Reading at the Right Level

The original Swedish cover of Ertu svona, Einar Áskell? by Gunilla Bergström, translated into Icelandic by Sigrún Árnadóttir

I’ve been reading a lot of Icelandic picture books lately. It’s an interesting experience for many reasons. For one, it is always fascinating to see what kind of material/language is “appropriate” for kids in other countries, and for two, because this is the first time in a very long time that reading is such a struggle for me. It’s hard to go from being a three-novels-at-a-time quasi speed-reader to being a look-up-every-second-word kind of reader. It’s humbling. It is also a valuable tool for self assessment.

For awhile, I was trying to read adult novels in Icelandic–simple ones (vocab and style-wise), like Arnaldur Indriðason’s Mýrin (which you probably know as Jar City). Basically, I sat with the Icelandic version in one hand and read one paragraph. Then I tried to make sense of that paragraph. Then I read the English translation of the same passage in my other hand. Compared my original “translation” with the published English translation. And so on. This wasn’t a bad system, but it was extremely slow. And honestly, when you are just getting started in a language, you want to feel some success, and pretty quickly at that. You want (or, okay, I want) a little immediate gratification. And oh, it’s also nice to understand what the heck is going on in a book, too.

So after it took me over an hour to read half a chapter of Jar City in the manner above, I decided that perhaps I should set more manageable goals. Like short stories, maybe? Length, I thought, was maybe the problem. So I picked up a very slim volume of short stories by Halldór Laxness. I had no idea that he wrote short stories, so double bonus. But there is a reason that Halldór Laxness won a Nobel Prize, and it isn’t just because his work has important themes. His writing style, although very clean and straightforward, deals in a lot of irony and subtle humor. This is fine if you understand the language nuances that you’re reading. But super difficult if you don’t.

Finally, I have come to realize that I need to go even further back. Back before short stories, back before teen novels. I need to read picture books. Because that is–with the exception of the well-chosen kids’ chapter books assigned in my self-study class–where I am right now. And I still have to check the dictionary pretty frequently to understand all the nuances (there is often a lot of slang or colloquial expressions in kids’ books), but I don’t have to struggle with every single sentence. And that’s refreshing and encouraging. That’s why you don’t hand a six year old Anna Karenina and tell them to have a good time, after all. Because not only does every book have its reader, but every book has its right time. And as far as reading in Icelandic goes, right now, I am somewhere between a six year old and a ten year old’s reading level–if the ten year old has a really slim vocabulary.

Right now, I’m reading Ertu svona, Einar Áskell? (a translation from a Swedish kids’ series by Gunilla Bergström) which has fantastic illustrations (really sweet facial expressions on the vaguely Peanuts-like characters’ faces, some collage, too) and a title I don’t quite understand. (‘Are you [really] like that, Einar Áskell?’ is what I’m approximating right now.) And to make the vocab stick a little bit better, I am going to list the new words I have looked up below so that maybe they stick a little better in my mind.

Today, picture books! Tomorrow (figuratively), novels!

Ertu svona, Einar Áskell? Vocab!

  • asni: fool, idiot (also, donkey/ass)
  • bílastæði: car park, parking lot
  • blíðlega: gently, tenderly
  • bjáni: fool, halfwit
  • datt í hug(ur): occur to (someone), come to mind
  • dynja: boom, resound, roll
  • fáni: flag
  • fela: (to) hide, conceal
  • (ganga) úr skorðum: go haywire
  • geyma: save, store, keep
  • gljáandi: shiny, bright
  • góðgæti: tidbit, delicacy
  • hengilás: padlock
  • hreyta út úr sér: to burst out (with a comment)
  • hverfa: disappear
  • hvæsa: to hiss, spit
  • indæll: delightful, lovely
  • kaðall: rope, cable
  • keðja: chain
  • kenna: to teach OR (in this context)  to blame
  • klifra: climb
  • ókunnugur: unfamiliar, unacquainted, strange
  • ólán: misfortune, accident
  • ósköp: very
  • óþarfur: unnecessary
  • óþokki: scoundrel, villian
  • reiður: angry
  • sárnar: (to be) offended
  • skammur: short, brief
  • snuðra: (to) snoop
  • stakasta: exceptional
  • svaladrykkur: soft drink
  • svikari: traitor
  • sykurmoli: sugar cube
  • tún: hayfield
  • tvíbækur: rusk (had to look this up in English, too: a ‘twice-baked’ cracker or biscuit, like a zwieback)
  • týndur: lost
  • undir eins: immediately
  • verkfæri: tool, instrument
  • vindlakassa: cigar box (vindill = cigar)
  • voða: very
  • þjófur: thief

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