A land of fire and ice and…language service professionals?

Tourism in Iceland has skyrocketed over the past 15 years, in part because so many movies and TV series have recently been shot there (e.g. Interstellar, Game of Thrones, Flags of our Fathers, Prometheus, Oblivion, Batman Begins, etc.). The number of visitors now far outpaces the local population.


Source: Wikipedia

In 2015, Americans and Brits accounted for nearly half the tourists entering the country, and this year the numbers are expected to grow. This means that over the course of a year, there are more native English speakers than native Icelandic speakers in the country.

As part of this recent wave of visitors, I was struck first, and often, by the fact that everywhere I went, every Icelander I met spoke remarkably fluent English – with an American accent, to boot. And I really mean everybody, everywhere: from the bus driver at the airport, to the hotel staff, to the retail and wait staff at every shop, restaurant, and bar that I entered.

At first, I thought this level of fluency was attributable to my interacting with locals in the hospitality sector in Reykjavik. But I was quickly disabused of that theory after a trip five hours north of the capital to a number of remote little towns. At a gas station, a little grocery store, then a coffee shop, again and again, I was amazed by the fluent English spoken.

One explanation is that 40,000 American troops were stationed in Iceland during World War II, the last of whom only left in 2006. With the country gaining full independence (from Denmark) after the war, Icelandic had to compete with American English from then to now. And, of course, like nearly every other country, over the past 30 years, Iceland has been inundated by American movies, TV shows, music, media, the Internet, etc.

Whatever the reason, the reality is that, as a small nation with a well-educated population, Iceland now has a unique language landscape. As a linguist, it immediately dawned on me that with all these fluent bilingual natives, Iceland may have inadvertently created an entire country of trained language-service professionals. They have complete command of both written and spoken Icelandic and English at a level that many interpreters and translators covet.

But then I thought, for whom would they interpret and translate?

The interpreting side of the equation seems fairly clear: not many Icelanders under the age of 60 need help understanding English or communicating with English speakers. So that market is likely very limited.

The translation market, however, has more potential. First and foremost is Iceland’s literary tradition, bolstered by its famous (and fully translated) Icelandic Sagas. As English speakers become more intrigued by this tiny volcanic island, their interest in its books and publications is sure to follow. Secondly, in the other direction, are all the works in English that have yet to be translated into Icelandic. This may seem unnecessary, given the locals’ reading comprehension in English. However, Icelanders, and their government, take great pride in their native tongue, to the point of having created a “Language Planning” unit at the government’s Institute for Icelandic Studies. They are committed to promoting and protecting Icelandic, and they appear to have just the labor pool to turn this desire into a reality.

Other countries have invested in foreign-language education. But given its small population, geographic isolation, and current inundation of English-speaking tourists, Iceland is in a unique position to become a fully bilingual country. The question will then become whether Icelandic itself is able to survive.

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