Languages through travel: Icelandic

This post is a bit different to usual – it’s not about the languages I am currently learning. It’s almost a sidetrack to travel blogging, but not quite. I’m going to write about my impressions of the Icelandic language, without having actively learned any of it, but after having experienced it as a part of my trip there.

Sidenote: I was pondering during my trip, whether I should evolve my blog into a language AND travel blog – many bloggers I like do that in their blogs. However, I decided I don’t travel enough to make it balanced in that sense, and also I’m more interested in writing about languages. But this point of view still gives me a great excuse to flood you with my travel photos, ha 😉

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Before my trip, I made the decision not to make any efforts to learn Icelandic beforehand. The decision about the trip was quick and quite last minute so I wouldn’t have had time to learn much anyway, and I don’t feel like dabbling into languages right now. I did, however, kind of check the language out as a part of pre-travel hype by watching a few videos of basic phrases and by listening to a couple of Disney songs (that was bizarre! :-D), but my aim wasn’t really to memorise anything. Just to get the feeling of it.

And when in Iceland, of course I didn’t want to close my ears and eyes and mind from the language. I didn’t ignore it. I was very much observing it, every time I had the chance.

The thing is, even if you don’t actively want to learn the language before your trip, travelling is still always an interesting opportunity to explore a new language. It’s a chance learn understand some things about the language even if you don’t learn to understand it.

You’ll learn, that it is possible to appreciate and enjoy a language completely strange to you, one the you don’t speak a word of and perhaps even have no intention of learning (at least at the moment).

All you need to do is keep your ears open and mind tuned to a language learners’ mindset.

That’s what I did in Iceland, and I wanted to share some thoughts about it: four ways I was exposed to Icelandic while traveling, and five things I learned about Icelandic just like that.

4 ways I was exposed to Icelandic while in Iceland

1. Listen to the radio

We rented a car for three days and one of the first things I noticed when we hit the road wasn’t any breathtaking view through the window, but the language that was flooding our ears from the radio.

It was a wonderful combination – listening to the language, the radio host chatting, the advertisements, occasional Icelandic song even, and simultaneously watching the views change as we drove on. Experiencing Iceland with our eyes and our ears.

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2.  Reading the street signs

One thing I slightly tried to learn beforehand, or at least on the flight to Reykjavik, was how to pronounce Icelandic. They have some letters of their own, and some vowel combinations are pronounced differently. There was a small introduction to these in my guidebook. It felt rather difficult.

However, once we got to Iceland, we kept trying to read the road signs and place names out loud, and kept re-checking from our guidebook for the right pronunciation, and soon I started to remember that “au” is actually “öi” and à is au.

3. Learning about Icelandic nomenclature from a riding tour guide

We had two awesome days riding the Icelandic horses, and the riding guides told us a lot about the area and also explained the meanings of the place names (and the names of the horses, too!). This was a way more interesting guided tour experience than any Hop on-Hop off -bus tour ever!

4. Eavesdropping in a hot tub 🙂

This sounds worse than it is. Of course I could not understand what the people were saying, so I have no reason to feel guilty!

One fun way to explore a language is to listen to the locals, of course. In Iceland, there is one especially great place for this: the public swimming pools and hot tubs. We bathed somewhere almost every day, and while some places were more tourist-filled, we also visited a couple of places where the locals gathered to relax for their day off or after work.

Even though you’d think peace and quiet is what you appreciate in a place like that, the calm and steady chatter of Icelandic was actually a very pleasant background sound. Just relaxing in the hot water while wondering this amazing, special element of the Icelandic culture – again, hearing the language made me feel more connected to the culture; the experience feel more real.

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5 things I learned about Icelandic

1. It sounds strangely familiar

While listening to the radio, I soon noticed that if I didn’t pay attention, I could imagine it was Finnish on the background! Amazing. It felt also a bit the same as listening to Estonian, which really is related to Finnish: I don’t understand a word but the melody is similar. Icelandic and Finnish are not related at all, but still, there is something very familiar to the sound of Icelandic.

