ICELANDIC EXERCISE: PRONUNCIATION
“Ministry of Culture and Ed- Culture and Trade.”
“Yes, hello. I’m a journalist from Iceland Review. I’m calling to inquire whether Icelandic language education for immigrants falls under this ministry.”
“Hmmm… Give me a moment.”
“Hi again. The ministry assignments are still being sorted, so I recommend you call back next week. I’m pretty sure that issue is being moved to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour. But check back next week.”
I made the above phone call three months after a new government took office in Iceland. It had renamed the ministries and redefined their assignments. The issue of which ministry was responsible for ensuring that Icelandic language education was made accessible to the country’s roughly 50,000 foreign residents – now 15% of the population – remained a big question mark.
In 2012, foreign citizens made up 7% of Iceland’s population. By 2021, that figure had more than doubled, to over 14%. Immigration is no less of a hot topic in Iceland than elsewhere, and many speculate about its effects on the economy, the nation, and the Icelandic language. But regardless of what those effects are, one thing is clear: Iceland needs immigrants.
In a recent interview with Vísir, Halldór Benjamín Þorbergsson, the CEO of the Icelandic Confederation of Enterprise, stated that Iceland would need 15,000 new workers over the next four years in order to meet demand on the labour market. Only 3,000 locals were expected to age into the market during that period, which means that the country would need to acquire an additional 12,000 workers from abroad. Halldór Benjamín made it clear that ensuring these workers was a question of maintaining economic prosperity and locals’ quality of life.
Successfully receiving 12,000 immigrants over four years would require a monumental effort on the part of the government, which needed to begin “no later than now,” Halldór Benjamín stated. “A part of that, nota bene, is to help people adjust to the society, with Icelandic language education and the like.”
ICELANDIC EXERCISE: ASKING QUESTIONS
“Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour.”
“Yes, hi. I’m calling from Iceland Review. I’ve been told that Icelandic education for immigrants is being moved to this ministry. Can you confirm that’s the case?”
“The typical procedure for such inquiries is to send an email to the ministry.”
“I see. So you can’t confirm whether it falls under this ministry?”
“You can send an email to ___@___.is.”
“Right. Thank you.”
The government of Iceland does not provide any free Icelandic language classes for immigrants.
The structured learning available to the country’s newest residents largely falls into two categories. On the one hand, there are free conversational classes provided by community organisations such as the Red Cross, religious groups, and the Reykjavík Public Library. (One immigrant related to me how Icelandic classes offered by one Christian group always started with a prayer.)
On the other hand, there are paid courses offered by privately-operated schools. An eight-week course will set you back around ISK 50,000 ($375; €340) – about one-sixth of the minimum monthly salary, pre tax. Those who are union members can usually get 75% of this fee reimbursed. Those who are not must pay out of pocket.
ICELANDIC EXERCISE: READING
Feb. 17 2022, 2:59 PM
To: Jelena Ciric
From: Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour
Subject: Inquiry: Icelandic Education for Foreigners
Case reference: FRN22020116
Yes, Icelandic teaching for foreigners falls under the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, except for Icelandic as a second language teaching in upper secondary schools.
Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour
Hjalti Ómarsson, CEO of Retor fræðsla.
“IT WOULD TAKE TIME TO UNRAVEL
DECADES OF A LACK OF POLICY”
“I don’t get the point. I just don’t understand. No one has contacted us or tried to explain to us how moving this issue to the Social Affairs and Labour Ministry helps immigrants learn Icelandic or have more access to the language,” Hjalti Ómarsson tells me.
Hjalti is the CEO of Retor fræðsla, an Icelandic as a second language (ISL) school in the Reykjavík area founded in 2008. While Retor receives some public funding, it only accounts for 35-40% of the school’s operating costs.
“The rest comes from students or their unions. We also work with a lot of companies that buy Icelandic courses for their employees,” Hjalti tells me. He says the public grants available to workplaces for providing ISL classes are one of the things that got the school through the worst of the pandemic. “But when it comes to public funding, there’s not enough. The amount of grant money available has not risen since 2009. And whether your company has 10 employees or 100, the amount you can apply for is the same. Workplaces complain to us that they exhaust their grant money very quickly.”
