Here’s a tip: with the exception of a select amount of polyglot blogs (the likes of which you are now reading, don’t expect any encouragement for your language-learning project from the Internet.
Especially when your target language conjures questions along the lines of “everyone there speaks English”.
In the case of Icelandic, which I began studying this past November, and then dropped it on and off until about July or so, in which it became a good fixture, this was particularly marked.
Iceland, or so the likes of Yahoo Answers and their ilk noted, was THE HARDEST PLACE ON EARTH to get people to speak their local language to you. There were horror stories shared of students studying in Iceland who wore shirts and buttons saying “speak Icelandic to me”, because otherwise, if you messed up with your grammar, you would stand the ghost of a chance, getting the dreaded “response in English”.
Wait, wait, wait! This story has a very happy ending. Keep reading until the end of the post!
I figured, “y’know what? I’m just going to try anyhow…”
A self-diagnosis of my Icelandic abilities prior to my trip: Grammar quite good, quite good control of core vocabulary, having an educated conversation? Forget about it. Simple phrases? Good as ever.
In short, perhaps “somewhere between proficient and fluent” worked.
So I had my expectations set up for me. As much as I distrusted (and continue to distrust) the Internet, I knew that I was in for a challenge for language tourism in Iceland. But that doesn’t mean trying is out of the question!
I remember thinking as I was schlepping my bags to the car, ready to head to the airport, “if I get can keep people answering in Icelandic, then that means that I will NEVER be able to worry about being answered in English anywhere EVER AGAIN, and that my language confidence will go to into space and never get down from there!”
What Happened in Iceland
The most important thing to remember is that I was travelling with three monoglot English speakers (members of my family). I often get asked, both by people within and without the polyglot club, if my family members are also as interested in languages as I.
The short answer: no. The long answer: not in the least, and actually some of them believe that it is useless and/or hopeless, while still respecting and admiring me.
I let my parents handle a lot of the business on their own accord (I have enough times when I’m the boss of my own circle as is).
So we meet the taxi driver to take us to the airport, and I say, in Icelandic, “pleased to meet you” (“gaman að hitta þig”) After which she responds in English, I respond nervously, “…did I get that right?”
“Yes, it seems that you’ve been practicing”. In English. Although with a smile…
“Oy vey”, I thought, “they’re right…”
All throughout the hotel, people only responded to my pleasantries in English, I have to admit: while sleeping, I thought that I was in for an awful ride and that I would suffer a permanent blow to my language confidence from which I would never recover.
Well…just keep trying…
The Next Chapter
After getting up at 15:00 local time we go to a restaurant nearby. My family orders in English. Quickly having rehearsed some vocabulary from looking at the Icelandic menu, I order in Iceland, and I ask the waiter if he has Jólabjór. For those unaware, this is a seasonal beer that comes out at around Christmastime, changing the label and the name every single year, as well as the flavor.
And the waiter, much to my elation, responds to me personally in Icelandic, in the presence of my English-speaking family members.
He returns to the kitchen, and then comes out to clarify my order (whether or not I want sauce on my sandwich.) And this time…in…Icelandic! Again!
At this point, I think to myself, “I wonder how long I can keep this up for…”
Scene: Tourist office in Reykjavik.
My parents are booking a tour, and there is an ice cream parlor right underneath the travel agent’s office.
They’re gonna be tied up for a while. So my parents tell me that, if I want to, I can get some ice cream.
I order the ice cream (chocolate and oreo in a cone), in flawless Icelandic, without a word of English between the server and myself. I pay with the credit card. No slip-ups.
The tour involved the Icelandic tour guide speaking mostly in English. I did not have enough Icelandic to speak at length with him, but I did try to use it whenever possible, such as telling him I was ready or that I had a problem.
He told my parents behind my back that my Icelandic was “surprisingly good”.
And after that, the reality was, with the exception of the hotel staff and the one time that another tour guide (of another group) told me not to get too close to Eyjafjallajökull, (or “E15”, as the Icelandically challenged have called it….
I DID NOT GET ANSWERED IN ENGLISH A SINGLE TIME!
Jared Language Missions: 1
Internet Pessimism: 0.1
We went back to that first restaurant one time, and the waitresses, without any English at all, asked me how I learned my Icelandic and in how long.
They brought out the entire staff of the restaurant to marvel at what the Internet and my conviction hath wrought.
I hadn’t been happier during my entire language life as I was during that moment.
Giving credit where credit is due, I think that if it were not for this little gem, which I discovered in the German language “Isländisch Wort für Wort” (Icelandic Word by Word) language guide, then this happy ending wouldn’t have come about:
Translation: The Icelanders speak quickly and slur often, that is to say, the letters (…) fall out now and then. So, for example, the sentence … (meaning “that must be somewhere”) is spoken like…
This simple piece of advice was not addressed at all in any other book that I had read! And it possibly turned out to be essential.
Thinking back to when I tried to speak Dutch in the Netherlands and Belgium, one thing I did too often was pronounce each word individually, making me sound like a learner. With Icelandic, I was told never to do that, which made me sound natural!
And one last piece!
Celebrities often visit Iceland. It is one place where presidents of the United States and famous actors are treated like everyone else. Icelanders tend to not give too much thought to any type of celebrity culture, which is one reason these famous people turn to Iceland time and again to escape the stress of their recognition.
If I were president of the US, then they wouldn’t have brought out the entire restaurant staff to show me off. But given had a firm grasp of Icelandic (however far away from ideal that might be right now), I was treated like a hero in their eyes.
A tourist of the highest order.
A friend of Iceland.
I intend that this friendship continue for much longer than this trip did.