Tongue Twister: Why many foreigners struggle to learn Icelandic – and why Icelanders should care

 In Magazine Intro, News

Ah, the Icelandic language. It’s the ancient tongue of Vikings, filled with beautiful yet frightening words like ferðaáætlun (how many different a’s can there be?), þátttakandi (three t’s in a row? Is that legal?) and tunglsljós (do they even have room for all those consonants on an island?). Icelandic is often portrayed as an impossible language to learn. I can tell you it’s not: because I did it. Or more accurately, I am doing it – you never really finish learning a language. Although it is certainly a myth that Icelandic is impossible to learn, we who put ourselves to the task face unique challenges. Yet our success is not only important for our own survival on this rock in the North Atlantic, but also for the nation as a whole – and even the Icelandic language itself.

Loaded language

Though many immigrants have disproven the myth that Icelandic is impossible to learn, it’s still perceived as more difficult than other languages. “The complexity of the grammar is often the characteristic of Icelandic which most frightens people – when they see the charts – declinations, conjugations,” says Ana Stanicevic, who teaches Icelandic as a Second Language at the University of Iceland and is herself an immigrant to the country. This complexity was the very aspect that attracted Ana to the language: like its four cases which mean there can be up to 16 ways to spell and say each noun. “On the other hand, Serbian has seven cases, and no one talks about how impossible it is to learn,” Ana says of her mother tongue.

“My teaching style is to show that Icelandic isn’t difficult, it’s different,” Ana asserts. “And you can overcome that, with a bit of will. When I stand in front of my students, as someone who doesn’t speak Icelandic as a mother tongue, I am proof of that.”

Strictly speaking

Many foreigners, however, still struggle with Icelandic for years without noting much progress. One obstacle seems to be the lack of resources that cater to their needs. “We haven’t done enough to develop good teaching materials and good courses.” Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, professor emeritus in Icelandic Language and Linguistics at the University of Iceland, tells me. “Iceland was for a long time a homogenous society, then suddenly it’s flooded by people who can’t speak Icelandic, and we don’t know how to react.” the last two decades, foreigners have multiplied nearly fivefold, from 2% of the population to nearly 10% today. Recognising and providing for the needs of this new demographic has been a game of catch-up for the country.

Icelanders as individuals are also struggling to adapt to the growing diversity of their neighbours. While immigrants I spoke to experienced judgement for not speaking Icelandic, their attempts to practice were often ill-received by native speakers. “When some foreigner shows up who is learning the language and doesn’t speak perfect Icelandic, we lose patience and either start correcting them, which leads them to stop trying, or we just switch over to English, so people don’t get any practice,” Eiríkur says. If Icelanders want the language to prosper, it’s clear that they will have to open their ears to all its forms – imperfect or otherwise. Behind each accent and error is a person with much to contribute to a rapidly changing country.

Learning Icelandic

Illustration: Helga Páley Friðþjófsdóttir.

Whys and wherefores

Many students of Icelandic I spoke to point to another factor as their main obstacle in learning Icelandic: motivation. “You don’t need Icelandic, if I’m being honest,” Chus Munguía, who moved to Iceland 11 years ago, tells me. “On a daily basis, I don’t use it at all. That’s the main barrier. Most of my friends are foreigners, and my Icelandic friends have no problem at all with speaking English. You can live a full life in Iceland without speaking Icelandic.” It bears pointing out, however, that immigrants must learn Icelandic at their own expense, as the Icelandic government does not ensure free language education for new residents.

Such obstacles were pointed out ten years ago in a report published by the Ministry of Education on language policy. “There is a need for good and inexpensive Icelandic education and a lot of encouragement in order for people to undertake the task of learning Icelandic,” the report reads. “Unfortunately, the obstacles along the way are too numerous.” Ten years later, the same rings true, and the stakes are even higher.

A language in danger?

At the same time as a record number of foreigners are taking on Icelandic, its usage among native speakers may be changing dramatically. “Icelandic has faced more pressure from the outside in recent years than ever before. This is due to both social changes and technological changes,” Eiríkur tells me. Due to increasing numbers of immigrants and a desire to cater to a growing number of tourists, Eiríkur says, the areas in which Icelandic is used are shrinking. Smart devices and home technology systems are becoming more prevalent in Icelandic homes, and with them, the use of English. “You go to the store and see kids maybe one year old in a cart with a smartphone or tablet. Most often what they’re watching is not in Icelandic.”

“If people know they can’t use Icelandic outside of Iceland, and if they know they can’t even use Icelandic everywhere in Iceland, and if they can’t even use Icelandic everywhere in the home, then you ask yourself – why should we continue to use this language which isn’t useful to us except in a very limited way?” Indeed, what is the “usefulness” of culture or identity in a society focused on quick profit and global relevance? It’s easy to see how young Icelanders’ weakening connection to their own language could become yet another obstacle immigrants face in learning Icelandic.

Opening doors

For the moment, however, it’s clear that the Icelandic language is an integral part of Icelandic culture. Making Icelandic learning more accessible for immigrants doesn’t only benefit the learners, but Icelandic society as whole. “Very few Icelanders know about this whole world of international residents who exist in Iceland with so much to offer this country, who know the language, and are making and effort to learn,” Ana tells me enthusiastically. “It’s a treasure. I’d love to see free courses for everyone who moves to Iceland to live and work. It’s a dream that is possible to realise and all benefit from it, especially the country.”


Read the full article in the most recent issue of Iceland Review or subscribe here or to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Iceland Review is the longest running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.

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