Icelandic Language Strengthened in “Landmark” Initiative

Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, Katrín Jakobsdóttir

The Icelandic government has announced what it is calling a “landmark” initiative to strengthen the Icelandic language. The initiative includes 19 measures to support the preservation and development of Icelandic, many aimed at supporting immigrants’ language learning. Expected to cost at least ISK 1.4 billion [$9.9 million; €9.1 million], the initiative will receive additional funding over the coming years.

The initiative was announced at a press conference yesterday by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Culture and Trade Minister Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, and Social Affairs and Labour Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson. It is a collaborative project between five ministries and was developed in a cross-ministerial committee on the Icelandic language established last November. The initiative will be introduced to Parliament as a parliamentary resolution in the coming days.

Icelandic as a second language support

The 19 measures of the initiative include work-related Icelandic lessons for immigrants alongside work, improving the quality of Icelandic education for immigrants, and establishing online studies in Icelandic and Icelandic as a second language. One of the measures is supporting Icelandic language education for staff of preschools and after-school centres. The initiative also aims to provide additional support for Icelandic language technology as well as Icelandic subtitling and dubbing.

Iceland Review has regular coverage of the latest in Icelandic language programs and policies. For more on the government policy surrounding Icelandic language education for immigrants, read Nothing to Speak Of.

“Give Icelandic a Chance” Wins Language Prize

gefum íslensku séns

The language programme “Give Icelandic a Chance” has been awarded the European Language Label, an award that encourages new initiatives in language pedagogy.

A new initiative

The recognition was granted by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture and The Icelandic Centre for Research (Rannís) in cooperation with the European Union. Give Icelandic a Chance is an Ísafjörður-based educational initiative, which hosts events intended to bridge the gap between the classroom and the community. Taking advantage of the small community in Ísafjörður, the initiative helps learners of Icelandic begin speaking the language while removing the stigma of imperfect Icelandic. Events hosted by the initiative include conversational coffee hours, “speed dating” in Icelandic, talks, lectures, and more.

“This recognition is very important for our effort,” stated University Centre of the Westfjords teacher and organiser Ólafur Guðsteinn Kristjánsson to Iceland Review. “It’s an encouragement to us to keep going and to keep doing better. And the prize money is important as well – 500.000 ISK will allow us to do a lot.”

Ólafur also stated: “The award is also important for us because more people will see what we are doing and realize that they can do various things to help people learn the language. Hopefully, more participants will attend future events and take advantage of it, both native speakers and those learning Icelandic.”

Important recognition

Ólafur stressed the importance of raising awareness for the issues that the initiative seeks to address. This includes understanding what learning Icelandic entails and how Icelandic society can help language learners by ensuring that people have opportunities to use the language in as many situations as possible.

According to Ólafur, the goal of the initiative is to promote increased opportunities for people to use Icelandic in the broadest and most diverse ways possible so that those learning the language receive support and understanding. The initiative is coordinated in cooperation with the University Centre of the Westfjords, the Educational Centre of the Westfjords, and the municipality of Ísafjörður.

The European Language Label is awarded across EU member states and nations associated with Erasmus+ education initiatives.

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Deep North Episode 19: Nothing to Speak Of

icelandic language education

With a growing economy, Iceland is home to more foreign-born residents than ever. And although Icelandic is often described as an “impossible” language to learn, the barriers to learning Icelandic are more often social and economic. We look at the shortcomings of Icelandic as a second language education, and ask what’s to be done.

Read the whole story here.


Why do Icelandic students still learn Danish?

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The fact that Icelandic students still learn Danish in school is tied up with the long history of Icelandic-Danish relations.

Up until Iceland’s independence in 1944, Iceland was a colony of Denmark. In addition to being taught in primary and secondary school, Danish was also the gateway to many higher professions, since studying at the university in Copenhagen was one of the most prestigious educations an upwardly mobile Icelander in the 19th century could get. In fact, Copenhagen was in many ways the centre of Icelandic intellectual life up until the modern era. To this day, many Icelanders choose to attend university in another Nordic nation, such as Norway, Denmark, or Sweden. Because the Nordics are all good places to study and work, there remains an incentive today to develop a baseline proficiency with the language.

