From Iceland — Icelandic Classes During Working Hours Increasingly In Public Discussion

Icelandic Classes During Working Hours Increasingly In Public Discussion

Published September 14, 2022

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Offering free Icelandic classes during working hours is gaining significant traction in public discourse in Iceland, opening the question: how would it be offered, and when?

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Icelandic classes are widely available to many, but not all, immigrants in Iceland. While some labour unions will cover most or all of the cost of these classes, there is also the question of time–when does a person attend Icelandic language classes while working a full time job, and possibly also maintaining a family? One proposed solution has been to offer Icelandic classes during working hours, and while some private companies do offer this, it has yet to be a high priority amongst employers, labour unions and the government.

The importance of learning Icelandic is underscored on several fronts. As professor emeritus of Icelandic at the University of Iceland Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson pointed out in a column for Vísir, 53% of workers in Iceland’s second largest labour union, Efling, are of foreign origin. Learning the language brings with it not only the social benefits of being able to understand and be understood by Icelandic society; it can also bring better employment opportunities.

A “divided society”

Speaking to RÚV, Eiríkur added that there are pitfalls that come with not prioritising teaching foreigners Icelandic.

“If nothing is done I’m afraid that we will have a divided society, where we will have a class of people who don’t understand much Icelandic, working in low paying jobs, who are significantly isolated,” he said. “They use English first and foremost to communicate. These people are stuck in low wage jobs, isolated from others, their children drop out of school and so forth. This is not a situation that we want to see.”

Time biggest factor

Sarah Al Barghouti, a specialist who counsels immigrants in Iceland, added that time plays a significant factor for immigrants wanting to learn Icelandic, that it can be difficult to find the energy to go to classes after a long and challenging working day. She added that immigrants are themselves nonetheless motivated to learn Icelandic because it can lead to getting better paying jobs. This is in large part because even highly educated people who move to Iceland might not get jobs in their chosen field due to a lack of Icelandic comprehension.

Michelle Spinei, writing for Vísir, echoed these sentiments, saying, “It’s about the time, because time is like water and water is as cold and unrelenting as a boss who won’t let you take off from work to learn a language when there’s a pressing deadline coming up. Or worse, when you realize that the ‘best program’ in Iceland, the University of Iceland’s ‘Icelandic as a Second Language,’ is a three year, full-time commitment teaching you academic Icelandic so unless you have a trust fund, a wealthy spouse, or hacked crypto funds, good luck supporting yourself in one of the most expensive countries in the world,” adding later, “Since the government is slow in creating a long-range comprehensive plan for learning Icelandic and union leaders aren’t prioritizing it, I’m afraid we might need an entrepreneur (and Icelanders are nothing if not good capitalists) who sees this as a business opportunity.”

Whether Icelandic classes during working hours will be offered by the government, by any labour union, or by more private enterprises still remains to be seen.

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