The True Transformative Power of the Icelandic Language

Imagine having the ability to have spoken with your ancestors from 500 years ago. Imagine what you would learn from them, what sort of insights you would have about the way you and your family viewed the world, and even how minor things like their mannerisms and body language made you what you are.

From a physical standpoint regarding living beings, as far as I can tell, this is impossible.

But one language in my journey stood out, even more so than the dead languages I had studied and forgotten (namely, Ancient Greek and Latin), as one that was like that ancestor. Upon talking to him/her, it brought all of my interactions with the rest of its family members into place.

I am of course, speaking about the Icelandic Language. And this post is, of course, in honor of Iceland’s National Day.

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It goes without saying that the contemporary language of Iceland, while in name the exact same language that Leif Erikson spoke, is now a lot different.

For one (and NOT a lot of articles about Icelandic will mention this!) Icelandic took not only English loan words from recent times, but also Danish, French and Spanish loanwords from even further back. What more, a lot of the purist words from the Icelandic Language Academy did not end up sticking with the general populace (the exact same thing happened with the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel).

That said, it goes without saying that Icelandic is significantly more purist than many other languages that have had to deal with the same “dance” that they did (translate internationalisms vs. use them straight outright).

In fact, this is one aspect in which Faroese differs from Icelandic, by virtue of the fact that more Danish loanwords, many of them internationalisms, found their way into Faroese and not into Icelandic. (Although Faroese has significant fewer internationalisms than any of the mainland Scandinavian languages of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish).

Anyhow, I’ve come to write about what made the Icelandic language so transformative for me.

  1. It caused me to think about language evolution and what can happen to versions of a language over time.

 

The Norwegian of a thousand years ago would have been mutually intelligible to an Icelandic speaker. In fact, that same Old Norwegian was actually used in the latest “Civilization” game, with an Icelandic voice actor, no less!

 

Icelandic was (and is) very heavily grammatical, with a lot of case endings, three genders, verb conjugations and very much unlike what the mainland Scandinavian Languages are today.

For those unaware: a language like Swedish or Danish does not even change verb endings for person. It would be like saying I is, you is, he is, she is, etc.

The Mainland Scandinavian Languages did away with case endings although a small amount of idiomatic expressions survived that use them (hint: look for a preposition and then a “u” or an “s” at the end of a noun that follows!). Most Norwegian dialects kept the three genders, although Swedish and Danish reduced them to two, not unlike Dutch, in which the Masculine and Feminine became the “common” gender.

This also glosses over completely the fact that French and German words found their way into the Scandinavian Languages on the mainland while usually passing Iceland by.

What exactly accelerated language evolution? Perhaps low population densities and a lot of contact with foreigners, as well as heavily centralized authorities caused these simplifications to happen.

Given what happened to Icelandic’s immediate family members, it really makes me wonder what sort of language changes the next stages of human history will hold. Already we are witnessing an increasing amount of English content throughout almost all languages on the globe, much like the French and German languages impacted the languages of the Scandinavian mainland.

It’s truly a humbling perspective to have.

 

  1. It made me think about what language purity really what (and wasn’t)

To some degree, I’ve also had a very similar experience with Hebrew as well. Like the people of Israel, the people of Iceland have had prolonged contact with English-speaking armies, who brought along their music, television and, most infamously, their profanity.

For those unaware, Iceland had an American army presence throughout most of World War II, because the allies wanted to ensure that Hitler could not reach Canada from the Danish overseas territories (which could have been Hitler’s rationale behind invading Denmark in the first place). Ensuring a presence on Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands was of the upmost importance to the Allies.

Many, many articles have been in awe about the purity of the Icelandic language, and which is a little bit funny when you end up listening to Icelandic Rap and easily lose track of how often English words (as well as Anglophone cultural references) are used!

Purist language or not, every language has to share the world with somebody. Israeli Hebrew is the language of Abraham and David – with limitations. Modern Icelandic is the language of Leif Erikson and the first European-Americans – with limitations. That’s not a bad thing in the least, it just serves to show that true purism, especially for smaller nations, is not always within reach.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think about what smaller languages can be

 

Ask people about whether or not the Icelandic language has a future, and you’ll get many answers.

A few months ago, there was a well-publicized article about Icelandic being underused in technology (and I’ll have you all know that, while I’m writing this article, my Windows 10 system is in a [complete] Icelandic translation!) It told horror stories about 14-year-olds in Reykjavik choosing to chat to each other in English rather than in Icelandic, and that the world should be very worried indeed!

