Iceland Fights to Protect Its Native Tongue From Siri

Why you should care

Armed with technology and determination, Icelandic warriors will protect their language at all costs.

  • POPULATION
  • SPOKEN LANGUAGE
  • GDP PER CAPITA
  • CAPITAL CITY
Geo facts & figures

If you learn one thing from Ari Pall Kristinsson, learn this: The Icelandic language is not in decline. “This is not an endangered language, not at all,” he says — but for that to stay true, a lot of work will have to be done, and he and his colleagues at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies are going to make damn sure that work gets done.

That’s not to say that reports of the death of Icelandic have been greatly exaggerated. While 90 percent of Icelanders still speak it as their first language, recent studies have found that 30 percent of 13- to 15-year-olds speak English with their friends, and exposure to technology like Siri and Alexa that doesn’t support Icelandic is swiftly eroding the language’s relevance to a generation that sees a more expansive future in learning English. But Kristinsson, head of the institute’s Language Planning Department, isn’t going down without a fight.

Increased concerns that Icelandic will fall into decline have brought both government intervention and money: Last year, the Icelandic government allocated funding for the institute to develop language technologies in Icelandic, so islanders can enjoy Siri, Alexa, GPS and any other talking robots in their native language. The project, set to kick off later this year, will focus on speech synthesis and speech recognition in Icelandic, as well as open-source machine learning systems geared toward the language. It’s a heavier lift with Icelandic than with, say, French, because there are fewer texts to work from, meaning linguistic research databases known as corpora simply can’t achieve the same volume.

“For languages like ours, there has to be a constant effort to try to find ways to make this work,” explains Steinþór Steingrímsson, a project manager at the institute who’s focused on language technology. “But technology-wise, we don’t have to be as pessimistic as we were two or three years ago.” For Steingrímsson, 41 — who’s been with the institute since 2011 after a varied career of language instruction, computer game programming and journalism — the five years of funding may not be enough to create all the technology they need, but it’ll be enough to establish proof-of-concept that something can be done.

Kristinsson worries about the country’s young people: “We need to be able to control our cars in the future in Icelandic.”

Kristinsson spent much of his career working for the Icelandic Language Institute and then a decade leading it (the institute, along with several other bodies, became the Árni Magnússon Institute in 2006). The 58-year-old has a Ph.D. in Icelandic linguistics and has chaired both the Icelandic Linguistics Society and the Icelandic Place Names Committee: If Icelandic has a champion, this is the guy.

While France’s Académie Française organizes French translations of foreign phrases and words that creep into the lexicon, Iceland has no such authorized body, instead making do with loose coalitions by industry that meet to determine new Icelandic terms for the medical community, legal community and so on. The closest to an organized national body is the Icelandic Language Council, of which Kristinsson is a member, which convenes annually to issue a resolution on the status of Icelandic and choose a theme to emphasize — last year it was the paucity of children’s literature written in Icelandic, viewed as a major problem for keeping children interested in their native language.

To be sure, there are examples of languages without a wealth of native speakers surviving in the digital age. When hammering out their battle plan, Steingrimsson says, they looked to Estonia, which initiated a series of digital language protection projects in 2006 to keep its notoriously difficult language from being left behind, though Iceland’s approach is more top-down than Estonia’s and won’t involve open competitions for applications. Kristinsson worries about the country’s young people, who, he says, must find Icelandic useful and relevant to discourage them from turning to English: “We need to be able to control our cars in the future in Icelandic.” And as smart technology and digital assistants become ever more ubiquitous, the technology looks increasingly like the most critical piece of the puzzle. But there’s hope: In May, Microsoft added Icelandic as a supported language, the same month that Google, which already had Icelandic speech recognition, added Icelandic to Google Maps — a happy accident, Kristinsson explains, thanks to there being an Icelandic engineer working at Google.

While Kristinsson focuses his concern on the attitudes of teens and young adults toward Icelandic, the trouble may start sooner than that. Sigríður Sigurjónsdóttir, a professor of Icelandic linguistics who’s completed year two of a three-year research project into the effects of English exposure on Icelanders, says exposure among the very young may be a far bigger problem. “We’re now seeing very young children watching YouTube videos or Netflix, and around 40 percent of the 3- to 5-year-olds we talk to started using the internet before the age of 2,” she explains. “That’s when you acquire your language.” Which means that Iceland’s youngest citizens may not effectively absorb Icelandic grammar, even if it remains their first language. “Young people see the world as their playground, and this shapes their attitudes,” Sigurjónsdóttir says. “They don’t see Icelandic as useful.”

But it is, argues Kristinsson. And while Iceland’s youth might not realize it, many others do. Úlfar Bragason, a professor at the University of Iceland, says that enrollment in the university’s Icelandic as a second language program has shot up from about 300 to 500 in just a couple of years. Meanwhile, 180,000 people are using the free Iceland Online language learning program. And even if Icelandic isn’t on the popular language learning app Duolingo, Bragason says he believes their program is the better way to learn. “Icelandic is actually cool abroad,” Sigurjónsdóttir agrees. “But here in Iceland, it’s not that cool.”

If you want to test your tongue on Icelandic, here’s a primer from the “I Heart Reykjavík” podcast.

OZYProvocateurs

People shaking up their fields, old dogs doing new tricks, and those who like to bring the ruckus.