer Wong Ka Kui wrote a famous song called ‘Glorious years,’ which was inspired by Nelson Mandela and his activism on racial equality. It has become one of the many protest songs used in various social movements in Hong Kong.

How is Iceland similar to your home country? What is the biggest difference?

Similarity: people going through hardships in the impossible property market, and corrupted heads of the government, one after another. Nature-wise, mountains and seas everywhere. Difference: the pace, the laid back attitude, and work-life balance.

What is your favourite place in Reykjavík and why?

I am an avid hiker. Helgafell is my current number one pick, even if it’s a bit outside of Reykjavík. Fewer tourists, more rocks.

Is learning Icelandic making your life different? In what way?

Yes. I am more conscious about the linguistic characteristics of English and my mother tongue. It was easier for me to learn German as well, compared to my fellow classmates in Hong Kong. Knowing about cognates and the cultural background of Icelandic words makes me happy. (Yes, I am a nerd, but at least I am a happy nerd.)

Are you happy?

Why wouldn’t I be? Carpe diem; seize the day.

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