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Tribulations of an outlander in Niceland, II

For anyone who missed the last post, this is a continuation of Tom’s trials and tribulations as he tries to practice his Icelandic with the natives. Not a simple task, as it turns out!


I began wondering what, besides my obvious accent in Icelandic, led people to label me as an outlander. I didn’t dress in a particularly touristy way during my day to day life; no camera, no hiking gear as I walked around Reykjavík (why do people do this, anyway?), no giant map. As Alda mentioned in a recent blog post, everyone just knew. While chatting with my teacher one day, I commented on this. He advised that, if any Icelander refused to speak Icelandic to me, I should either a) pretend not to understand them in English or b) call them on it and ask why they refuse to speak Icelandic to me.

I was never bold enough to do the former. I wasn’t too keen on doing the latter, either. The weekend after my second week, however, I simply couldn’t take it anymore. My mom had come to visit me, and I took her to the Blue Lagoon. I bought some food at the snack bar. Being at a touristy place, I was always greeted in English by everyone. Nevertheless, I greeted her in Icelandic, and even asked her a question about the cost of coffee. She replied in English, and I found her attitude slightly offensive. I handed her my bankcard**, and she handed it back to me and nearly spat, “Would you like the receipt?” At this point, I took Jón’s advice.

Me (in Icelandic): I spoke to you in Icelandic, why won’t you speak it to me?
Her (in English): Your bank card was American.
Me (in Icelandic): Yes, but I spoke to you in Icelandic.
Her (in English): Where are you from? AMERICA?
Me (in Icelandic): *blinks* Yes, I am American (Bandaríkjamaður), but I live in Britain, now.
Her (in English): We never use Bandaríkjamaður. You should say Kani instead. And it doesn’t mean Canadian. It’s just our word for American.
Me: Já, ókei. Takk. *storms off*

I was appalled. I don’t pin this woman’s rudeness on her being Icelandic in any way, but it was still the most negative Icelandic language experience I have ever had. When I related this story to other Icelanders, they were surprised both at her behaviour and her language “advice”: Kani is, in fact, a slang term for American, but as with “Yank”, it’s neither the canonical term nor one that an American would necessarily use to describe themself.

As much as this was a low point in my Icelandic language journey, it was also a massive turning point. I wanted to prove to myself that my experience with this woman was unjustified and that my language ability was enough to cross the chasm between Icelander and foreigner, whatever name was on the top of my debit card. I began seeking more situations to talk with random Icelanders. I tried making small talk with shop owners while browsing. I went out of my way to ask questions about things I was curious about even if the answer was inconsequential. This more aggressive approach was exactly what I needed. The responses in these situations were overwhelmingly positive. My Icelandic was far from perfect, but Icelanders seemed to be happy to chat away with an Icelandic learner who showed an interest in their designs/wares/food. Many transitioned from answering my questions to asking about me, asking me about why I speak Icelandic, etc. I think this also changed my overall demeanor, because Icelanders suddenly spoke to me in Icelandic far more than in English. Either my appearance had changed (I guess my hair was two weeks shaggier?) or something about the way I approached people (perhaps without abject terror written on my face?) and interacted in Icelandic had reached the tipping point.

I felt victory was finally achieved in a jewelry shop on Laugavegur one afternoon. I was walking back toward my flat and decided to do a bit of aimless browsing. I walked in and greeted the woman behind the counter. She asked me if I needed any help and I replied that I was just browsing. After walking around for about half a minute, she said something that, lost in thought, I didn’t understand. Only when I asked her what she had said did she say, in English, “Oh! You aren’t Icelandic.”

W00T! This woman had no idea what her simple mistake meant for me. We continued to chat for a while (in Icelandic), and I expressed my absolute glee about the fact that she was the first person not to instantly assume I was a tourist and couldn’t speak Icelandic. I think she thought I was a bit strange for being so happy, but after weeks of feeling like I was under the national microscope, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.

