Thursday 17. August 2017

“The Westfjords stole my heart” Icelandic Courses in the Westfjords

It has been eleven years since the University Centre of the Westfjords started offering the Icelandic courses that have now become a firm fixture in the University Centre’s operations, and in the Westfjords community; especially in the late summertime. At the time of writing, there are roughly 70 students from all over the world poring over their Icelandic textbooks; some on their very first Icelandic course, and other a bit further along. An estimated one thousand individuals have visited the Westfjords during this little more than a decade, with the goal of learning the unique language of the Icelanders.

For many years, Ingi Björn Guðnason, project manager at the University Centre, has been deeply involved in all aspects of organising the courses which first started in 2007. The following year, the University Centre signed a contract with the universities’ international office – as it was then called – to run Icelandic courses for all Erasmus and Nordplus exchange students arriving to study at Icelandic universities each autumn. This has since become the cornerstone Icelandic course.

The real “friends of Iceland”?

According to Ingi Björn, the student group is usually very mixed, mostly exchange students and students entering full-time education in Iceland, “But then there’s always a large group of people, of all ages, who have a passionate interest in Iceland and want to learn the language to better connect with the country. Maybe these are the true “friends of Iceland” (a term Icelandic media apply to almost any celebrity who visits the country)? Then we also have people who simply love learning new languages – especially those languages that are unique in some way. Shortly after the courses really got going, we also became aware of demand for courses for more advanced learners. We have therefore been developing those courses in recent years. This year that group is unusually large and has 22 students, including those coming to us for the second, third, even fourth time.”

Good co-operation with institutions all over the country

Similar courses are held jointly by the Árni Magnússon Institute and University of Iceland, annually in July, in the capital region. Those courses have been on offer for a long time and there has always been good co-operation between the University Centre of the Westfjords and the Árni Magnússon Institute. The courses in the Westfjords are usually in August and those students who cannot make it to the Westfjords at that time are pointed south, and vice versa. There have also been examples of students attending the Westfjords courses after finishing courses in Reykjavík.

Traditional teaching shaken up

The foundation course is structured with traditional classroom lessons in the morning, systematically going through learning materials with the same teacher for one, two, or three weeks, depending on the course. In the afternoons, various options are available, such as elective courses or field trips. Ingi Björn believes the electives are just as good a way to learn Icelandic as traditional teaching: “On the elective courses we approach language learning by differing means. Students, for example, go shopping downtown, take part in choral singing to practice pronunciation, learn to swear in Icelandic, and learn about old Icelandic ‘rímur’ chants. On these courses, we try to use local instructors and their own unique expert knowledge. This breaks the days up and is often very welcome. We have also taken trips following the famous Gisla Saga in Haukadalur, including the one-man play on the Saga by Elfar Logi Hannesson, actor and director with Komedíuleikhúsið in the Westfjords. Students have also been enthusiastic about attending the Act Alone theatre festival in Suðureyri – sometimes actively participating in it.”

Undeniable impact on society

Nearly a thousand people have gone through the University Centre Icelandic courses since they began. Such a large number has an undeniable impact on society here in the Westfjords, though it is hard to measure exactly. A proportion of the teachers always come from elsewhere: experienced Icelandic teachers who specialise in teaching it as a foreign language. But the University Centre has also always tried to use the human resources available here in the region for teaching, thereby creating employment, Ingi Björn says, and is in no doubt about the courses’ impact: “It hardly needs saying that dozens of students staying in the region for up to three weeks must be pretty valuable visitors. When the courses were at their biggest there were around 170 students here for three weeks, which is about 3,600 guest-nights!”

Invaluable for the Icelandic language and culture

Ingi Björn points out that students build a strong bond to the region and many return, either as students or tourists: “I can also believe that these very people, who are willing to take on the challenge of learning Icelandic, are the best ambassadors for Iceland and the Westfjords in their homelands. These are people who have a great interest in the country and nation and bear its reputation far and wide. There are even examples of students who started learning Icelandic with us who end up as translators of Icelandic literature and texts. Such people are invaluable, in my opinion, for Iceland’s language and culture.”

A Master’s degree in second language studies

One of the experienced teachers who has ventured West for the Icelandic courses is Gísli Hvanndal, who is teaching for the University Centre for the second summer in a row. He is a trained linguist in Icelandic and has been teaching it as a second language for many years. Last year he also completed his Master’s degree in second language studies in Brussels. He worked for four years as an Icelandic teacher at Beijing Foreign Studies University and has since spent a lot of time teaching Icelandic as a second language for Mímir and the University of Iceland.