This is due to the way the words are stressed in both languages: the stress is on the first syllable. Like Finnish, Icelandic rolls on in a steady way, without a sing-song variation to it. Also, I guess there are some similar weird combinations of vowels (which can make a native Romance language speaker quite uncomfortable? :D).

2. The similarity to Swedish is sometimes hard to see, but it is there

Sometimes, I could clearly connect an Icelandic expression I read somewhere, to its Swedish counterpart. Often however, it took a few times of reading or hearing before I could make the connection. Sometimes I couldn’t figure it out at all. Icelandic is too different from Swedish that knowing the other would really help understand the first.

Often for instance the place names seemed incomprehensible when you first saw them, but after getting the pronunciation part right, they suddenly made more sense for a Swedish speaker: for instance, once I realised ‘Rauðá’ is pronounced ‘Röid au’, and it means Red river – which would be Röd å in Swedish.

For me, Swedish has always had “a language of campfires and storytelling days” feeling to it, but in comparison, Icelandic is like the language of heroes and ancient legends version of it. When I tried to look for the connections to the related language I know, I could kind imagine to feel the “Vikingness” of Icelandic.

3. The Icelandic people have a very straightforward approach to naming things

Reykjavik = steamy bay, Reykjadalur = steamy valley. Both are areas with hot springs. Hveragerði = Gardens of the hot springs. There are a lot of hot springs and a lot of greenhouses. You get the idea.

Even the horses where named things like Hvita = white (a white horse), Stjarna = star (a horse with a white star on the head), Eldur = fire (a chestnut red horse).

So things are basically called exactly what they are, and just buy learning Icelandic place names (or horse names!) you can learn a whole lot of vocabulary. Awesome!

Somehow also I think this reflects in a beautiful way the straightforward, uncomplicated relationship the Icelanders have with the nature.

4. Jà!

It simply means ‘yes’ (it’s pronounced /jauː/), but by the end of the trip, hearing this word really made me smile. I heard it a lot, and I can’t really explain why, but it sounded really heartwarming. Somehow happy and positive. Once I started paying attention to it, I heard it all the time.

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These were my scattered, very un-linguistic impressions of the Icelandic language. Even though I didn’t really learn any of it, I gave it a lot of thought during the trip, and together with the interactions with the locals, the beautiful landscapes, the food we tasted and the freshness of the air we breathed – it was an important part of making memories of Iceland for all senses. I really think that even just observing, if not learning, the languages of the countries we travel in, really give an extra dimension to the travel experience.

Have you ever done similar ‘language observing’ while traveling? How do you observe and explore a language while traveling? Or do you always try to learn some basics of the language before you go? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

(Ps. I don’t really know how to make a short post. This was supposed to be one. Oops.)

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Language Learning Goals for September 2017

Ah, September – one of my favourites! The feeling of freshness both out in the nature and in life in general. Right now there is even more anticipation than usual, as I’m turning a whole new leaf in life: I graduated! It’s time to say goodbye to student life and welcome something new. What exactly, I don’t know yet, as I’m currently searching for a job… But I feel positive and excited.

As I wrote last month, August attacked me kind of suddenly – and it didn’t give me an easy time the whole month, really. I caught a cold and was sick for a week, and even without that, I had a lot more eon my plate than I’d expected and it ended up being like a marathon of months. Everything I had to do was really motivating and exciting though! However, it meant that my language plans had been slightly too ambitious, as I’d overestimated the time I could spare for language learning.

So it was the third month in a row of doing less than I planned, but I’m not too disappointed. I’m still sort of experimenting with what kind of routine I could have for Swedish, and each of these three months I’ve still studied more than the previous month, and managed to make it a little more consistent. I’ll have to tune down my goals from last month a bit, but I’ll still try to study a bit more than last month!

This post is inspired by the Clear the list challenge hosted by Lindsay Williams from Lindsay does languagesShannon of EurolinguisteKris Broholm and Angel Pretot.

Clear The List

Review: August 2017

For Swedish, my goal was to aim for immersion, and read, write, speak or listen a little bit every day except weekends, so I’d do all of them a few time every week. I basically had one week when I can say I did this. The other weeks I did a fair amount of listening, read a little, and that’s it.

