Our next guest post [and final one in this round as I’m heading back to Iceland in a couple of days] is from Tom Harper, a loyal reader of this blog who is a masochist fascinated by and intent on learning the Icelandic language. In fact, he spent the summer in Reykjavík learning about declensions and cases and why Alda sometimes changes to Öldu and all that fun stuff. However, as you can read below, the grammar was the least of his worries. Tom’s experiences with Icelandic and the Nicelanders continues tomorrow.
As an Icelandair plane taxis toward its gate at Keflavík International Airport, the bilingual flight attendant makes the usual announcements in both English and Icelandic. In English, this starts with a cheerful, “Welcome to Iceland”. In the Icelandic version, however, this same sentiment is rendered as “Velkomin heim”, or “Welcome home”. I noticed this with a tinge of amusement as my plane landed this last July, when I came to Iceland for an month-long intensive summer course in intermediate Icelandic.
Like many of the readers of this blog (I assume), I’m a self-confessed Icelandophile. I visited Iceland for the first time last year and fell helplessly in love with everything: the people, the nature, the culture, and, perhaps above all, the language. In addition to my Icelandic obsession, I’m also one of those “language freaks”. I have studied linguistics and several languages “for fun”. I am generally drawn to those languages for which I have an aesthetic or cultural appreciation. After visiting Iceland just once, the language drew me like a moth to a flame.
Without a doubt, Icelandic is a challenging language, The grammar makes the initial learning curve for constructing simple sentences steep enough to put off many a beginner. The pronunciation doesn’t help either, as it contains quirks rarely found in other languages. The vocabulary doesn’t provide too many hints either (unless you happen to be familiar an Old Norse scholar), as the Icelandic language and its speakers largely reject the loanwords that we are used to seeing across European languages for things like “telephone”, “computer”, or even scientific terminology.
But none of these things is the hardest part about learning Icelandic.
According to my highly credible source Wikipedia, Icelandic has approximately 320,000 speakers. With such a language community, Icelanders are no strangers to dealing with the outside world in another language. I have found that they possess impressive English language skills from a relatively young age.
And they don’t hesitate to use them.
Prior to the course, I made a resolution: While in Iceland, I would speak Icelandic as much as possible. I was not about to spend a month in a classroom for 3 to 4 hours a day learning Icelandic and then waste time using English outside of it. I already knew that Iceland presented a particularly difficult challenge in this respect, because Icelanders are quick to “make things easier for you” by speaking English. I knew I would have to be stubborn.
I boarded my plane in London with this at the forefront of my mind. When the flight attendant came by asking what I wanted to drink, I proudly replied in Icelandic, “vatn” (“water”), and–squee!–it worked! I even bought a prepaid-SIM in Icelandic from the duty free cart. No pain whatsoever. Reality struck when I arrived and took the bus to Reykjavík. The first thing I did was go to the bus terminal’s cafeteria and buy skyr to satisfy my year-long craving. Despite attemping to conduct the transaction in Icelandic, the slightly creepy, leering man behind the counter insisted on speaking English. Fine, I had only spoken in short phrases which any foreigner might know, so maybe he didn’t realise that I spoke Icelandic.
My cab driver was a different story. I went up to him and told him the address of where I was going to be living. I stumbled a bit over the name of the street, and apparently this meant that it was English Time™. This is the only time I can recall where my Icelandic was better than an Icelander’s English. The cab driver was very nice and wanted to make conversation. Unfortunately, this degenerated into shouting short phrases and words at me. I wanted so badly to understand and be nice to him, so I sort of made up a conversation from his words and responded to what I decided he said. He seemed okay with this, although I was very glad that the cab ride was only 5 minutes long.
The first week of the course was total language shock. Inside the classroom, everything was fine. I could make mistakes, I could ask for a word I didn’t know, and was only talking about grammar. Outside, I finally understood what my resolution really entailed. Every time I wanted to buy something, order something, eat something, it meant anxiety. The holes in my vocabulary became completely obvious. I had to prepare, while in a queue, everything that I wanted to say when I got to the front. If I got a response I wasn’t expecting, utter panic ensued while I tried to figure out what they said and how I should respond. The real sting, though, came when a mistake I made, or asking someone to repeat what they thought was simple, drove someone to resort to speaking English to me. The implicit demand for perfection, or at least a very high standard of grammar and comprehension, made me even twitchier.
Nevertheless, I navigated most interactions totally in Icelandic. My blood pressure was probably unhealthily high, but I counted each 100% Icelandic interaction as a worthy accomplishment. After the first week, I had a good sense of the standard phrasings for certain things and had tuned into the language to the extent that new phrases didn’t induce a fight-or-flight response.
During my second week, I was able to more calmly approach Icelandic language situations and started to observe a trend. A great many Icelanders refused to respond to me in Icelandic, even though I now knew that I was not making any (grievous) mistakes, and some were even addressing me in English before I opened my mouth! I am sure that, at least 99.9% of the time, Icelanders meant no offense by this. For the average tourist, this probably feels reassuring. For me, it increased my awareness that the barrier I was facing was not purely linguistic. An unsolicited greeting in English, or a refusal to speak Icelandic back to me, became a giant finger exclaiming, “Something about you is foreign.” Suddenly, Icelandair’s translation seemed less amusing and more alienating. Icelandic was for Icelanders, and English was foreigners.
[To be continued …]