Last year, Gísli had the choice of teaching summer courses in Reykjavík, or having a change and heading to the Westfjords. He chose the latter: “I had only ever been to Ísafjörður once as a child and was really interested in getting to know this region and teaching in a new environment. I enjoyed the experience a lot last year and immediately expressed my interest in doing it again, which ended up happening. I felt the organisation and administration of the courses, and the services to students and teachers, was really good and the environment was great, both in Dýrafjörður and Ísafjörður.”

A more personal stay in the Westfjords

Some courses take place in Ísafjörður while others are only available at Núpur in Dýrafjörður, at the summer hotel which was once a boarding school. It is a 30 minutes drive from Ísafjörður. Gísli believes there are several plus sides to travelling to the Westfjords for the courses instead of staying in the capital: “I believe it makes a difference for the students, though doubtless in different ways for the Núpur and Ísafjörður students. I’m pretty sure a two week stay in Ísafjörður is a lot more personal than a two week stay in Reykjavík, which is clearly very important in order to have the chance to use the language.”

Gísli hears both from locals and students of the Icelandic courses that most people like this short period of coexistence. “Many Ísafjörður residents are aware that people are here learning Icelandic and are careful not to assume they are tourists. As far as Icelandic learning opportunities go, the students have a good environment to learn and enjoy nature, but also very good access to their teachers. The students also take elective courses in Ísafjörður and have opportunities to take various daytrips. And the difference between being at Núpur or in central Reykjavík for three weeks is quite obvious.”

Icelandic is a beautiful language

Just like Gísli Hvanndal, Stéphanie Klebetsani, a translator from Switzerland who lives in Berlin, has travelled to the Westfjords for the second year in a row, but she is here as a student. She lives and breathes languages; her mother tongue is French, but she speaks fluent German and English, some Italian, and is now eagerly learning Icelandic.

Stéphanie is on an advanced Icelandic course, building on what she learnt as a beginner last summer. But of what use is Icelandic to her? “I am mostly learning the language because I find it beautiful but, as a translator, I might add Icelandic to my language combinations in the future. As far as I know, there aren't that many Icelandic to French translators on the market.

Hooked by Sigur Rós and Björk

People’s interest in foreign languages is sparked by various things, so how was Stéphanie drawn to Iceland and Icelandic? “I am a bit of a cliché: I discovered Sigur Rós and Björk at the turn of the century and fell in love with the Icelandic language. I was living in Montreal at the time, and I took a few classes there, but the teacher moved back to Reykjavík. Although life went on, I always had Iceland in the back of my mind. In 2015, close friends took me on a suprise trip to Reykjavík and along the south coast. I simply fell in love with the country. Back in Germany, I googled "Icelandic teacher in Berlin", and found Ólafur Kristjánsson [insert: Who has been teaching University Centre Icelandic courses for many years]. Óli suggested I come to Ísafjörður and take the beginners class last year, as he teaches in the program, so I followed his advice.”

Would find it hard to get bored

Stéphanie does not regret her decision and did not hesitate to come back this year: “The Westfjords stole my heart. I found the program well balanced: intense, but also really fun. I met incredible people and we've stayed in touch. They unfortunately couldn't come back this year, but I know they all wanted to. The people here are generally kind and open, they are used to having students and foreigners. For a rather small town, Ísafjörður offers a surprising amount of cultural activities. You really need to try hard to get bored.

Growing interest in Icelandic for foreigners

It is clear from talking to Ingi Björn, Gísli, and Stéphanie that the University Centre of the Westfjords Icelandic courses, which are now ten years old, have laid the foundation for many people’s increased knowledge of Icelandic, as well as the guests’ continuing interest and knowledge of Iceland and Icelanders. Though the number of students on courses in the Westfjords has varied from year to year, there is a clear growing interest among foreigners to learn this exotic language. For as long as this is the case, the University Centre will continue pushing to build on this positive experience here in the Westfjords.

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Gísli Hvanndal, teacher of Icelandic, Stéphanie Klebetsani, translator and Icelandic student, and Ingi Björn Guðnason, project manager at the University Centre.
Gísli Hvanndal, teacher of Icelandic, Stéphanie Klebetsani, translator and Icelandic student, and Ingi Björn Guðnason, project manager at the University Centre.
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