Back in the fall, my plans were derailed by a number of visa issues in Europe. This pushed me in several new directions as I looked for employment options. I have recently accepted an internship in London with a small consulting company and am very excited to be working for them this summer. But I have also started a new business that answers at last the question: what could I, a medievalist, offer the world?
This was the big question. What skills do I have of value to other people? The easiest answer was my gift with languages, but there was a slight glitch: I don’t speak Arabic, fluent Mandarin, or Pashto. Most of the languages I know are dead or not widely spoken. There is no great need for these languages from an employment perspective. It seemed my greatest asset was likewise useless.
But as I wrestled with this problem and had (sometimes heated) discussions with my family and friends, it at last became clear that my ability to learn languages was itself a skill. Sure, I may not yet speak the languages most sought after by military and business companies, but I can learn a language about as quickly as one can. And that skill is not something I was born with—it’s something I learned through studying linguistics and more than 20 languages.
So I’ve started Linguisticator, a service designed to teach people how to learn languages. There are tons of language resources out there, but more and more these resources seek to avoid central issues of language’s inherent complexities. A lot of language resources have little faith in a customer’s intelligence, I feel. The result is that people study a language for years only to reach a mediocre level at best. Language is a complex…organism, shall we say? But if it is broken down into its component parts, its complexity resolves into a wonderful clarity. That’s what my courses are designed to do.
Problem solved, right? Not exactly. I have a more or less unique product—the only comparable course I’ve seen is one offered for the US military—but how to get it out there? Many people have looked at my site and asked, “What languages are you teaching?” There is no precedent for such a course as this, so people assume I’m teaching specific languages. But I’m really teaching methods that will enable one to learn any language at record speed. Explaining this has been one challenge of communication.
The courses are the culmination of years of experience, and are something I wish had been available to me many years ago. Where do I go to tell people about this service? How do I get people to try something new? It’s a challenge, and I know it will take time. I struggle with impatience, I struggle with the risk of starting something so new. Yet I’ve had a ton of fun putting it all together. I like my website design and my new business cards are pretty flair; and nothing has been more fun than writing the actual courses. I’ve solidified the method for myself, and at the very least, I now have a more articulated process for tackling new languages myself.
Linguisticator will take time, patience, and a lot of work to build. It’s a larger challenge than many of the others I’ve worked on, but it’s a labor of love and I can only look forward to the fruit it will yield as I share one of my greatest passions with other people interested in language.
Icelandic is not the easiest language to learn. Its difficulty arises from two main factors: a complicated grammatical system, and a limited pool of resources. In order to speak correctly, the student of Icelandic will need to spend several weeks drilling grammatical paradigms; and even if the student has a good basic command of the language, it will be difficult to find Icelanders who will speak only Icelandic without switching to English. Almost all Icelanders speak English, and they tend to be proud of it. When foreigners come, they enjoy showing off their abilities in English and they want to use the opportunity to practice their English, particularly with Americans and Brits. Despite the difficulties, however, there are a number of resources to help you in learning the language, and with perseverance you can become fluent.
Icelandic is a Germanic language. It is related to the other Germanic languages: German, English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, and most closely, Faroese. Because the literary tradition of Icelandic began in the Middle Ages, the language has remained relatively stable for the last 800 years. This means that Icelandic preserves more inflection than the other Germanic languages.
Inflection is a system by which grammatical function is marked by the shape of a word. We see inflection in English pronouns: for example, the pronouns he, him, and his. “He” indicates the subject, “him” indicates an object, and “his” indicates the possessive. In Icelandic, the system of inflection is rather complicated. There are, for instance, 18 distinct ways of saying the number one, depending on the case and the grammatical gender.
The best way to learn Icelandic grammar is just to buckle down and drill it. Actively memorize all the grammatical paradigms. Trying to do it all at once, however, can be overwhelming, so I recommend taking 15-20 minutes a day just to work on grammar. Over a few weeks, this time will really add up into something meaningful.
In contrast to Spanish or Chinese, there are not many resources for learning Icelandic. Getting a hold of the few resources there are can be difficult, and sometimes expensive. What follows is a list of the main resources for learning Icelandic and a review of each of these resources.