My situation only improved from there. People generally assumed that, at the least, I was an Icelandic speaker and I was almost never spoken to in English, even after hearing my accent. I even began receiving compliments about my Icelandic. People could clearly hear my foreignness (they often asked me where I was from), but they clearly approved. I was also often mistaken for a Scandinavian, which made me feel like less like the notorious American/Briton who sticks out like a sore thumb on holiday. All of this may seem a small victory, but after labouring for nearly a month to work a little deeper into this close-knit society, each of these small experiences left me with a warm feeling of acceptance.

The course ended four weeks after it began. I stayed for a week after, and my fiancé and some friends came to hang out with me during that time. Having them there brought back into the focus the life I had taken a short hiatus from to do this course. It also made me very aware of how comfortable I had become in Iceland. While I couldn’t believe that an entire month was already over, I also felt like I had been in Iceland for six months instead of one. Along with the extreme coffee and dairy addictions I developed, my experiences with the language stand out the most in my mind. The anxiety that I felt that first day was gone. The souring experience with the woman at the Blue Lagoon had been overwritten by all the wonderful and kind things people said to me in the following weeks. I realised that, in addition to falling in love with Iceland all over again, I had started to feel rather at home.

Even before this experience, I had the rather unoriginal dream of moving and possibly settling in Iceland one day. There are many obstacles between me and realising that dream. Finishing my degree, finding a job, getting a work permit, convincing the aforementioned fiancé. I know now, however, that I don’t need to be afraid of the cultural barrier. This experience taught me that the role of the Icelandic language is critical. Despite all the other blatant cues that we foreigners apparently broadcast when walking down the street in Reykjavík, the ability to speak the Icelandic language seems to make a lot of other differences infinitely more forgivable. Now that I am back in England and reality has once again set in, I am longing for the day I can return to Iceland, but when I do I feel like the flight attendant will be including me when she says “Velkomin heim.”

*The Icelandic word for foreigner, *”útlendingur”*, translates literally to “outlander”

**I didn’t even make the foreigner mistake of trying to pay with cash everywhere!



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Max August 19, 2010, 11:56 pm

    Sorry Tom, you may hate me for this, but you absolutely *did* dress like a foreigner! Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course, but you did stick out a mile away… it’s the price you pay for being immaculately groomed I suppose.

  • Bill C. August 20, 2010, 1:07 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I can relate, having spent a lot of time in various Eastern European countries over the last 10+ years. Including some that I gave thought to staying in longer term. My Czech was not too terrible at one point, at least I could use my baby-talk with assurance and a decent accent :).

    I do remember walking into a room a few years ago in Prague and being greeting by a older Czech that I hadn’t seen in many years. His first words, ‘ah, look at that North American face!’ So maybe it is plastered on our foreheads.

    It sounds like as much as language, it was your demeanor, confidence, body language, etc that had caught up with your Icelandic skills. After a few weeks, maybe you just unconsciously or otherwise started blending in on all those levels. You were simply more comfortable perhaps, and people could sense it.

  • Michael Lewis August 20, 2010, 1:20 am

    I can’t help but think you are maybe over-analysing things. Reykjavik is a tourist centre and a lot people who work in the shops, bars, etc… must get so many people speaking English as either their first language or default 2nd language of both parties. If they tried to speak Icelandic to everyone, maybe half their day would be lost… maybe.

    On my recent travel, before going off into the wilds for some fishing: I was in a bar, and as I was about to leave, a barmaid spoke about a minutes worth of Icelandic to me. I didn’t have chance to even open my mouth. At the end of the monologue I just said ‘erm….’ , then she blushed and handed me a bill. The opposite to my arrival: coming out of the airport I was searching for a taxi – I’m not a student and there is no way I was getting on a bloody bus – first thing the taxi driver said to me ‘Are you from London?’ psychic cabbies – crazy place Iceland 😉

  • Alexander E. August 20, 2010, 1:48 am

    I think I have an explanation of that Blue Lagoon incident.
    “Her” has to deal all day long with tens if not hundreds of people with very different languages. So it’s kind of a uniform for her – to speak in English with everyone who is not local. Just to make her work a little bit easier cause this was not her job to speak to you in Icelandic. For some people (who speaks more than one language) it might be not so easy to switch back and force every minute.
    And her usage of kani means – most likely – she is from Keflavik (former NATO base – full of Yankees after all).

