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Native language disappearing from Icelandic workplaces

Native language disappearing from Icelandic workplaces

| Text: Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir, photo: Friðrik Friðriksson and Sigrún Júnía Magnúsdóttir.

Iceland is experiencing enormous growth. Every year thousands of foreigners arrive to help Icelanders in the labour market. Tourism represents the largest area of growth, followed by the construction industry. The English language is increasingly being used within both trades. Many Icelanders are worried about the Icelandic language’s position in the multicultural society.

Benedikt Hilmarsson, head of construction firm Fjarðaverk, has employed Polish workers for some time. The working language is mostly Polish, he says. He needs foreign workers and feels it is best if all the construction workers come from Poland. He has one Polish worker who is married to an Icelander, who works as a workplace interpreter. But colleagues do not always listen to younger people’s instructions. Benedikt Hilmarsson has at times felt so frustrated with the communication problems that he has considered learning Polish.

“It’s the only thing missing. If I was 30 years old I would do it, but I have turned 60. It’s a bit late now,” he says.

Icelanders get edgy

Sigrún Hólm Þórleifsdóttir runs the N1 petrol station in Egilsstaðir in the east of Iceland. She is in charge of hiring staff and explains the difficulty of finding people since there is nearly no unemployment in Iceland. Right now she has staff from Germany, Sweden, Poland, Hungary and Moldavia. She has previously hired people from Ireland and Azerbaijan. 


Head of service and petrol station N1 i Egilsstaðir, Sigrún Hólm Þórleifsdóttir, together with her staff

Sigrún Hólm says Icelanders sometimes become edgy and rude, even aggressive, when service is given in a language other than Icelandic. But most of them are understanding.

“It’s a difficult situation since we don’t have enough domestic labour. We are forced to employ foreigners in order to manage in high season,” she says.

The right to get served in Icelandic

It is often said that all Icelanders speak English, but Professor Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson at the University of Iceland says older people do not always understand English and do not dare speak English. He also believes Icelanders consider it their right to speak Icelandic in Iceland. Icelandic is after all their mother tongue, so they can get irritated when they are not being served in Icelandic.

Professor Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson believes Icelanders have not been good enough when it comes to teaching foreigners Icelandic. Language classes are limited, there are not enough language teachers and the teaching material is inadequate. He also criticises the fact that highly educated immigrants study Icelandic together with immigrants who completely lack a formal education.

No need for Icelandic

Sigrún Hólm Þórleifsdóttir at N1 does not see how she can teach her staff Icelandic, since most of them are only staying in the country for short periods of time. They speak English with each other, and so they do not always have a need to learn Icelandic.

“We send staff on language courses if they are staying for at least six months in Iceland,” she says.

Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson also points out that people working 10 to 12 hours a day do not want to spend their spare time learning Icelandic.

Language barriers too great

Sveinn Reynisson is used to foreign workers in his Norðanmenn construction company. He has previously hired people from Eastern Europe, but no longer does. He thinks the language barriers are too great. He believes Eastern Europeans speak too little English. People working on Norðanmenn’s construction projects must be able to understand what Sveinn says, or else he might get trouble.

“They are good labourers, but their working methods are different from ours. When they don’t speak the language we cannot cooperate,” says Sveinn Reynisson. 

They only work there

Benedikt Hilmarsson at Fjarðaverk mainly hires Poles, but also Icelanders sometimes. He says he knows nothing about the Poles except the fact they are working for the company. He knows nothing about their private lives. They are always very nice when he visits the construction site, but his contact is for obvious reasons only with the Icelandic-speaking foreman.

“It is sad to visit the lunch room and meet ten men, only to be able to talk with one of them,” he says.

A vicious circle

Þorbjörn Guðmundsson, executive officer of the Federation of Skilled Construction and Industrial Workers (Samiðn), is worried about foreigners being paid less than Icelanders while being forced to pay more in rent because they are so dependent on their employer.

Professor Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson is worried about a two-tier society, with highly educated Icelanders in high salary jobs, and immigrants with low educations who speak poor Icelandic and become stuck in a life-long poverty trap, a vicious circle with bad pay, low education and limited opportunities for workplace advancement.

He is also worried the language criticism could represent a growing level of racism in Iceland.



A lack of construction workers

Benedikt Hilmarsson with one of the few Icelandic construction workers he has managed to employ, Ívar Örn Þráinsson (above)

  • Just under 200,000 people are active in the Icelandic labour market.Around 11 percent are foreign.
  • Foreign labour has grown by four percent since last year.
  • The tourism sector employs 30,500 people. The number has grown by eight percent in one year. Never before have so many people worked in the Icelandic tourism industry.
  • The construction industry has seen the largest growth over the past year.
  • 14 percent more people now work in the construction industry compared to last year.
  • Just over 13,000 people work in the construction industry.
  • In August 2017 unemployment was at 1.9 percent.
The number of foreigners in the Icelandic labour market
2007 16395
2008 18167
2009 16590
2010 15193
2011 14627
2012 14521
2013 15366
2014 16372
2015 18008
2016 20605


*June 2017.


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