Can a country be too language friendly?

Guest post by Artemis Pepelasi
We recently learned about the unique language situation in Iceland. This lovely country of the North could make the first place as the most language-friendly country.

The situation in Iceland

Icelandic society is very welcoming towards immigrants. The government helps newcomers, providing translators and mediators to them in order to smoothly adapt to the new reality. English is widespread in the country and used as the primary means of communication between newcomers and locals.
The Icelandic government follows the fundamental right to education: all children attend everyday school from early on once they live in a neighbourhood. Within the school premises, children are encouraged to use their first language(s) in order to feel comfortable and welcomed.
Regardless of the community and schools' attempts to help newcomers, Iceland faces a great issue. And that is a potential risk for the Icelandic language. Statistics have shown that many immigrant pupils still need to obtain their age-appropriate language skills in Icelandic, according to PISA [OECD, 2019 ], which leads them not to access higher education. In addition, many immigrant adults still need to learn the Icelandic language, and as a matter of fact, the language is used less and less in everyday life also by locals. 
© Ute's International Lounge, 2023


What we observed 

We had the opportunity to discuss the aforementioned situation with professionals from Iceland. We noticed various aspects which need further exploration. As a start, the government provides access to translators (face-to-face or via phone) to the newcomers. This policy proves the government's intention to foster an inclusive society and seems an ideal practice for newcomers.
However, that help is provided unconditionally and without any time limit, which creates a potential risk: If constant help is given for language translation, people will not see the need to learn the local language. Knowing that help will be provided regardless of the circumstances, they are not motivated to learn the language. Furthermore, they get the impression that learning Icelandic is a very hard and meaningless process. 
This attitude towards the language also might lead to less motivation for children to learn Icelandic. Parents seem to have low expectations regarding academic skills and success, which could lead children to have less motivation for school too—a vicious circle.
As for the children, by not being encouraged to learn the local language at home or in society, the school needs to support them in the language learning direction. However, teachers are concerned about students' transition to the new situation at school, so they provide constant help. As we got informed, teachers sometimes learn their pupils' languages and use them to give instructions. Furthermore, teachers also encourage interaction in English, as that is the international language which is available to everyone. So teachers' actions at school, accompanied by low parental motivation towards language skills, can negatively influence pupils' academic progress. This all seems to lead to under-education and causes pupils to be unable to attend the local higher education. 
Shifting the focus to society, another issue arises. The citizens born and raised in the county might feel that the situation threatens their heritage language. The risk of language attrition is apparent, and so is the risk of cultural attrition. This fear and frustration could lead to discriminating behaviours towards newcomers, which is the exact opposite outcome the government intended in the first place.
Language attrition is a common situation when an individual unconscious change occurs within an adult or a society. It happens when people use the target language or lose their proficiency in a language due to the lack of contact with the language ("Language Attrition", 2022). Multilinguals switch languages according to environmental needs. This coexistence makes the languages interact and influence each other (Kupske, 2019). So within communities that use several languages in everyday social interaction, the language used less frequently tends to be suppressed. 
The beauty of our world is the existence of many different cultures. And all these different cultures (so different perspectives of life) are unique and make our world colourful. Iceland tries very hard to be welcoming (and many other countries should recognize that). However, Icelanders are worried about losing their unique cultural characteristics, with the first being the language, through the unconditional help they provide. But then, where is the balance point? 
  • Which is a healthy way for them to retain their characteristics and also keep welcoming all the people they would like to live in their country? 
  • How can we keep the rainbow bright when living abroad or open our countries to other people without sacrificing our language?  
Inclusion has the perspective of interaction. We interact with others, which might change how we think and act, but always with respect to what we know and the way we already behave in our everyday life.
Inclusive policies are very important for every country in order for everyone to live with dignity. However, we need to structure the policies in a way that all people are free to behave according to their unique cultural characteristics and simultaneously respect and not suppress the local cultures. 

© Ute's International Lounge, 2023

About the author:

Artemis Pepelasi lives in the Netherlands. She studied at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens Philosophy, Pedagogics and Psychology.  She worked as a therapist for children with developmental disorders and decided this year to strengthen her knowledge and is attending the master program “Parenting and Child Development” in Leiden University. She is currently completing an internship at Ute’s International Lounge.

Language Attrition. (2022).
Kupske, F. F. (2019). The impact of language attrition on language teaching: the dynamics of linguistic knowledge retention and maintenance in multilingualism. Ilha Do Desterro: A Journal of English Language, Literatures in English and Cultural Studies.

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