    As to your note “I didn’t even make the foreigner mistake of trying to pay with cash everywhere! ” – Icelanders do pay with cash everywhere 😉

  • Eric Swanson August 20, 2010, 3:40 am

    I am surprised that Tom was accepted so quickly as an Icelandic learner. When I was at the NATO base from 1986-88, I went through three stages. At first I was asked to “speak English only.” After about a year people would listen to my questions in Icelandic and answer me in English. After about 18 months in Iceland, people would answer me in Icelandic and then check with me in English for understanding. I was only integrated with the Icelandic community on Sunday and sometimes Saturday as well. My feeling was that Rekjavik was such a small city that most people knew I was an American because everyone seemed to know everybody else. Perhaps I might have made it to the stage where people did not check in English for understanding if I had stayed longer. I will say that speaking any Icelandic was well received by most Icelanders.

  • pin August 20, 2010, 6:35 am

    Reading your story i thought of sharing my view. Im not an Icelander, but i come also from small country, which is big enough to be proud on its own language (Slovenia). My boyfriend is foreigner and he is intensively learning the language, which causes him many problems you describe as well. Observing his learning efforts, i realize it is a strange, unknown experience for people speaking some exotic languages, hearing someone learning their language. They are of course pleased with that, but they are not sure how to deal with situation. Of course some structures that are produced by the foreigner sounds really funny and some people tend even to smile, not really knowing how offensive it is for someone trying hard to learn the language. That would be hardly possible to happen to someone learning English, since there are so many non-native speakers. I just thought of adding up to your story, this is maybe my idea why it is so hard to learn languages like this and why you face so many problems…

  • Amy Clifton August 20, 2010, 7:56 am

    I can relate to so much that Tom describes here. But I have to add that, even after 11 years living and working in Iceland, obtaining Icelandic citizenship and going out of my way to participate actively in the society I still run all too often into rude people (most often young people in service jobs) who pretend they don’t understand what I’m saying and then speak with me in English. I respond by saying ‘Ég tala Íslensku’ and they ignore this and look at me like I’m from outer space and say ‘ha?’
    I am thankful that more often I am complimented on my ability to speak Icelandic well, but I am tired of hearing how rare it is for Americans and Brits to speak Icelandic. I try to explain to Icelanders that it is pretty hard to learn the language when they insist on speaking to us in English. It is all too easy for us English speaking útlendingar to slide by…I mean, why not? It takes extra effort to overcome this obstacle.
    I realize that hearing Icelandic spoken poorly by foreigners is not something most people are used to here, but I would ask for more tolerance. I hear English spoken poorly every day by people who either think they are ‘helping’ me or excluding me or showing me how clever they are to know English. I don’t mind hearing English spoken poorly since I, and so many Americans, grew up with grandparents or parents who were immigrants and struggled to learn a new language in adulthood. After living here, I have a new understanding and appreciation for what they experienced. It ain’t easy!

  • hildigunnur August 20, 2010, 8:31 am

    Wow, how horribly rude was this person at the Blue Lagoon? :O
    I’d be ashamed of my fellow countrywoman if you hadn’t told us about all the nice people later on.

    And we DO say Bandaríkjamaður – I personally dislike to say Ameríkani (after all, America’s more than just the US) and would never say Kani.

  • Aidan August 20, 2010, 9:15 am

    Thanks for the very interesting second part of your story. One thing that I note though is that you were often looking for speaking opportunities in shops. By default people who want to sell something to tourists would be used to speaking English wherever you go in the world.
    I imagine that bars would have been more fruitful territory. From my experience older people in most countries are always happy to speak their own language whereas younger people automatically want to either show off or practice their English. I think that the response you get in Iceland or anywhere depends on the who you target. In Denmark, for instance, I remember trying to speak to a middle eastern immigrant in Swedish because he could no speak any English 😉

