Helvítis útlendingar - Íslenska er lykillinn

I'm a foreigner. Or as the Icelanders would say, an útlendingur. Being an útlendingur is basically the only experience I have had in my life of being a minority. When you're living in southern England and ticking all the demographic boxes that I did, you're not exactly standing out from the crowd. It's a pretty comfortable place to be. Here I deviate from "normal" in that I'm not Icelandic, and sometimes it's not too comfortable. Occasionally it's fun to be different, most of the time I don't really think about it, but sometimes it can be pretty lonely or isolating.

I suppose there's a cultural element to this (although Iceland and Britain are really not so far apart culturally), and it's probably something that all immigrants go through even between countries where the same language is spoken. In Iceland, though, if you don't speak Icelandic you'll be able to live here easily enough but you will always be on the outside of society looking in. I wouldn't advise anyone to move here unless they are genuinely committed to attaining a good standard of Icelandic. The links between nation and language here are notoriously strong - an oft-quoted example of this is the signs at Keflavík airport. The English version says, "Welcome to Iceland". The Icelandic version says, "Velkomin heim" ("Welcome home"). If you speak Icelandic then Iceland is your home - if you don't, then you are a visitor. Think about it, it's not an assumption you could make, and largely be right about, in many other international airports.

I was doing a bit of reading for some of my university work and I came upon this paragraph in a text outlining proposed language policy in Iceland (originally in Icelandic, but I have translated it with my skills):
There is a danger that foreigners here in Iceland do not receive sufficient encouragement to learn Icelandic. Unfortunately, the view is widespread amongst Icelanders that Icelandic is a "little language" because of how few speak it, and therefore it is perhaps not worth it for foreigners to learn it; also that Icelandic is an archaic and complicated language and therefore tremendously difficult for foreigners to learn. On top of this is the common opinion among Icelanders that they themselves are so proficient in English that it is easy to live and work in Iceland without learning Icelandic, English is universally viable in Iceland. Obviously it is undeniable that the number of people who speak Icelandic is not great in international terms. What is more important, however, is that Icelandic is the language of society as a whole; in Iceland, Icelandic is the principle language in all areas of society. Icelandic is therefore the most important language in Iceland by far. In order to be able to fully take part in Icelandic society and properly enjoy the complete quality of life on offer, it is necessary to have command of the language - Icelandic is the key to Icelandic society.1
It's true of course. I've heard a lot of foreigners here complaining most bitterly over closed-minded, unfriendly Icelanders - I've even heard the term "racist" thrown around pretty casually. There definitely is a lot of xenophobia within Icelandic society - as one might expect from such a small, homogeneous nation that for so long was pretty isolated from the rest of the world - and I'm not at all saying that there aren't problems that need to be addressed. I'm also aware that I have it easier here as a western European than someone from say, Asia. But I personally become irritated pretty quickly when a group gets into a complaining session about how Icelanders hate foreigners and how difficult it is to make friends with them. Without fail, the loudest voices here come from the ones who speak little or no Icelandic. In all fairness, should you really be able to expect groups of Icelanders to switch over to English based on the presence of one person who doesn't speak Icelandic? Sure, it's the polite thing to do if that one person is to feel included, but you can't demand that people keep on doing this for you, that they repeatedly put themselves at a linguistic disadvantage to suit you. You need to go some of that distance to bridge the gap yourself, and a big part of that is learning the language. Icelanders are generally friendly to visitors, but you'll never quite be an insider unless you speak the language - you'll still be a visitor in some sense.

This isn't a flip of the switch process, though. Language-learning is a curve, you're not going to get there overnight. I've achieved the "insider" status of someone who speaks Icelandic, but only to a certain extent. I don't ever expect (or really want) my Icelandic to be at a level where people don't notice I'm foreign. At the moment though, I'm still struggling for words in a lot of situations, I can say a lot of things and carry a conversation about most topics just fine, but without finesse - and I still make grammatical errors that immediately mark my speech as foreign. If we accept that the burden of bridging the gap between immigrant and native rightly falls mainly on the immigrant, that also means that all the linguistic disadvantage falls on you, the foreigner. 

In my experience as someone trying to speak Icelandic as a second language in Iceland, the vast majority of people you speak to will recognise that and try to help you feel confident through the way that they interact with you. I could count on one hand (one finger probably) the number of times I've received an overtly negative reaction to my Icelandic - most people are grateful for your efforts and respect you for what you've achieved, even though you're not perfect. The best thing is when you feel like you're actually communicating, that you're being listened to and responded to based on what you're saying, that your "foreignness" isn't the central point in the conversation. Unfortunately, "talking to foreigners" isn't a social skill that all Icelanders have perfected. I'm sure immigrants in the UK with English as a second language have to deal with a lot worse, so bear with me while I complain about what are probably quite trivial irritations, which basically fall into two camps: the overly positive and the overly critical.