Teach Yourself Icelandic – A good place to start, but not a particularly thorough resources. Make sure to get the audio CD’s along with the book. This is one of the weaker books in the Teach Yourself series in my opinion, but it is one of the more readily available resources.
Learning Icelandic – This book and tape combo is used for the beginning level of the summer intensive course in Icelandic in Reykjavik at the University of Iceland. It is quite basic in scope, and is mostly a bunch of phrases and dialogues with pictures. It’s light on grammar, but the audio materials are good.
Colloquial Icelandic– Probably the best book and CD combo available for Icelandic. There are some errors in the book, so watch out, but on the whole it is excellent. The dialogues can get complicated quickly, so this is probably not the best place to start; work up to it through the other two books mentioned above. The grammar summary at the end of this book is really handy.
Icelandic – This is an older book by Stefán Einarsson. It’s a great resource for grammar and has a good reader as well. It can be quite technical, and some of the language is a bit archaic. Also, there are no audio files. Nonetheless, it’s a classic and I’m a big fan.
Icelandic online – This is the online course hosted by the University of Iceland and serves as the prerequisite for the summer course. When I tried it a few years ago, I was not a fan, but I believe they have improved it since then.
Websites – You can get the news at mbl.is and watch TV or listen to radio in Icelandic at ruv.is.
Kid’s Books – If you can get a hold of children’s books in Icelandic (nearly impossible in the US, but a bit easier in the UK) they can be a good way to practice and build vocabulary. I scored a Harry Potter at a used bookstore in Reykjavik along with several other children’s books, and they’ve been good to me.
Dictionaries – Dictionaries are really expensive, and there is no satisfactory English-Icelandic/Icelandic-English Dictionary. You can get them separately, but that’s the only way. Other dictionaries include:
• A pocket dictionary that goes in both directions by Arnold R. Taylor, but it’s pretty weak.
• The glossary at the end of Einarsson’s Icelandic can serve as a basic dictionary.
• If you go to Iceland, there is a picture dictionary you can buy there called Stóra Mynd Orðabókin, “The Big Picture Dictionary.” It’s really expensive, but it has detailed pictures of all manner of objects labeled in five languages: Icelandic, English, German, French, and Spanish.
• A good Icelandic-Icelandic dictionary will run you about $130.
• You can find an Icelandic-English dictionary online at:
Having now studied more than 20 languages, I’ve realized that I’ve learn a lot more than just how to communicate in other tongues. I’ve learned a process and a method for picking up a code quickly. At this point, I can learn a new language in only a few months, even less time if the language is related to one I already know.
In Iceland this past summer, I would speak to Icelanders at the pools. A little into the conversation they would recognize that I was not Icelandic, but could not tell where I was from. “I’m American,” I’d say. “But you speak Icelandic?” they’d respond. “A little; I’m learning,” I’d say. “How long have you been here?” “Four weeks.” “Four weeks! You’re lying! I know people who have been here for 20 years who can’t speak as well.”
I had this or similar conversations several times.
While in Iceland, I was working 40 hours a week with people who did not speak Icelandic. In the evenings, I would write in English and speak to family and friends over Skype, so the amount of time I had to be actually immersed in Icelandic was fairly limited. Nonetheless, I learned quickly. It was in part because of interactions like the one described above that I realized I actually have a gift with language. But so much of my ability to pick up languages quickly is the result of training rather than innate faculties.
When I go to learn a new language now, I have a clear method. There are questions I want answers for, there is an order of operations, there is a combination of drills I do to master the different aspects of the language. And as I’ve gotten clearer and clearer in terms of this whole process for myself, I’ve realized recently that this is something I could articulate and teach. I could share this method with others who want to learn languages. Perhaps they don’t want to learn 10 or 20 or 30 language, but one or two? The method would still be useful in speeding up the process.
I’m now offering courses in practical linguistics designed to teach people about language so that they can actually learn a foreign language essentially on their own. This is something I feel a lot of people would be interested in knowing, especially those who, like me, spent 10 years or more in school studying a language only to reach a mediocre level of proficiency. It frustrates me knowing that I spent 10 years studying Japanese and that in 3 months now I could reach a higher level of proficiency than I did in those 10 years. If you’re interested in learning these methods, please drop me a line!