  • carola August 20, 2010, 9:30 am

    Congratulations Tom, sounds like you made it! Indeed, “velkomin heim” next time. However, I have to tell you that I am impressed about the short time it took you to actually have conversations in Icelandic! That is quite remarkable!
    I usually only read this blog but never comment but I thought this would be the time to share some of my experiences as well. I do have to say, you can call yourself lucky if the rudeness you encountered in the Blue Lagoon is your worst experience. When I started to involve my then co-worker in the fruits of my evening language class in “Icelandic for foreigners”, I received the most remarkable reply “Stop trying to talk Icelandic! I hate when foreigners speak Icelandic, it makes me bleed out of my ears!” Needless to say that this experience shattered my self-confidence to pieces. After all, I had felt that this would be a “safe environment” to try my new skills. Another reaction I have received twice now went like this “it is so funny to listen to you/foreigners trying to speak Icelandic. We have such a laugh when I am telling them about the mistakes you make at home.” — Ha??
    Fortunately, I have also received some encouragement and met patient people willing to give me a chance trying my Icelandic. Still, it takes 10 or 20 compliments to make up for one such painful experience. I wish, people would be more tolerant. I do so agree with Amy on the poor English some offer in return (and as her do not mind the poor English either) which doesn’t even seem to make the conversation easier for them. I just don’t get it.

  • ECS August 20, 2010, 12:18 pm

    I’ve lately had quite the opposite experience with my Icelandic speaking efforts, where trying to speak it in the stores results in blank stares because the cashiers aren’t Icelandic speakers themselves. Otherwise, I most often speak Icelandic with the other members of my (99.5%) Icelandic choir. Maybe it’s because it’s a church choir, maybe it’s because there are so few non-Icelanders in the group, maybe they’re all exceptionally nice people, but they’re all very encouraging when I speak Icelandic with them. I know it’s far from perfect grammatically but they seem to all be pleased that I’m making the effort, helping me kindly when I say something really stupid, and offering words when I get lost.

    And for the record, I have to say that being in a choir is one of the greatest ways to learn any language that I’ve experienced. Being in the midst of native speakers, repeating the same text and tuning my ears to how they speak and sing helps a lot. Plus, there’s the bonus that Icelandic choirs are a cornerstone of the culture so it makes for great opportunities to get to know the locals and all their excellent traditional songs.

  • Laura, Tallinn August 20, 2010, 12:41 pm

    As I come from a small country as well, just slightly bigger than Iceland, I have heard from foreigners living here the same reaction: how could they ever practice Estonian, when everyone insists on speaking to them in English. Some say, of course, that they are put into position where they don’t have to step out from their comfort zone, so they never do. And as Estonian is considered to be a quite difficult language, I really cannot blame them.

    As I talked to a friend of mine about it, the not talking Estonian to foreigners appears to have a few sides to it.

    I myself have very little practice talking in English, although I read in English, and translate from English to Estonian, quite a lot. Therefore I tend to use the opportunity when I get one. My friend, on the other hand, said that it seems to her that the foreigners cannot understand her correctly, and therefore she switches onto English to avoid misunderstandings. I imagine, it must be quite the same in Iceland.

    That being said, I still think that with consistency the foreigners could very well learn Estonian (and the same applies to Icelandic, I’m sure), if they really wanted to. For instance, I met a boy from US, working in the café of the University who insisted on every customer to speak to him in Estonian. As the result, he could speak Estonian well in three months, in six months he was almost fluent.

  • Mark August 20, 2010, 4:18 pm

    Nice post Tom! I’ve had all those experiences too. Speaking Icelandic is like a members only club, I get away with it as I’ve been here for ages and people recognize my face, plus I have two kids and one looks very Icelandic. The best thing to do is just keep speaking Icelandic whether they speak to you in English or not.

  • ValaA August 20, 2010, 5:04 pm

    Alexander E.
    ” Icelanders do pay with cash everywhere”

    Actually Icelanders use mostly debit cards not cash.

  • Joerg August 20, 2010, 5:31 pm

    As far as the clerk at Blue Lagoon is concerned – I think, many people who work in touristy places, are not aware of the fact, that they somehow represent a “face” of Iceland in their dealings with tourists. So, if they show very blatantly their dislike for their job and/or their customers, this is prone to be perceived as the general attitude of Icelanders towards foreigners. There are so many, who are doing a great job, but I have experienced this kind of attitude, too.