Retor’s staff has done their best to advocate for more government funding and attention to ISL teaching, but in Hjalti’s words, communication with the government has been “like the weather. Sometimes good, sometimes not at all. We’ve pointed out that the funding is there: funding that immigrants themselves create by working on the Icelandic labour market. I don’t understand why it isn’t possible to invest those funds back into immigrants, increase access to the language, and make it easier for people to learn.” Reports from the Directorate of Labour have shown that a lack of Icelandic knowledge is a barrier for immigrants when it comes to getting their education and training recognised – meaning they miss out on jobs, and the labour market on skilled workers.
Retor’s meetings with the former Minister of Education and Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir ended with many promises, but no action. “I sincerely hope something will be done. Because we, in our role, we can only do this for so long until we say ‘OK, nothing is changing, the public institutions aren’t making improvements.’”
ICELANDIC EXERCISE: PARTS OF SPEECH
What the Icelandic government needs to do in order to improve access to Icelandic language education for immigrants is establish a clear policy, says Hjalti. “We need to receive immigrants differently than we receive tourists. When people move to the country, they should be informed that they are expected to learn the language. So there isn’t this weird in-between place where many people end up, sometimes for decades, where they’re not sure if they need to learn Icelandic or not, until they’ve gotten so old that it becomes even more difficult.” That policy needs to be accompanied by funding, “so that people who are paying taxes in our society can attend language classes. They need to be made accessible.”
“I feel that it’s very short-sighted of the Icelandic government to do nothing. Whether you look at it from the perspective of the language, or the people who need the language as a tool. Because it’ll slowly create – not even just two nations in this country, but several.” It’s the immigrants themselves that bear the brunt of this lack of government action, Hjalti points out. “Like people in service jobs. Icelanders get annoyed at them if they don’t speak Icelandic. At the same time, those people have no access [to Icelandic classes] and no motivation to attend. If there is no policy and no funding to speak of, then people choose to do nothing. And that is the only option they have today. Except for very, very determined, or hardworking, people. And I don’t know if it’s even fair to say that, because people’s circumstances vary so much. I find it very unfair how much perseverance it takes to learn Icelandic.”
Act no. 61/2011 on the status of the Icelandic language and Icelandic sign language (excerpt):
Article 2: The Icelandic Language
The national language is the common language of the people. The government shall ensure that it can be used in all areas of Icelandic society. Everyone residing in this country shall have the opportunity to learn and use Icelandic for general participation in Icelandic national life, as further prescribed in special legislation.
Article 5: Language Policy
The state and municipalities are responsible for preserving and strengthening the Icelandic language and shall ensure that it is used.
Besides free sessions offered by charities and costly private schools, a third, though less common, route does exist for those who want to learn Icelandic as a second language. The University of Iceland offers a one-year Icelandic as a second language diploma programme, as well as a three-year Icelandic as a Second Language degree, of which Lina Hallberg is a recent graduate. Lina began learning Icelandic abroad, then after moving to Iceland in 2016, she completed all of the ISL courses on offer at a respected private school, as well as attending free sessions at a variety of community organisations. Some were good, but most did not help her advance beyond a beginner level. “In the end, I thought: OK, there’s nothing more I can learn here, so I just ended up applying to the university.”
The Icelandic government has not conducted research on how many hours of instruction are required for a second-language learner to become proficient in Icelandic. The United States’ Foreign Service Institute, however, has. It concluded that it usually takes around 44 weeks, or 1,100 hours of instruction, for English speakers to achieve professional working proficiency in Icelandic.
The Icelandic government’s upper secondary school curriculum for Icelandic as a second language accounts for only 540 hours to achieve a similar level of proficiency. Lina contacted Icelandic language schools across the country to determine how many hours of instruction they offered in total, when all their courses were added together. None of them surpassed 360 hours. Lina also points out that the government has not made teaching materials that cover everything outlined by the curriculum.
“One response I often get as to why there aren’t courses at higher levels is usually: ‘people don’t want to do them.’ I don’t think people don’t want to; they are not able to. They’re tired, they don’t have the money, they don’t have access to childcare.” Some schools, like Retor, simply say that funding does not allow for them to offer courses at higher levels, which often require additional work to create teaching material. She points out that the government has suggested requiring Icelandic proficiency within certain professions, like her own: dentistry. Yet there are obstacles to reaching that proficiency. “I’m not against requiring people to have a certain level of Icelandic to get a licence as a dentist, for example, but then there should be a book for them. Can you imagine being required to do a driving test and there’s no book to study for it?”