Despite its status as a relic of the colonial past, Danish language education still serves some practical and positive purposes today. Written Danish and Norwegian are very similar, and a background in Danish can play a key role in communicating with other Scandinavians. Some have, however, wondered whether Norwegian should instead be taught, as it is more mutually intelligible with Swedish, especially in its spoken form. However, another reason Danish education has stayed in place in Iceland is that Iceland’s neighbours were historically, and continue to be, Danish colonies as well. Specifically, Danish is still taught in Greenland and the Faroe Islands, two territories that have strong historical and cultural ties to Iceland.

This reason is perhaps not front-and-centre in Icelandic education policy, but there is also something to be said for learning a language from a different language group. Norwegian and Icelandic were both West Norse languages, and are therefore more closely related to one another today. Danish and Swedish historically had more contact and influence on one another and are considered East Norse languages. Some argue that learning an East Norse language gives Icelanders the best of both worlds, allowing for communication with both Norwegians and Swedes as well. Note, however, that despite these language groupings, the written forms of the modern Scandinavian language are all more or less mutually intelligible among one another.

Of course, the final reason, like so much in history, is simply force of habit. Languages are useful because other people use them, so it stands to reason that if many scientific, historic, and academic documents were written in Danish, then there is good reason to continue the tradition because it still has some utility.

Disney Answers Call for Icelandic Subtitles and Dubbing

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir / Minister of Culture and Business Affairs

A Disney representative has answered a letter from Iceland’s Minister of Education and Culture urging the company to add Icelandic-language subbing and dubbing to their streaming service Disney+, which launched in Iceland last year. In a letter to the Minister, Manager of The Walt Disney Company in the Nordic and Baltic regions Hans van Rijn states the company is currently working on adding Icelandic dubbing and subtitles to the service but it will take “a few months” to complete the project.

Iceland’s Minister of Education and Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir wrote a letter to Disney CEO Bob Chapek on February 1 urging the company to add Icelandic subtitles and dubbing to its Disney+ streaming service. Disney films and TV shows have been subtitled and dubbed in Icelandic over the past several decades and Disney owns the rights to that material, but it has not been made available on the company’s streaming service, which entered the Icelandic market last September. In her letter, Lilja described the Icelandic language as “the core of the nation’s culture and identity,” adding: “We work hard to maintain it, especially among children and young people who are heavily exposed to other languages daily, mainly English.”

Read More: Icelanders Call on Disney+ to Add Icelandic Subtitles and Dubbing

In his reply, Van Rijn thanked Lilja for her letter, saying Disney “strive[s] to be locally and culturally relevant” in all markets in which it operates, adding that the company had been exploring how to add “more dubbed and subtitled stories in Icelandic” to its service since launching in the country last September. Among the titles that van Rijn says the company will make available in Icelandic in the future are the four Toy Story films, the Cars franchise, The Lion King, WALL-E, and more recent titles such as Frozen 2 and Coco.

In a Facebook post, Lilja described the letter as a “sign of goodwill,” saying she would push for the project to be sped up so Icelandic content would be available even sooner.

The Hulk Learns Icelandic

A new, boutique publishing house called DP-IN will focus on bringing Marvel comics to Icelandic fans in their native language, Vísir reports. Publisher Bjarni Gautur Eydal wants young Icelanders to have the opportunity to read about their favorite superheroes in Icelandic, rather than having no alternative but to read them in English. Superhero series used to be published in Iceland, but this hasn’t been the case in some time.

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“In the old days, before you or I were born, The Hulk and Spiderman were published in Icelandic,” Bjarni said in an interview. “But now for the first time, we’re publishing the stories in the correct chronological order and in paperback.”

Bjarni continued that in his experience working with children in after-school programs, he’s found that there aren’t enough options in Icelandic for young readers. “I grew up in Sweden,” he noted. “And grew up reading Marvel Comics in Swedish.”

The Hulk and Spiderman series are slated for release in Iceland, as are X-Men and Thor after that.

“We’re going to publish both old and new [comics],” Bjarni concluded.