    There is an easy explanation, why people walk around Reykjavik in hiking gear. This is, because many tourists come to Iceland to do hiking tours and they do so by means of airlines with strict baggage regulations, which make excess luggage extremely expensive. When I come in summer, I take my camping gear along, which has to fit into my 20kg baggage allowance. So, there is simply no place for a more fancy attire (It’s a different thing in winter, though)

  • James August 21, 2010, 12:58 am

    “coming out of the airport I was searching for a taxi – I’m not a student and there is no way I was getting on a bloody bus”


  • Alexander E. August 21, 2010, 4:29 pm

    ValaA August 20, 2010 at 5:04 pm
    Alexander E.
    ” Icelanders do pay with cash everywhere”

    Actually Icelanders use mostly debit cards not cash.

    I didn’t say they didn’t pay with plastic. 🙂
    I just pointed out than the following phrase “**I didn’t even make the foreigner mistake of trying to pay with cash everywhere!” is not actually correct. At least I believe my eyes and ears when I’m in Bonus or Krona – many Icelanders do pay with cash 🙂 And all cashiers speak to me in Icelandic no matter what I use – cash or plastic – as long as I don’t speak to them … then they jump to English immediately (but this is my problem not their fault).

  • Miyun August 21, 2010, 6:32 pm

    I still haven’t broken open the Icelandic textbook I bought last month (even getting pronunciations right is starting to seem scary to me, I’m such a beginner), but in terms of learning I think I understand the honestly elated feeling you get when you finally manage to hold entire conversations in a foreign language.

    In a place like where fewer people are confident enough in their English to speak it to you, it’s considerably easier (I ended up speaking a lot of Japanese while I was in Japan), but when those who speak English end up using it on me, I feel kind of embarrassed to continue butchering my words and end up switching back….

    Then again, I actually wonder why you had so many people speaking to you in English. When I went (not knowing any Icelandic at all except for a few swear words), often people spoke to me in Icelandic first. I honestly say this is odd because I am clearly not even European…

  • Alexander E. August 22, 2010, 12:17 am

    I actually wonder why you had so many people speaking to you in English. When I went (not knowing any Icelandic at all except for a few swear words), often people spoke to me in Icelandic first. I honestly say this is odd because I am clearly not even European…

    People speak Icelandic to you exactly for the reason you are not – as you said – European. Because almost all “non-europeans” living in Iceland speak Icelandic and only some speaks Engrish.
    And it’s easier – to start with local language instead of trying to figure out what language you might talk, right? You might be French and as such could be offended by English 🙂

  • kevin oconnor,waterford,ireland August 22, 2010, 4:24 am

    Quite interesting contrast that with complaints about Franglish in France etc, It would only take say 150,000 English speaking immigrants to set up shop in Iceland and the Icelandic language would be under threat, witness the extermination job that it has done here in Ireland and over in Scotland and Wales, you have the prodigious efforts that are maintained against it in Quebec , my cousin who comes from Cornwall,Ontario told me after a trip to Montreal that some of them know how to speak English but just refuse to speak it to an “Englander”, so in Iceland you have situation where they postively insist on using the “enemy tongue” (Icesave is an english word ha ha) even when the auslander can speak Icelandic quite funny.

  • jodi August 22, 2010, 1:59 pm

    I speak very little German but noticed last summer, when traveling by myself,that in the countryside people were more inclined to speak German to me there than in the touristy areas. In the touristy areas good natured laughing at my attempts but if I asked questions about different words/slang in German people in the touristy areas seemed happy to explain.

  • Michael Lewis August 22, 2010, 2:28 pm

    There has been no extermination job in Wales of the Welsh language – thanks to intervention it has to be said!! To about 25% of the population it is our first language. Everyone who goes to school public or state has to learn Welsh to the age of 16. Thanks to a few Linux developers too, its on the up in the IT world , but in general its spoken more and more – far more than Scottish Gaelic is in Scotland for example. In terms of languages, you have
    Scottish/Irish Gaelic c-celtic, which are quite different to Welsh/Breton p-celtic. Breton being close to Cornish (more or less died out) so a fluent Welsh speak should be able to read and get some inkling of – Breton for example.

