08 December 2005

Taking it to the streets

I have been here for a little more than three months as an official resident, and for two of those months I have been taking Icelandic classes. The last time I learned a new language was in high school when I spent a year and a half learning Latin, and I have been speaking French since age 4. Learning a language in the midst of a full work day and the confusion of a new living situation is intense, and as the classes progressed, the homework accumulated.

Still, lately I have been making the first tentative steps into actually using the language out on the town, and the results have been good so far. I’ve been able to order cake (“yes, I would like whipped cream”) and answer when someone asked for a light the other night, and mostly hope that nobody asks anything out of context. If someone were to ask me if I color my hair while I am ordering coffee, I’d be lost, but so far I have only had one switchover to English, and that was when a bored 17 year-old waitress asked if I wanted french fries with my burrito. That combination is so out of context to me, I was absolutely unable to process the word “franskar”.

So for anyone else who wants to pick up Icelandic Real Quick, here’s my advice:
-This online course is really awesome, and fun too. Try it, you’ll like it!
-classes at Háskola Íslands are good, but the first-level grammar class is really only designed for a person who stepped off the plane in the morning and starts class that same afternoon. A combination of the online class, general language curiosity, and a little workbook action put me in good shape for level 2.
-Language lab exercises make me feel like a parrot air-traffic controller, but have been very useful for my pronunciation. Just two weeks ago a kindly Icelandic couple congratulated me on my pronunciation that sounded “just like an Icelander”.
-Hér & Nú. This is a superb Icelandic tabloid magazine that has started showing up every week at a coworker’s house (he swears he didn’t pay for it). He has been kind enough to bring it in since the language level is about what I can handle. I also need to stay up on the latest gossip here. One of the unexpected entertainments of the magazine is watching which of my co-workers will slink by and grab it off my desk for a quick read, claiming they "never read the stuff". Right.
-Listen to Icelandic pop tunes. The lack of variation in the rhythm, and the many repetitions of the chorus make for plenty of chances to catch the lyrics.
-Radio ads, again repeated to the point of numbness, can actually result in comprehension. I know that some store is having a 20% discount on all towels this weekend. Brimborg takes this theory a little too far with their ads though (two times in a row? Not making me want to buy a car from them at all) so I have had to stop listening to the radio for a while.
-If you actually want to write in Icelandic, you will probably need help conjugating verbs. For a fun history-of-English exercise, look up "sækja", and note the second participle. This verb means "to seek", and illustrates the relationship between seek-sought beautifully.
-One of the hardest parts of Icelandic is their mad declension system. Nouns, adjectives, and all kinds of other helper words have to be declined depending on their placement in the sentence, so unless you are naturally gifted in this department, this site helps tremendously. If you know the root word, type it in the top box, and if you only know some strange declined form, try the bottom box.

Even with all these handy tools I am still almost perpetually confused, but as everyone here says kindly, það kemur (it comes). At the very least, I am happy to know that this language will never again just be a collection of funny sounds, as it seemed to me last year. Even if I move away tomorrow, in 20 years some of the sounds of Icelandic will still make sense to me. Furthermore, learning Icelandic has unlocked The Secrets of Scandinavian Languages. I can understand pieces of written Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish now. Up next, Finnish!

Ship sighting: The scramble of lights on the small coast-guard ship were straightened out this morning, so it looked just as nice as the big boat. Today has been one of those glad-I-am-not-at-sea days with furious winds throwing sheets of water (and is that hail just now?) at the windows. It's also been so dark that I wonder if the sun actually didn't come up today and it's still Wednesday night. Hey, it could happen here.

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