But at the Endangered Language Alliance meetings, I heard a different story: those holding up a language like Icelandic as THE success story for smaller languages. In all of recorded history there have been about 1,000,000 Icelanders tops. And yet, all of Disney’s animated canon is dubbed into Icelandic with all of the songs translated and rhymed! (Disney does this to a lot of other languages as well, no doubt, although obviously most of them are from the developed world. Also, the song translations are not thoroughly accurate reflections of the original English song lyrics, there are liberties taken but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic!)

With a language like Breton, I’m concerned for its future. I can’t always find a continuous stream of content, often a lot of people from Brittany have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language (if any at all). Comments on the internet written in Breton can be sparse, even when you know where to look. Breton seems to have been relegated to a niche environment, thanks largely to French governmental policy. That saddens me but that just simply means that I have to keep on maintaining my knowledge of Breton even more strongly.

But with Icelandic, I can easily hop onto almost any website in the country, and the comments sections will be teeming with Icelandic, the menus will be fully in Icelandic and unchallenged by the presence of any translations (most of the time). Anywhere in Icelandic settlements, even in the most touristy areas, I find that Icelandic is the dominant language I hear on the streets.

Thousands upon thousands of people throughout the globe have a desire to learn it, and many of them get permanently enamored with Icelandic, finding themselves with a treasure they’ll never give up.

The Icelandic-Language music scene is very much alive, with thousands of songs to choose from in dozens of genres. The government is actively interested in keeping the language alive, and I’ve heard that if you even go so much as to hint that the Icelandic language isn’t worth keeping alive, prepare to invite the distrust, if not in fact outright isolation, from your Icelandic peers.

Yes, in Reykjavik once or twice I encountered an ice cream store with the flavors written out in English rather than in Icelandic. I don’t doubt the problems that journalists have written about. And I think that more Icelandic products in the realm of technology need Icelandic localizations, even if it may not serve a very practical purpose in their eyes.

But whenever I think about what a small language can and should be, I would have to agree with my ELA friends and say that Icelandic is the platinum standard for small languages in the 21st century. If Breton or Irish or the Sami Languages or any endangered tongue on the face of the planet would be in the situation Icelandic is in now, there would be month-long celebrations held by its speakers.

 

  1. Icelandic Made Me Think about How to Learn Grammar and Difficult Pronunciation

 

“I’m going to try that evil language again!”, proudly exclaimed one of my students (whom I regularly teach Swedish). “I just seem to have trouble knowing when I should pronounce the ‘g’ hard and when I shouldn’t”

Not gonna lie: I considered writing a piece about “Why Icelandic is EASY”! And I thought for a while and I thought “Uuuhhhh…there are English cognates….uuuhhh…okay, good. Grammar? No….how about…pronunciation? Mostly regular but given how often Icelanders slur and leave out consonants….no…yeah, I got nothin’…”

I’ve struggled with all of my languages, even the English creoles. Got news for you: in language learning, you sort of…don’t have a choice…except for…to struggle…until you find yourself…not struggling anymore…

Icelandic was no exception. Reciting grammar tables didn’t really help. I got the pronunciation and I was imitating the voices I heard in the apps and yes, singers (not just local favorites like Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró but also the aforementioned Disney songs localized into Icelandic, some of which I’ve even sung at crowded karaoke bars to standing ovations! I tell you, I have this crazy theory that almost everyone living in the U.S. has a secret crush on Iceland. And it sometimes isn’t so secret…)

But I found myself at a loss for the first few months knowing when to use what case when and even if I was getting verb forms right.

What did I do?

Instead of doing the thing I would have done in college and just studied the tables endlessly until their stuck, (TERRIBLE IDEA by the way! Even with memory devices, it might not all stick!) I made a point to listen to Icelandic music every day for months at a time. Even if I couldn’t understand everything, I would be able to detect patterns involving prepositions, pronouns, and the way Icelanders actually pronounce words.

For more on Icelandic slurring, I bring you to my other success story about the Icelandic Language.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think of how, if enough people study a language, it will genuinely have an impact on the language’s future.

 

Few smaller languages (less than 1 million native speakers) are as popular as Icelandic (although Irish might come close sometimes).

I am thrilled to see, especially in light of the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik (at which I will be presenting!), hundreds of people taking up the Icelandic Language, seeking to become a part of a culture that sometimes sees itself as under siege (did I mention how often tourists-doing-stupid-things-stories are featured in Icelandic news?)

Whether it be wanting to experience the Icelandic travel bug without leaving your hometown, wanting to experience this ancient culture, wanting to understand other Germanic Languages or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, these people are genuinely ensuring that the speakers of the Icelandic language know that all throughout the world, there are people that think about their mother tongue and want to keep it alive and let other people know about its treasures.

