Are Icelanders frustrated with Icelandic learners?

This feels like an unfair question, but it’s something I read about here and there in a myriad of blogs and Iceland-based English news publications.

From everything I’ve read or been told, Icelanders of course appreciate people who attempt to learn Icelandic. However, I do read things similar to the below via The Reykjavík Grapevine:

“Even for motivated speakers, Iceland’s language environment is studded with obstacles to frustrate immersion. Perhaps because it lacks this history of foreign language students, Icelanders themselves have […] particularly ‘little patience’ to listen as foreigners transmute the foibles and fortes of their native tongues into Icelandic. Furthermore, there is remarkably little difference in the accent spoken between different Icelanders, phonetically speaking, which creates friction when foreigners with their own accents try to assimilate.”

I don’t live in Iceland, nor am I even nearly fluent in Icelandic, so I’m sure these situations definitely happen—but if you’ve read things similar to the above on your own, try not to let it discourage you from trying. 🙂

I’ve only visited Iceland a couple times (so perhaps I’m not much of a credible source on this!), but with each bookstore / bókabúð and coffeeshop / kaffihús I visited, I said the standard “Halló! Ég er að læra íslensku. Ég tala bara svolítið íslensku.”—followed by the simple exchanges I knew about books, coffee, numbers, and money. Not one Icelander seemed frustrated with me. Each smiled and offered simple slowly-spoken responses in Icelandic, and some even taught me some new words (like receipt, which I think is kvittun?). I never felt an ounce of impatience from them—only encouragement.

And this past summer, while talking (in English, of course…sigh) with my Icelandic friend and her Icelandic boyfriend, he recalled hearing two foreigners speaking Icelandic while he was in line somewhere and he indicated how lovely it was to witness. My friend’s sweet mother even greeted me in Icelandic when I entered their home and was so gracious with my (surely) very jumbled attempt at responding back in Icelandic.

I appreciate The Grapevine’s concluding advice in the same article I reference above:

“To that end, reams of shamelessness and Icelandic friends to make accountable for error correction and speaking practice will go far, as will education that puts a premium on ‘on task’ speaking and listening. It’s not until you start speaking and interacting that it suddenly all makes sense because of a process you arbitrarily set in motion with a heavy investment in time. Adequate language resources and an understanding of how you learn are critical, but with Icelandic, it’s best to just dive in.”

(Speaking of Icelandic friends helping with error correction—this really is a massive gift, even from afar. My closest friend in Iceland sends me an occasional message politely correcting my attempt at writing an Icelandic Instagram caption 🙂 and I love her so much for it! I’m often wrong, and she knows I’m eager to learn and how much I appreciate her help. Ask your Icelandic friends to correct you—it really is helpful beyond measure.)

My point is this—if you’re like me and were a bit bummed to read about the (potential) impatience of Icelanders with regard to speaking with Icelandic learners, practice speaking anyway. There’s a good chance I’m super naive (or just have had lots of random luck) and you very well may have some bummer encounters like the one described by Grapevine, but I also know from experience that there are also lots of Icelanders who will gladly chat with you in Icelandic. Keep practicing and hold onto those memories of helpful Icelandic exchanges when they happen. 🙂

Bestu kveðjur,
Sarah

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