There are some who treat you a little like a dog that has learnt to walk on its hind legs ("it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all" - the supremely sexist comment from Samuel Johnson on female preachers). They certainly mean to pay you a compliment when they react with delighted surprise on hearing you speak Icelandic, but when you've heard this a few times it begins to wear a little thin. Don't get me wrong, practically nothing makes me happier than when people compliment my Icelandic, I've worked hard at it and it's good to hear it's going well - just that often it comes off as patronising. You sometimes get the impression that people would compliment you even if you'd only mastered "góðan daginn"... An exaggeration, but the point stands. Dear Icelanders: Icelandic is not the most difficult language on the planet, it is not a miracle that a non-Icelander can string a few sentences together. Please keep your compliments genuine and in perspective. 

These people are a hundred times better than the other sort, though. There are people (thankfully few) who couldn't care less what you are actually saying, they are just delighted to have the opportunity to instruct you on the Icelandic language. Of course it's useful to get corrections and tips on how to speak the language better, but when the original topic of conversation is completely pushed to one side, your autonomy as a speaker is taken away. I have spoken to Icelanders who have simply denied me the power of communication because, although they understood me, I did not say it flawlessly - instead of answering me and giving a correction perhaps as a side-note (or correcting in a more subtle way using repetition plus rephrasing/correction), the correction is the answer. No, I don't want to keep on making the same mistakes because everyone's too polite to say anything, but this sort of approach is extremely disheartening and certainly discourages us foreigners from even trying to say anything in Icelandic.

1. Íslenska til alls, Tillögur íslenskrar málnefndar að íslenskri málstefnu (Reykjavík: Menntamálaráðuneyti, 2008), p. 79.


  1. This is an interesting point which funnily enough I've heard said about an Icelandic lady who spent two thirds of her life in France. Even though her French is perfect she still has a strong accent which straight away labels her as a foreigner (and she said that this has indeed been what she struggled with the most, the idea of never really been one of their kind). We are always the utlendingar of someone I guess. In a way it almost seems that getting your grammar wrong is not as bad as having a noticeable accent. In my own 'Icelandic experience' even though my level of Icelandic is laughable I somehow manage to pronounce it well enough for virtually everyone to carry on in Icelandic with me (which obviously doesn't go very far) and some have been really impressed my pronounciation that they thought I must be joking when I said I did not speak much Icelandic. Anyway my point is that I felt that my pronounciation was the factor that made people see me as 'one of their own' rather than my language skills.
    Oh well this is all a bit silly to you. Otherwise I'm sure that considering your dedication to the language in a matter of a couple of years you'll be so fluent that nobody will even consider either patronising or switching to English. If anything your Icelandic will undoubtedly be superior to their English.
    A random internet user who sometimes visits your blog and finds it really interesting. :0)

  2. Yes, I think people's perceptions of my Icelandic are significantly helped by the fact that I am pretty good at the accent. I have certainly noticed that I myself judge whether people are "British" or not based on their accent. Appearance has nothing to do with it (in the case of English at least), language is really such an important deciding factor in whether someone is an "outside" or an "insider" in a cultural community.

  3. We played a game in the summer, "Who can pay at the till and not be responded to in English?" - It'd depend on the person behind the till at times, but the blonde girl ALWAYS had a response in Icelandic while her brunette friend, who is Danish, ALWAYS got a reply in English and it became quite funny. I think appearance does play a part, but that's only instant communication.

    Abi, do you know what the Icelandic Village (íslenskuthorpid) is? It's a new project by HÍ to allow foreigners to use practical Icelandic in real shops so their speaking time isn't just limited to the classroom in their first year(s) in the country. The lower class had to go out and write about what they asked for and the staff are (supposed to be) trained to speak slowly, not reply in English... so I think they're trying to break down the barrier that blocks some people from actively using Icelandic in their day-to-day lives to get a better learning environment for the foreigner so there's less of a problem (excuse) for foreigners to say it's impractical because then everyone demands English.

    Dorrit officially opened it on the National Language Day about 2 weeks ago, so thought I'd mention it since it seemed a bit relevant for what you were saying..


  4. Very interesting post. I think Icelanders are also (wrongly) perceived as unfriendly sometimes because they are not one of the more extroverted, outwardly cheerful cultures such as those in the Mediterranean. Living anywhere and feeling foreign is difficult - I've been there myself. And yet I know I do the same thing to foreigners who happen to be living here - asking them about their home country, family, etc, basically dwelling on their foreignness - which I hate when other people do it.

  5. Excellent thoughts, Abi, I agree with every word.

    Og ég skal reyna að vera duglegri að tala íslensku við þig! :-)