He learns Icelandic while I eat cakes

Posted September 30, 2014

He learns Icelandic while I eat cakes

We were on the second week of our stay in Ísafjörður in the Westfjords. I wanted the mornings to myself to write, so when my husband spotted an advertisement for a beginners course in Icelandic, I encouraged him to sign up. It seemed like the ideal way to get him out from under my feet. 

Every morning, as I ordered coffee and cake at one of Ísafjörður’s fabulous bakeries and settled down to write, Robert headed off to the University Centre of the Westfjords in his quest to master the Icelandic language. This is our diary of the week...  

Home baked rolls and a warm reception

Sunday evening 

Him: On signing up for the course I was told that there would be a chance to meet the rest of the class the night before it officially started. I quickly discover that we’re an eclectic group - a father and daughter from France, an Alaskan pilot and a Finnish student - to name but a few. The light refreshments we were promised turn out to be delicious freshly-filled rolls, provided by the cheery receptionist I met when I enquired about the course. Not only did she bake all the rolls herself but she also supplies cakes to the Edinborg Bistro Café Bar, next to the tourist information office. Students and teachers are all very friendly and I can’t wait to tell Karen that I’ll be fluent in no time at all.

Me: “Guðrún bakes cakes? Result!”


Him: Learning basic sounds and word endings

Disaster! I couldn’t find an Icelandic/English dictionary in all of Isajörður. Luckily I don’t need one yet as the first lesson is mostly about producing sounds I didn’t actually know existed. Learning to shape and enunciate Icelandic vowels and consonants correctly, I soon realise, is the equivalent of a full facial workout. At least I’ll return home with a nice tight jawline. 

Me: 1 kleina (fried doughnut), 1 Osthorn (croissant), 2 cups of coffee; 650 words

AM: I’m in the Gamla Bakery. Robert has dashed off to the Eymundsson book store next door to stock up on ‘essentials’. He returns with a carrier bag stuffed full of note books, highlighter pens, memory cards, A4 folders and biros. I thought he’d only gone in for a dictionary.

PM: He’s now lying in bed making chimp noises. Practicing vowel sounds, he says. I studied phonetics as part of an English degree course so naturally I offer to help. We end up arguing about tongue positions (and not in an erotic way). We go to sleep not speaking any language. 


Him: Conjugating key verbs; explaining who I am, where I’m from and what I do

Um … this is getting trickier.  

A key principle of the course is that the teacher shouldn’t spend a lot of time correcting our mispronunciation. Instead, we’re encouraged to simply have a go at speaking the language, even if it’s not perfect. That means immersing ourselves in Icelandic AT ALL TIMES and my brain is beginning to boil with the effort of describing my family, including their daily habits. All morning I’ve listened to the beautiful Icelandic language being strangled by German, French, American (and Irish) accents. It must sound like fingernails on a blackboard to our very patient teacher. Not that she shows it. 

Me: 2 Snúður (cinnamon rolls topped with chocolate icing), 2 green teas; 743 words

Every time I read a road sign Robert corrects my pronunciation. Apparently the p in Pingeryi is pronounced th as in Thor, not p as in penguin. I seriously might have to punch him if he keeps this up. That’s ppp…unn…cchh! Tonight the university is screening a film adaptation of Gimli, a famous Icelandic saga, set in the Westfjords. Robert is keen to see this film and the course administrators have kindly allowed me to come along rather than sit at home on my own.

        “By the way, it’s not Gimli,” Robert informs me on the drive there. “That’s the dwarf warrior in ‘The Lord Of The Rings’. This is Gisli. For God sake, get it right or you’re not coming in!” 

Chicken soup and howling wind


Him: Dative, nominative (I don’t even know what they are in English); how to talk about the weather - who knew there were so many different ways to describe the wind!?? 