Listening – I listened to a lot of music and quite a few podcast episodes.
Reading – I read some 50 pages of Där vi en gong gått, and once I read some articles about circular economy and wrote down useful words.
Writing – I only wrote maybe two entries in my diary. I don’t know why this is so hard to get going.
Speaking – Meh… I had one Skype with my new Tandem partner. I spoke a few times on my own while driving somewhere. And did two short videos on Instagram.

I don’t mind too much doing less than planned for the other parts, but I really want to improve my speaking, and at this rate, much progress isn’t going to happen!

As for Russian, I met with my tandem partner twice and that’s all. This is ok, but the tandem meetings were more enjoyable when I was being more consistent with other Russian practice, too. Using my Russian now feels a bit like I’m taking it out of the fridge each time; it’s all stiff and sticky and needs to be warmed up before it starts to flow like it should. Oh well, I guess it’s good practice anyway!

For French I didn’t even have any specific goals, I only read some more of the book I bought from Paris airport.

Here’s how my monthly tracker looks like his time:

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Learning Goals for September 2017

I don’t really know in detail what I’ll be up to this September. For now, it’s job search and hopefully some chill.

All I know for sure is I’m off to Iceland for a week (woop!!), a rather spontaneous trip with a friend of mine. So not too much time for language studies that week. It would have been a chance for a little side track language adventure – Icelandic sure is an interesting one – but well, I’m not really into language dabbling right now, and anyway I only decided to book the trip two weeks ago… I think just góðan daginn and takk fyrir will have to do this time!

After my trip, I guess I’ll also review my goals for the rest of the month a little bit, when I know more about my situation and plans. I’ve teamed up with Elena as language buddies for Swedish – which I’m really glad about! I’m quite sure chatting with her will help me get back on track after my trip.

Swedish

I’ll still stick to the attempt of some every day Swedish. But whereas last month I was trying to fit an hour of studying to my days, now I’ll settle for just doing something every day, and try to practice each of the four skills once at least once a week.

Reading

I’ll keep reading Där vi en gång gått, but as it’s a bit of a heavy read, I also got another book alternative: Omgiven av idioter by Thomas Erikson. It describes a personality analysis system where all people can be sorted to four categories, and how this can help you understand people better, even the ones that are very different than you. I’m not sure if it’s very well based on scientific facts, but it’s a popular book, and should be an interesting read.

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Listening

I’ll keep listening to music and podcasts, for now I’m happy with the ones I mentioned in last month’s post.

Speaking

I don’t really lack alternatives for speaking practice, I just didn’t utilize them last month: italki tutors, my new tandem partner, some friends I could Skype with…  This month I just need to book these well in advance and stick to them. At least one real speaking practice session per week is my most important goal this month.

Writing

I don’t know how I could motivate myself to write more often… but after all, it’s not the most important skill for me for now, so I won’t worry too much about it. I’ll write something if I feel like it.

Russian & French

For Russian, I’ll try to manage having two Tandem meetings, and I’ll try to start listening to audiobooks again.

For French, I’ll keep reading my airport novel.

Blog and Instagram

What actually kind of bothers me is I haven’t managed to find the time to write anything here on the blog except these Clear the list posts! I have a long list of topics I wanted to write about but they just aren’t happening. And last month I didn’t even manage to answer any of the comments I got on my previous post – so sorry about that! I’ll try to do better this month. I wonder if I should book a specific time for blog-writing each week…

Well, maybe it already helps if I hereby promise to write at least one post before the end of this month!

Besides that, I’ll try to get back to the habit of posting on Instagram. The language society there is one of the best things for motivation. (If you want to find loads of language learning friends on Instagram, a good place to start is to look up @joyoflanguages and #languagediarychallenge, and join the challenge!)

So – nothing too new and exciting for my language plans this month, but I guess is good to have something familiar in this new situation I’m in! 🙂 Maybe when other things in life start to find their course again, I can shake things up a little and think of something new. We’ll see!

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“Shouldn’t you pick up your laptop and write a blog post, hooman?”