Majority of Immigrants Dissatisfied with Quality of Icelandic Instruction

About 60% of immigrants are unsatisfied with the Icelandic language instruction available in Iceland, RÚV reports. A recent survey shows that there is little correlation between how well immigrants believe they speak Icelandic and how many language courses they have taken. Nearly half of the country’s immigrants consider their Icelandic language skills to be poor.

The study was based on the results of a survey entitled “How is your life in Iceland?” was conducted as part of a research project on immigrant adaptation in Iceland that started at the beginning of last year and is being overseen by the University of Akureyri, in collaboration with the University of Iceland in Reykjavík, as well as universities in Tromsø in Norway, Luxembourg, and Sápmi, or Lapland, in Finland.

More than 2,200 individuals aged 18-80 took part in the study, or 5% of Iceland’s immigrants. The majority of the respondents were women. Respondents were from all parts of the country and 70% of them had lived in Iceland for three years or more.


Significant dissatisfaction with quality of Icelandic instruction

The study found that one-fifth of immigrants in Iceland have not attended language courses in Iceland, although 80% say they have. Half of the respondents said they had taken one to three courses in Icelandic.

Almost half, or 46% of respondents, considered their language skills in Icelandic to be poor or said they didn’t speak the language at all. 9% said they were fluent in Icelandic and one-fifth of respondents said their language skills were fairly good. A fourth of respondents said their handle on the language was neither good nor bad. Women generally feel that they have a better handle on the language than men; 18% of male respondents said they did not speak Icelandic.

Almost 60% of individuals said that they were very or reasonably satisfied with the Icelandic course offerings where they live. 20% said they were very unsatisfied with their local course offerings. When it comes to the actual quality of the teaching, however, the results are dramatically different: 25% said they were happy with the teaching quality, while 59% said they were rather or very dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction levels did not vary much based on the region that the respondent lived in.


‘Something has to change’

Lara Wilhelmine Hoffmann, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Iceland who took part in the study said the results were unexpected. “Yes, it’s a surprise because we know that immigrants in Iceland want to learn Icelandic. Many people attend classes but are unsatisfied with them. Yes, it comes as a surprise and it’s clear that something has to change.”

The researchers have attempted to figure out why immigrants are so unsatisfied with their Icelandic instruction. Lara said one reason could be the kind of education that teachers of Icelandic receive. “There is not enough training for people who want to teach foreigners Icelandic,” she noted in an interview with Iceland Review—that is, specific training in teaching Icelandic as a non-native language. Lara said that many people who teach Icelandic in Iceland have been trained as teachers of the language for native speakers. She said that a program for teachers of Icelandic to non-native speakers would be a positive development and pointed to existing models in Norway and Germany. “Language courses in Norway and Sweden, for example, are free for people who want to live in those countries,” she explained. “In Iceland, you have to pay for the courses.”

“The Master’s program in “annarsmálfræði” (foreign language studies) that the University of Iceland has offered since 2016 is a good step in the right direction,” Lara continued. “Hopefully we will see more educational opportunities for those who want to teach Icelandic as a foreign language. This is important, as the number of immigrants in Iceland has been increasing rapidly in recent years and the Icelandic language is central to Icelandic identity and culture.”

Lara also noted that researchers still aren’t sure how those immigrants who have strong Icelandic language skills learned the language. “They could have possibly learned it at work,” she speculated. “Icelandic classes aren’t the only way to learn Icelandic.”


Need for teacher specialization

It’s also worth noting that those who teach Icelandic to immigrants have a much different sense of the situation. According to Eyjólfur Sturlaugsson, the managing director of the Fræðslunetið lifelong learning center in South Iceland, the results do come as a surprise. Eyjólfur explained that most language learning entities have their own internal quality measures, and overall, the measures have suggested that Icelandic teaching for non-native speakers is yielding good results.

While he said that the results of the study need to be examined more closely, he agreed with Lara that there is a need for increased specialization in this area. “Although the centers are using educated teachers, obviously only a small fraction of them have much specialization in teaching adults of foreign origin.”

Tongue Twister

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 […]

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