  • Jon August 22, 2010, 4:23 pm

    I find all of this discussion wonderfully fascinating and educational!

  • Miyun August 22, 2010, 5:34 pm

    @ Alexander E:

    Hmm, I would have thought anyone would take me as a tourist from the start, though. I’m Asian and I never go anywhere without a DSLR that’s almost bigger than my face. (I take photos of lampposts and street corners and buy stupid souvenirs, too. I always thought I was a walking stereotype.)

    I guess it made me think, “hey, I should probably learn a bit more Icelandic next time I come..” but otherwise, no harm done. I thought it was nice that they spoke to me in Icelandic first, so it surprised me that others didn’t get the same treatment…

  • skr August 23, 2010, 3:55 am

    Your story rings very true and I can completely believe it.

    However, I must admit I am a little confused about the author’s motivation. Sure, learning languages is great, and I can see how wanting to ‘pass for an Icelander’ would be validation that the language skills have made it to that point. But… you’re not an Icelander if you’ve been there for a few weeks or a month. Why try to hard to ‘pass’? Do you just want people to think you’re good at speaking the language or do you want people to actually think you’re Icelandic?

  • kay August 23, 2010, 1:02 pm

    what makes me smile is that I have always been taken for an icelander wherever i was (shops, cafes, random people on the street) or in other words spoken to in icelandic and the people seemed a little annoyed switching to english

  • erb August 23, 2010, 1:50 pm

    I have been previously married to an Icelander (for twenty years) and have visited Iceland on a number of occasions as well as associated with Icelanders in the United States. Although I am fluent in French and German, I found learning Icelandic to be a daunting task. If I knew the person speaking it, I could pick up the gist of a conversation by being used to their speech patterns, but was otherwise faced with what might as well have been Mandarin Chinese. I consider anyone with the skill and patience to learn Icelandic to be absolutely heroic.
    As far as speaking with Icelanders in Iceland, I find that, in my own experience, Icelanders are somewhat remote and standoffish. If you smile on the street and say Hi to someone you don’t know, the general response is to look at you as if you are slightly daft. ( I don’t know you, we have never been introduced, so why are you saying Hi to me?). The way to overcome this, as was previously suggested, is go to a bar. A drunk Icelander will communicate with you as if you are their best friend (of course, they will not remember who you are the next day) but visit a bar or party, and your language skills will be well exercised, (up until the point where incoherence sets in).

  • Max August 23, 2010, 3:07 pm

    @erb: I’ve found alcohol to be the greatest social lubricant when trying to persuade an Icelander to speak Icelandic to you.

    I think the kind of central issue here is that it’s quite difficult to persuade Icelanders to speak Icelandic to you unless you are quite obviously not foreign. Because of the “foreigner = must speak English” reflex, many Icelanders seem to be quite perplexed when confronted with a foreigner trying to wrap their brain around Icelandic. I think many of them see it as “cute”, a kind of playful attempt to not appear completely ignorant, and think that Icelandic is for Icelanders.

    In these customer service-type scenarios, the default option is to speak in English. When you’re serving potentially hundreds of customers in a day (as I’m sure Blue Lagoon staff do), it must be quite hard to switch back and forth between languages from transaction to transaction. My friend Elín used to work in the Eymundsson store on Austurstræti, and she found that sometimes she would mix the two languages up with the same customer. For instance, she would turn round to get something for her customer and then turn back round and start speaking a different language. Working in a busy retail environment myself, I can totally appreciate this.

    Nevertheless, there is a kind of hidden social pressure that many learners feel about having to conform. The main reason for it is maximising the number of opportunities to speak Icelandic. There’s nothing more frustrating than going through the pains to learn such a beautiful and complex language, to have your efforts rewarded with speakers of said language wanting to converse with you exclusively in English.

    I think another reason for this attitude is the relative newness of immigration in Iceland. It is still quite a novel phenomenon, and as many immigrants don’t bother learning Icelandic, English ends up being the default language of communication. These kind of issues are all endemic to languages with a small number of speakers.