Lina had to scale back her working hours in order to be able to attend the ISL programme at the University of Iceland. “Everyone is saying it’s way too expensive to provide lessons for immigrants. But I chose to work 50% so that I could learn Icelandic. And when I’m not working, we don’t hire a dental assistant. So for 3.5 years, we didn’t hire an assistant, I wasn’t working: that’s money that is not being made. And if I’m not working, I’m not using instruments: we’re buying less, the denturist has less work. So it’s a loss for the economy and the government.”
Attending the university’s ISL program made Lina more aware of the lack of materials available for learning Icelandic, especially material that was tailored to second language learners. “I was maybe complaining about it a little bit too much. I had taught a grammar lesson and prepared a second one for one of my courses, and then eventually the instructor told me: ‘This is really good. Why don’t you write this book that you say is missing?’ And I thought ‘Why not? I can’t be complaining all the time and not doing anything about it.”
Lina then began to put together a grammar book tailored to immigrants as her final project in the programme. While it’s nearly ready for publication, she’s faced yet more obstacles in getting her book out there, primarily in finding funding for the cover design and proofreading. “I’m learning a lot writing the book. So if I don’t get paid, at least I’m learning. But I need someone to design the cover, and I will have to pay an Icelander to go over it in the end. And all of that costs money.”
When she searched for grants that she could apply for, there was little to be found. “I never fulfilled the requirements: you either had to be an organisation, or work for the university, or the project needed to be a research project, or if it could be a book then the material had to be for children. The government can pay ISK 9 billion [$68.2 million; €62.1 million] for COVID testing over two years, but you can’t get ISK 1.2 million [$9,100; €8,300] for a book. It’s ridiculous.”
Facing a lack of government support, Lina points out that many ISL schools have resorted to creating their own teaching material for more advanced levels, at their own expense. “The material that’s available isn’t good enough, so everyone has to do their own thing.”
Icelandic Language Committee: Resolution on the Status of the Icelandic Language 2020 (excerpt):
It is important to keep in mind that it is an issue of accessibility and equality for Icelandic to be used as a rule, as Icelandic speakers’ mastery of foreign languages is quite varied, and constant use of English can lead to a part of society being excluded from certain areas. […] Good Icelandic language education is also an important issue for equality, among other things to prevent a gap forming between generations and social groups.
ICELANDIC EXERCISE: COMPREHENSION
March 2022: An Icelandic TikToker posts videos of himself printing and distributing flyers in mailboxes and on windshields in Reykjavík’s Vesturbær neighbourhood.
The flyers read: IMMIGRANTS ARE KILLING EUROPEANS
The immigration of people from Asia and Africa will lead to the extinction of Icelanders
No Borders and “Anti-Racists” want to see white people become extinct!
Immigration, racial mixing and democracy are tools used to eliminate Icelanders and Europeans
We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.
“It would take time to unravel decades of a lack of policy,” Hjalti observes, saying the government’s inaction has influenced the nation’s attitude toward the language. “When Icelanders meet people who speak English, they just speak English. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. There are more than enough people who are interested in creating good ISL material, creating better conditions for learning. There is specialised knowledge. But there needs to be the will to do so: the government needs to have the will to do it, the interest. Instead of willingly preventing people from being able to build the life they want here, using the Icelandic language as a tool.”
Part of the change that is necessary, according to Hjalti, is to let go of the ideal of perfect grammar and accept that Icelandic can come in many forms. “I think we need to normalise the fact that immigrants don’t speak perfect Icelandic. We want, first of all, to give people a chance to approach the language, and to be able to use it. That’s what this is about. When people start to feel good about just using Icelandic, even if they’re not saying everything perfectly, that’s when the ball gets rolling.”
While many Icelandic language purists see any foreign loan words or imperfect grammar as a threat to the survival of Icelandic, Hjalti says this attitude only hurts the language. “Icelandic is incredibly adaptable. I think the best proof of that is that it’s still around. And I love how it has developed and changed through the years. I think it’s OK for there to be different versions of Icelandic, and for some people to speak well, and others to speak poorly. I think that’s something that Icelanders have to learn to accept.”
The Minister of Social Affairs and Labour did not grant Iceland Review an interview during the writing of this article. After several emails and phone calls, the Ministry answered our questions by email, citing the 2021 government agreement and a parliamentary resolution from 2018-2019 that both emphasise a need to review Icelandic education for immigrants and its funding, much like previous reports and agreements. Whether this government will differ from previous ones, and follow through on promises made, remains to be seen.