First Classes, First Impressions

You’d think, perhaps, that moving to a new country and having pretty much nothing to do would be awesome. But while it certainly can be nice to not have any specific claims or obligations made on your time, it can also create a sort of purposelessness that I, for one, am not made for. It’s not really that I’m bored–I’m actually great at filling time–it’s more that these last few weeks have really emphasized that I haven’t yet been doing what I came here to do, which is, of course, to learn (speak, read, listen to) Icelandic.

But delight of delights, I had my first class bright and early this morning (8:20 AM): framburður og tal, or “Pronunciation and Speech.” I got to the classroom early, having managed to catch the bus up to school instead of needing to walk, and was the first one there. I sat and enjoyed my coffee as other students started to show up, including a Russian woman (we’ll call her Irina) who told me that she’s been living in Iceland for two years and now that’s she’s completed her Master’s in international business and has decided to stay in the country, is going to learn Icelandic. Having originally planned on taking the Practical Certificate in Icelandic as a Second Language, and taken care of her registration some days before me, Irina had all sorts of information about registration procedures that I had not yet been made privy to, and a long list of questions all designed, it seemed, to emphasize that I was decidedly starting this class on the back foot. (‘Have you emailed your tutor about your ‘extra topic?’ No. ‘Have you read about the final examinations?’ No. ‘Have you purchased the blue dictionary?’ No. At this point, she merely pursed her lips, shook her head slightly, and changed the subject.)

The instructor opened the classroom and let everyone get settled in their desks before beginning with her introductions, which, mercifully, were in English. She started with an apology: “We know that things have been complicated and that the information you have needed has not always been easy to find,” she started. “I do not want to discuss all of this now, but…[little shrug] It will be our future problem to fix.” More students continued to trickle in during these regrets, and it soon became clear that the classroom didn’t have enough seats for everyone. “We know that this room is not big enough for all of you [shrug]. We will be working on…for now, the next person will just have to sit on the floor.” (Luckily, there were enough extra chairs to be had outside the room–no one ended up on the floor.)

After explaining the basic structure of the certificate program and how the students are to be divided into working groups, she moved on to a newly developed aspect of the curriculum: the íslenskuþorpið, or “the Icelandic Village.” As she explained, we, as learners of Icelandic, should by all rights benefit from learning the language in country–from “having it in our ears and eyes,”–and should learn the language more quickly here than we would if we were studying, “in say, Greece or Iran.” However, it can be exceedingly difficult to get Icelanders to speak with you–the non-native speaker–in Icelandic if they sense for even a moment that you are not a local. “It’s not that we’re impolite,” she hastened to explain, “we’re just impatient.” Because so many past students have shared their tales of woe with the ISL instructors at the university, because for examples, “sometimes you are studying at home, these sentences that you want to say in Icelandic, and then you are spoken to in English–and this can be shocking, very shocking!” the ISL program has actually made agreements with local “businesses, shops, libraries,” and other institutions, “to accept you and speak to you in Icelandic.”

We all had a good chuckle at this, but really–thank god. So through the course of the semester, the 50+ students enrolled in ISL (I’m just guessing at the enrollment, it could be a little more) are going to be sent to specific locations around town and made to interact, in Icelandic, with people who–we were reminded again–”have made a contract: a promise to speak Icelandic to you.” (I totally love this.) After each expedition into The Icelandic Village, we’ll report back on the experience in class, discussing such particulars as “What was difficult? What were my failures? What mistakes did I make?” and other such points of optimism. (You can tell they think this is going to go well.)

After the basic introduction (roughly an hour of an hour and a half class), we took a break so that we “wouldn’t fall asleep” and were directed to the coffee shop on the ground floor. With half an hour left, we started working through the stafrófid (the alphabet) and basic pronunciations. (Fun fact: Icelandic does not have the letters C, Q, W, or Z, which are all referred to as “útlenskir stafir” or foreign letters, although “of course, we have to be aware of them.” Pointing to the ‘z’ with her very long teacher-pointer-stick-thing, she mentioned that “we had this one once, but about 30 years ago, we threw it away.” Take that, Z.)

After class, I emailed the tutor for the self-study ‘class’ that I’m also taking as part of the requirements and was able to set up an appointment for this afternoon. As it turns out, while each student only selects one ‘extra topic’ to be tested on–Reading, Grammar, or Listening–we have access to the material for all three topics. So I’m officially enrolled in the “lestur” (reading) section, but can do grammar and listening on the side. I purchased the first reading text and the grammar book at the bookstore, and from now on will be reading this perky-looking kid’s book in Icelandic and answering comprehension questions each week. There are three short books total that I’ll be reading for this topic, which isn’t too shabby, right?
So, a good start. I have homework! I have listening exercises! I have a purpose! Ég er að læra Íslensku!

Tomorrow: Orðaforði I, or Vocabulary 1.

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6 thoughts on “First Classes, First Impressions

  1. … the wind yesterday was probably Hurricane Leslie moving through to the east… thank you for spending valuable time to tell us in detail about your experiences in language-learning. This is a unique experience.

  2. “Take that, Z” is begging to be the title of a song, memoir, article or something.

    I’m curious, do Icelandic keyboards have the misfit letters? If you are a foreigner living in Iceland and your name is Zelda Cowquill, does this cause boatloads of confusion?

    • Funny that you should mention the keyboards, Miss Leigh, as it took me an extremely long time to figure out how to write on a Nordic-style keyboard, particularly to figure out characters like ‘@,’ which, you might imagine, comes up a rather lot when typing out email addresses. In my shame at not being able to type like an adult living in the Age of Computers, for awhile I actually just opened a separate tab, googled “at sign” and copied and pasted the character into fields when I needed it. I have since more successfully googled ‘how to type in Iceland’ (wikipedia for the win! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keyboard_layout#Icelandic) and all is well again.

      In answer to your other question, they do recognize letters like ‘z,’ but only as a “foreign letter.” So it’s on the keyboard, but really just to appease the rest of the world.

      I hereby dedicate “Take That, Z,” in any future incarnation, to you.

    • A quick follow up: the Icelandic “naming committee” came up in class today–the gist is that there is a committee that reviews your choice of baby name and decides if it is legal (there are a lot of naming rules, some in place because of grammatical quirks)–and as it turns out, spelling is often what is at issue. Apparently, letters like ‘c’ and ‘z’ are pretty much not allowed, unless you are foreigner with Icelandic citizenship, in which case, there seems to be more flexibility. But for Icelanders, the name “Zelda Cowquill” would be right out.

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