In an age in there are those that fear that a handful of cultures threaten to extinguish all others, I am a glad to be a part of this tradition that helps proudly hold our human heritage to the light.

 

And so can you!

 

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The Day I met Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings I was wearing this shirt. Two years later, guess where they bring the conference? Coincidence? Maybe not!

Reflections on Language Courses

“Language courses are crap”.

Or so one Spanish TA confided to me during my college years.

After about two years of not having any language courses, although having many others self-taught via immersion and conversation, between this week and next week I was thrown back into that world.

There was a time in which I thought that a language course was the only true gateway to learning another tongue.

How silly I was back then.

I’ve noticed something very different about U.S. Language Material shelves and those in various European countries.

The U.S. ones are often stocked with big books and expensive programs, and the variety of languages is regrettably small. However, between brands such as Assimil and Kauderwelsch, the rest of the world does seem to focus a lot on reducing the introduction to a language in a small book.

Guess which one I’ve found more useful?

Moving on…

I’ve had a few days of Hebrew classes since my full-grown polyglot chrysalis hatched earlier this year (I place March-May 2014 as the rough time frame of the hatching).

The one thing that I found the most telling is the fact that, in the Intermediate class (that I was asked to leave because it was too easy for me), the teacher used English more than I was comfortable with, rather than the target language, and spoke particularly slowly.

At literally no point in any of my language learning processes, except for at the very beginning, did I subject myself to material for learners that was deliberately slow (okay, except for Duolingo’s turtle feature).

This sometimes became a bit of a challenge, especially with highly inflected languages (Finnish was my first of the lot), because I remember that trying to process all of the cases took too much mental energy for me during my early stages. But, with persistence and the “just one more episode” mentality, I grew into them.

Another thing; many students just don’t try putting on a separate accent. To be honest, I sometimes find myself guilty of this in Hebrew. Efraim Kishon famously called Israel a land where everybody has an accent and, therefore, nobody has one (very true indeed, but probably truer in his day).

For most of my languages, however, I feel that speaking with too strong an American accent really isn’t an option (hence, I keep a collection of how many nationalities I’ve been mistaken for…but that’s for another time!) I think that, for the benefit of language learners everywhere, I should write a piece about accent reduction.

But for the American crowd: you guys are not alone. One thing I’ve noticed about most language learners (from literally everywhere!) is that they tend to not put on any accent at all.

For whatever its worth, even people from the nations that have a reputation for being “good with languages” (a term that is misleading on all accounts and serves no purpose aside from to comfort lazy efforts) tend to have virtually no different accent when speaking other tongues (English spoken in a Dutch accent is a case in point).

Perhaps as a native English speaker, it becomes a necessity because my goal is to reveal myself as “good enough” so as to keep the conversation in the language that I want.

Now, as to the advanced class: it truly is going to teach me how to deal with texts. But what it doesn’t let me do is “speed up the process”. There is a syllabus spread over the course of several months, and that syllabus doesn’t allow me to go at my own pace.

The fact that I know several other languages well enables me to become more confident when I speak the target language among my classmates. And this confidence really shows (interestingly I felt too self-conscious in my European travels to put this air on most of the time…but maybe when I’m out of the country the next time!)

It is also telling that, in a course, I don’t use the materials that I find the most “fun” to learn my languages (as I did on the immersion roads to fluency). I do what the teacher wants.

On the one hand, this helps my self-discipline. On the other hand, this will complicate my relationship with the target language, because the one thing that will kill all “chemistry” I have with a foreign tongue is the idea that it is being force-fed to me.

Now, as to whether I agree with the idea that language classes are “crap”:

I also have a bit of a suspicion that there might be some in the class that just see the course itself as the road to becoming “good” with the target language.

If I were a language teacher, I would preface my first class with this: it is my goal to guide you through the target language, but if you are to become good, you must do MOST of the work on your own. And that means truly making it a part of your life.

Americans aren’t the only ones who take a language for “x years” and forget it all. This happens everywhere I’ve seen.

I don’t have any talent for what I do.

If I want to learn something, I make it a part of my life. I make it a part of my routine. And the class is certainly part of my routine, but as an obligation upon which a grade of mine is dependent, there is no way that any language course will make me like a certain language more. If anything, it would make me care about it less.

That isn’t to say that I don’t care about the languages with which I have taken classes in (Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and Spanish, and given how many languages I’ve learned without even setting foot in a classroom, this list will probably remain that way forever).

But between an act of love and an act of obedience, there is one task that will always win for me in my heart.

And you can probably guess which one.

