In June I attended a round table discussion at the Nordic House on the significance of English in Iceland. The seminar was part of a series of events to launch the Iceland branch of the English-Speaking Union (ESU) and was co-hosted by the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages.
According to a 2005 study of words used by speakers of the Scandinavian languages, the number of English words in use has doubled during the last 30 years and is now 1.2 percent.
With a reputation as a conservative language, Icelandic has fewer English loanwords than other Nordic languages, despite, according to the study, Iceland being the country in the region which uses English the most.
Apparently this is because of the long tradition of native language word formation since the 12th century and a strong puristic language policy.
According to Ari Páll Kristinsson, an expert on language policy and planning studies in Iceland who presented the study, basic Icelandic vocabulary has remained relatively unchanged for over a thousand years and for that reason it is easier to create Icelandic words than to adapt loanwords into the language system.
The study looked at the frequency of borrowed words and found that Icelandic borrowed just 17 words per 10,000 words, while Norwegian used 111 per 10,000.
The issue of English as a language of instruction in universities was also discussed. According to the study, 20 to 25 percent of Master’s degrees in Norway are taught in English, with 80 per cent of students speaking Norwegian.
When it comes to Master and PhD programs taught during the 2009-2010 academic year in Iceland, there were eight programs taught in English, 18 taught in both English and Icelandic (meaning that some courses are taught in English, while others in the program are taught in Icelandic), and 98 taught exclusively in Icelandic.
Just eight per cent of PhD dissertations submitted to universities in Iceland in 2007-2008 were written in Icelandic, while 92 percent were in English.
There are several academic study programs at Icelandic universities which are taught entirely in English. Overall, there is a broad selection of courses taught in English, with courses on everything from European Integration Theory, International Law of Armed Conflicts, Nanophotonics and Skaldic Poetry and Saga-Writing—but that’s not to say that there isn’t room for improvement.
Some study programs at Icelandic universities offer both electives taught in English and those in Icelandic, and of course some of those courses taught exclusively in Icelandic are of interest to non-Icelandic speaking students too. The issue of whether courses as part of such programs which are normally taught in Icelandic, can or should be taught in English, is an issue of debate.
From what I understand, foreign students can request a course they are enrolled in to be taught in English, and as long as the course is not a core course in an undergraduate program, the instructor is to at least consider teaching the course in English.
However, it may ultimately come down to the individual teacher and whether they wish to teach the course in English. Most course text books are in English and most teacher’s will allow students to submit assessment and will provide copies of exams in English, so foreign students can usually get by on comprehension of reading material alone, though that’s perhaps not the ideal way of learning at tertiary level.
This causes a bit of a dilemma. Icelandic universities would like to attract more foreign students, but unless international students travel to Iceland with the specific intention of studying Icelandic they won’t have the language skills, nor interest, to take courses taught in Icelandic.
Should universities expect foreign students to acquire a certain level of local language proficiency, and therefore that students take a foundation course in the language, before they pursue the rest of their studies in that country?
According to an article in the Nordic Journal of English Studies by Ásta Svavarsdóttir of the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies at the University of Iceland, a new curriculum was introduced in 1999 which replaced Danish as the first foreign language taught in schools with English, which became compulsory from the ages of ten to 16.
This means that Icelandic children receive a minimum of six years of English training. But does this mean that Icelandic teachers and students should be expected to embrace tertiary studies taught in the global language of English, or should they always have the right to learn and teach in their mother tongue?
The continued influence of English in recent years is undeniable, and while it presents both positive and negative aspects, it also poses some complex questions.
The only way that I can see this particular issue being resolved in a way which is fair to everyone is to ensure that those courses which are advertised as being taught in English are, and those which are not, are taught in Icelandic.
Courses which are usually taught in Icelandic but which prove popular with foreign students, or are part of a program which offers courses in both languages, should offer parallel courses taught in English.
This may not be immediately possible given the current economic situation and budget cuts to the university system, but is perhaps the only way to ultimately serve both foreign students looking for a greater variety in course electives which correspond to their academic program’s learning goals, and those Icelanders who may wish to study in English, thereby improving their language skills.
Zoë Robert – zoe_robert3 [@] hotmail.com