A Little Montreal in Iceland?

After my first day back to classes on Monday, Mark and I went out to the pool at Seltjarnarnes, which is officially one of my favorite places in the Reykjavík area, and certainly my favorite pool. This being the case—and having discovered that it really isn’t that difficult to get to the pool from downtown or school—I decided I would by a ten-ticket punchcard. In Icelandic, obv, because I’m old hat at this particular conversation now.

So I go up to the counter and ask the nice-looking teenage girl working there to buy ten tickets. The exchange I then had quite surprised me:

Me: Get ég keypt tíu míða?
[Can I buy ten tickets?]

Girl: [in English, but not unkindly] To swim?

Me: Já, fyrir sund.
[Yes, to swim.]

Girl: [in English, still polite. Pulls out punch card for ten tickets.] How do you want to pay?

Me: Með kort.
[With a card.]

Girl: Then we will have to use this register over here. The other one is broken.

Me: Allt í lagi.
[That’s fine.]

Girl: [More perfectly civil English] Would you like to pay for both of you? (Points at Mark)

Me: Já, fyrir bæði.
[Yes, for both.]

[She punches the card twice, we go into the pool.]

Now, I know that people talk all the time about Icelanders switching over to English when speaking to foreigners, but honestly, I have not found this to be an epidemic. If you can fudge your way through a conversation and are able to generally convey what you want, most people (at least most people that I’ve encountered) are willing to let you fight your way through. On occasion, people will switch if they really don’t understand, or if you really don’t have the vocab for fudging.

But what was so perplexing to me about this particular situation was that this girl clearly knew what I was saying and what I wanted. There may have been grammatical errors or problems with phrasing or accent or whatever, but she definitely understood me, because I got exactly what I wanted, paid how I wanted, and for both of us—as intended. Moreover, I stuck to Icelandic, even after she switched. And moreover x2, she was a teenager, and I really just didn’t expect pushback about my bad accent or whatever from one of The Young People.

So I was a bit perplexed, and yes, pretty miffed. It didn’t ruin my swim, but I did end up retelling this story to a couple people (and now you, Internet). But in another interesting turn of events, I got two very different reads on this interaction.

The first friend I told is American, and has traveled to/briefly lived in Iceland several times, although she’s only recently arrived to study the language. She has friends who live here, both Icelanders and foreigners, the latter of whom have also studied the language (to point of fluency, btw). Her reaction, based on conversations she’s had with her aforementioned friends, was that this was just a sad case of xenophobia. That I was frozen out because people who don’t like foreigners will refuse to speak Icelandic with them. This had been somewhere around my own assumption, although what confused me is that the girl was not rude, and didn’t seem to be fussed when I kept going in Icelandic. After all, if she really wanted to put me in my place, she could have just pretended that she had no idea what I was saying. Eventually, I would have probably caved and said it in English.

So I tell this story to another friend, a Canadian from Montreal who has lived here for quite awhile. Her reaction was totally different. “Oh man,” she said smiling. “That is so Montreal.” I didn’t understand so she explained that in Montreal, you’ll often encounter two people—one native French speaker and one native English speaker—both speaking to each other in their second language. Person one comes into a shop and says Bonjour! and person two says, Hello! The conversation continues, neither person switching to their native language, but neither person offended or miffed. She said that this is partly because people really want to practice their second language, and (I infer) also show that they can speak the other language of their city. It’s kind of to help the other person, it’s kind of to help themselves, it’s maybe kind of proving a point, but it isn’t intended as a slight.

Obviously, I don’t know what this girl’s motivations were, but it makes me feel better to think that maybe, just maybe, she was practicing, and meant no offense to my Kinderlandic. Maybe, as my friend suggested, it was just a little Montreal in Iceland.

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2 thoughts on “A Little Montreal in Iceland?

  1. Hey, it’s been a while since I came here (I kind of left the wordpress world), and I’m both suprised and happy to see you mention Montréal, and Québec’s language specificity in this post. Interesting post, by the way. Just as I remembered them. Well, I am Québécoise, french-speaking, and I live in Québec city, but have lived a couple years in Montréal. I don’t have the same interpretation your friend has on Montréalers’ speaking habits. Regarding your situation, I believe the girl at the pool was, indeed, just practicing. It makes sense to me, particularly at her age. But regarding Montréalers, I must say I have never seen two people talking to each other in both their second language. Of course, it might happen, but I don’t think it’s a “habit” at all. You often see two people speaking both languages at the same time or switching from french to english (and vice versa) from one sentence to another. You also often see a francophone speaking french to an anglophone who answers in english, but I’ve never seen people speaking the other language just for the fun of it, as described by your friend… although I’m the kind of person who certainly would do that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Montréalers in general love their language diversity and the culture that imerges from it. But the situation is not all pretty and perfect either, although life in the big city (Montréal) is very good!! Anyways, just (a part of) my thoughts on the subject… ; )

    • Hi, Marie-Josée-

      It’s good to hear your take on this sort of bilingual interaction in Montreal as well. I imagine that in a big, bilingual city, all sorts of conversations happen regularly, so it makes sense that you and my friend would have had different experiences. Switching from one language to another in between sentences sounds familiar from watching people in Arizona switch between Spanish and English. I find with some of my Icelandic-English speaking coworkers that they will switch between languages mid-sentence sometimes, depending on which language has the more specific word. It’s definitely interesting to see how these things manifest all over…I hope to get to visit Montreal one day and see it for myself (although I don’t speak any French at all!)

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