The Legend of Isabella the Italian

I hereby devote this post to a personage who I very much need to thank for making this blog possible, one who enabled me to stop being so self-conscious about my efforts to learn languages (or anything else), and without her help and her example, I wouldn’t consider myself worthy of any polyglot title.
She herself may never end up reading this. I remember one time when Isabella the Italian was asking me about my experience learning Russian at Yale University. I mentioned the “ы” sound and smiled at her various attempts to pronounce it.
I mentioned that only a few days ago from that point, I had written a post on how to mangle with difficult sounds.
“Why would I read your blog?” she said with a mischievous smile, “I don’t read blogs. Blogs are stupid! Why would I read your blog when I could just talk to you?”
For what was not the first and what will definitely not be the last time, I almost bent over laughing. Isabella the Italian is very much unmatched with her honest opinions, the way she expresses them, and her ability to make small talk with just about any human being on the planet.
Having arrived in late 2013 to Heidelberg with no previous knowledge of German, her method of applying the language in her early stages was often to just unhesitatingly use an English word when she didn’t know any German one. “Bitte nicht touch-en”, was one of my personal favorite examples of such.
Isabella the Italian moved into my suite after having lived in the city for a while. At that time I was still struggling with how to express many ideas in the German Language, and in no small part could this be due to the fact that I found myself easily intimidated.
When I was in Stockholm, I was picking up the Swedish language after nearly two months of using mostly English. Not only was my best Swedish friend a teacher of the language for foreigners, but I was also surrounded by many supportive Swedes who would cheer on my efforts, however silly or simple. By the time I left, I was told by a guest that I spoke the language better than most immigrants to Sweden do in three years. I speak the language even better now.
On one hand, because of Isabella’s legendary superpower of small talk and friendship making, she enabled me to meet countless acquaintances, German and otherwise, with which to practice my skills non-judgmentally. She also enabled me to rehearse the language in a non-judgmental environment either, and as it turns out that I was the scrutiny that I thought that I had perceived was mostly imagined.
Sometimes she had to gently nudge me away from speaking any words of English, and it worked. But her contribution to my own linguistic journey doesn’t lie in that.
I remember one conversation I had with her about accent reduction.

As an American, a native speaker of probably the most common dialect of the most coveted language in today’s world, I have to do a good job at pretending that I am something else.

Most of the time, especially when I am feeling well, it works—sometimes I get mistaken for British (a constant for about six years now), but sometimes I’ve been mistaken as German, Dutch, several types of Scandinavian, and even Czech at one point.
But sometimes, people just know I am a foreigner, possibly due to the clothes or the walk or hearing me talk on the phone with my family.
One time I asked Isabella the Italian what she did for accent reduction.
“I don’t do anything”, she said, “people like my accent”.
She is a lot more comfortable with her national identity than I was with mine at any point in my life. But there was an important breakthrough: for one, accent reduction wasn’t particularly that important. Some of my family members and some friends had tried to tell me that I was so obviously American to everyone (and sometimes with an implicit discouragement to give up polyglottery forever), but Isabella did away with that self-consciousness for good. So what if they think I have an accent? Maybe people like it, after all…
Isabella the Italian enabled me to complete a transformation from mostly-English-speaking student with some knowledge of many languages to confident speaker of many languages—a transformation that began in November 2012 and was completed by about March/April 2014.
She taught me by example how not to let errors or other silly things act as such as ego-crushers in any learning process. Furthermore, she believed that there was a balance between discipline and relaxation that had to be reached in order for a true learning experience to happen—very different from the “work a lot and get good grades!” culture that exists in the United States.
One time I was in a grassy field and we were having a conversation about lifestyles. She told me that an ideal life would be that of a bumblebee, one that goes from flowers to flower while “enjoying life”. For most of my adult life, I saw something different when looking at bumblebees: competition for resources.
I realized that, especially as concerns an educational journey, especially with foreign tongues, that excess competition and steel-fisted work usually isn’t the best answer. Going from flower to flower, taking opportunities, savoring them with little thought to ego—this enabled me to improve many of my languages in the past year, and I look forward to using the same bumblebee method with even more in the next year.
The legend of Isabella is soon headed to Paris, probably the one place on earth where “linguistic chauvinism” is said to reign supreme (although thankfully I have no experiences to speak to this at all). I can imagine that some Parisians may scoff at those who may attempt to speak French as foreigners, but I am very certain that Isabella the Italian will not be one of them.
If there is a crisis of education, I am certain that more Isabellas (Isabellae?) would be the solution we would need. I think that the American educational system could learn very well from people like Isabella, who sees life and schooling as something about fulfillment rather than about prizes, jobs and grades.
Maybe one day we will learn from the bumblebees and apply that method to schooling. I am still waiting.