Part 2: Meet The Foreigners Learning Icelandic - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Part 2: Meet The Foreigners Learning Icelandic

Published November 16, 2017

Do you want to learn Icelandic? Well, today is the Day of the Icelandic Tongue, where we honour this unique and colourful language. The number of speakers is growing every 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.

Maria Flaksman

How old are you?

29.

Where are you from?

St. Petersburg, Russia.

Why did you decide to start learning Icelandic?

It has always been my dream to learn Icelandic. Apart from the fact that it is one of the key languages for the scholars of historical linguistics, there is something mesmerising about this language. What makes it so charming? Perhaps it’s its melody, its unusual phonotactics or simply the fact that it has retained so many archaic traits. It is almost as if you were speaking Gothic or Anglo-Saxon with people in the street.

I started learning Icelandic straight after my doctoral defence, but soon I realised that Icelandic Online alone was not enough, and finding Icelandic language courses in St. Petersburg is a tricky job—even if you are lucky to find a teacher, the group is likely to dissolve by the end of the term. After a year of struggle I realised that coming to Iceland was the only option I had. I hope to introduce Icelandic into the university where I teach—it should be taught systematically and on the high (university) level, especially since the interest in Iceland and its culture is growing in Russia.

Poet Jónas Hallgrímsson is a national hero in Iceland because of his contribution to the formation 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?

I guess that the stereotypical answer to this question would be Alexander Pushkin, a 19th century poet who dared to write poetry in his mother tongue in a society where all educated (read: rich and powerful) people spoke French, but I believe that one man alone cannot shape the “language” (by which here “literary style” is understood). Any language is the result of contributions from all its speakers. Strictly speaking, not a result even, but a never-ending process of creation.

What is similar between Iceland and your home country? What is the biggest difference?

Russia is predominantly a northern country; therefore, one can find many similarities in terms of climate, traditional lifestyle and people’s habits. The most striking difference is in the scale of things. Here, in Iceland, everyone seems to know each other. The major storms of the 20th century seem to have left the country untouched—the country bears no scars of two World Wars, bloody revolutions, civil wars or economic collapses.

On the whole, people seem to be more confident and relaxed here. There are no pressures of overpopulation and high competition. I really admire Icelandic women, the way they dress, the way they hold themselves, even the way they rule the country; they look younger; they seem to feel secure about themselves, and most of them never wear dehumanising high heel shoes or makeup, which makes one’s face look like a mask of a doll. They respect themselves and they are respected. I feel there is something “healthy” about Icelandic society in general.

What is your favourite place in Reykjavík and why?

I really love the old wooden houses in the town centre. There is something cozy about them. Wood gives out warmth even when you look at it. I wish the rest of Reykjavík was more colourful! The grey concrete buildings one sees around the University are really depressing.

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

Learning Icelandic is a demanding task. It requires self-discipline and persistence. But it also makes your life more exciting; by learning a language you learn the whole world—yet in its another dimension.

Are you happy?

This question is too personal. Sorry.

Hannah Hethmon

How old are you?

26.

Where are you from?

Maryland, USA.

Why did you decide to start learning Icelandic?

I studied Old Norse and Medieval Icelandic Literature at HÍ for my MA degree, and wanted to continue to learn more modern Icelandic. Basically just intellectual curiosity.

Poet Jónas Hallgrímsson is a national hero in Iceland because of his contribution to the formation 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?

We have a lot of poets in American history, but I guess Robert Frost, since he was not only an important poet but was the official national poet for a while as well. But my favourite important American poet is Edgar Allen Poe. He’s from my home state of Maryland.

What is similar between Iceland and your home country? What is the biggest difference?

A lot feels similar. Iceland feels more like (the best parts) of the US than the rest of Europe. The biggest difference from the US overall is probably the low rates of poverty and homelessness.

What is your favourite place in Reykjavík and why?

I love anywhere in Reykjavík where you can sit and watch the water lapping at the rocks. My favorite spots are the walking path along the shore in Vesturbær and the pier at Nauthólsvík.

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

It’s certainly one of the most challenging things I’ve ever undertaken. Academics have always come easily to me, but learning Icelandic is forcing me to work really hard and be open to sounding stupid more often than not when I’m trying to speak. It’s a good challenge and I think it will make me grow as a person.

Are you happy?

Yes, very much so!

Radek Fryc

How old are you?

35.

Where are you from?

Poland.

Why did you decide to start learning Icelandic?

I live here and it is practical to speak it.

Poet Jónas Hallgrímsson is a national hero in Iceland because of his contribution to the formation 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?

There are a bunch of Polish poets who could be viewed this way. I will go with Juliusz Slowacki as “he delights and a great poet was.”

What is your favourite place in Reykjavík and why?

I enjoy Öskjuhlíð a lot, the woodland area by Perlan. It is not far from town, it is quite picturesque and makes a perfect spot for a walk. I find walking very relaxing.

Are you happy?

I am happy but it is not a constant. I am happy to be here, life is mind-blowing.


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