The rest of the class are off on a visit to Haukadal, the setting for the Gisli saga this afternoon. I really want to join them but I’ve agreed to spend my afternoons with Karen so that we can go walking and explore the stunning countryside together. The weather isn’t great so we’ve taken some chicken soup, in a flask, and driven to a picnic spot outside Flateyri. We sit cocooned in the car, watching the rain sweep across the waters of  Önundarfjörður. I love Iceland. Even its mercurial weather can’t spoil a view like this. I try to conjure up my newly acquired vocabulary to describe the scene. It’s a struggle as I feel mentally wrecked today.   

Me: 1 Kanelskonsa (cinnamon scone), 1 Kaffibolla (coffee bun), 6 coffees; 903 words (increased output due to coffee buzz) 

It was cold, wet AND windy this afternoon so we drove to Flateyri instead of going on our usual walk. We may as well not have bothered as Robert fell asleep shortly after we got there (learning Icelandic is clearly taking its toll). Tonight it’s blowing a gale. I ask Robert what the Icelandic word for wind is. He asks me, with a knowing smirk, what type of wind I mean. I have no idea what he’s talking about.

11.30 PM: The wind is howling and icy rain is lashing down outside but, thankfully, our rented house is warm and cosy. I suddenly remember Robert mentioning that one of his class, a Finnish girl, is camping in a tent next to Ísafjörður harbour. 

“We should drive down and check she’s alright,” I suggest. “Maybe take her some soup?” 

Robert’s busy prepping for tomorrow’s class (they’re a competitive lot) and is only half way through his homework. “She’ll be fine,” he says without glancing up from his book, “as long as she’s found big enough rocks to hold it down.”

I look out the window. Poor girl!


Him: Learning food names in preparation for my ‘at the Bónus supermarket’ role play 

I understand quite a few of the food labels now. One particular fish name still baffles me though: Blaulang. I know that blau means blue. That makes no sense as the fillet I’m about to buy is most definitely white. I say hello to a local shopper and ask her, in shaky Icelandic, what type of fish it is. She looks perplexed but still manages to explain, in word-perfect English that she doesn’t know. I feel a bit deflated by my bumbling attempts at her language but, not wishing to give up, I try the fish counter next. The very helpful staff disappear to look up the English translation: Blue ling. Try it; it’s delicious.

Me: 1 kleina, 1 Osthorn, 1 lemon tea, 1 coffee; 206 words (interrupted by Robert dragging me off on a food shopping trip) 

Robert was keen to try out a few phrases on the local retailers (cringe). It’s hard to tell in Ísafjörður if people are smiling at his attempts to converse with them because he’s got it right or so woefully wrong that he comes across as the village idiot. Icelanders are extremely proud of their language, and the last thing either of us would want to do is insult them with half-baked (there I go again - I can’t get cakes off my mind) attempts to speak it. That whole blue ling fish incident in the supermarket by the way - sooo embarrassing!!!

A group photograph and farewells


Him: What to say in the Vínbúðin store (Off Licence), the coffee shop and the restaurant

The course ends just as we move on to the really tricky stuff, which is also the really useful stuff. Our final act, as a group, is to have our photograph taken so that the University can produce a collage of all 165 students completing language courses in this beautiful small town in the Westfjords. 

Me: 1 Hjónabandssaela ‘Happy Marriage Cake’ (a crumbly oat bar filled with rhubarb jam), 1 kleina, 2 coffees; 367 words 

We’re leaving today. While he swans around having a group photograph taken, I dash back to the house to clean it from top to bottom and pack all our things. He arrives, once I’m finished, brandishing a certificate. Hmmph! 

By the end of the week 

Him: I’ve turned my brain inside out trying to learn a language that is complex and enchanting in equal parts. I must be mad to want to learn more. I haven’t told Karen yet but I’ve already made enquiries about the three week advanced course next year. 

Me: Writing in the Ísafjörður bakeries is bad for my waistline. It’s just as well I’ve been traipsing over the Westfjord hills every afternoon to offset any weight gain.  On the plus side, I did quickly build up an Icelandic vocabulary entirely of my own, although mostly cake and bread names. 

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