Evrópsk foreldrasamtök -ráðstefna (enska)

Languages - Key to Communication,
Parents' Contribution
European Parents Association,
Reykjavík, 25. November 2000.

I am both honoured and pleased to be given the opportunity to address this conference of the European Parents Association, the first one to be held in Iceland. I would like to welcome our foreign guests, with the hope that they will enjoy their stay here. Although we would like you to be able to experience Iceland when it's warmer and brighter, we must admit that winter has its own special charms no less than the long days of summer.

The key to success in education involves harnessing a number of forces. It becomes ever more apparent that an effective cooperation between schools and homes is one of the main preconditions for making education a fulfilling and successful experience for students. This holds true for all subjects, although at this conference you will be concentrating on languages as a key to communication and on the contribution made by parents.

As you know, we Icelanders speak our own distinct language that can be traced back to the time the country was settled. Even today we can read and understand without trouble texts written in our own language more than 800 years ago. The Icelandic language is at the heart of the Icelandic identity, and a command of the language is necessary to be able to thrive in this society. Foreigners who can speak our language often complain, however, that in Iceland they are given little opportunity to show their language skills, because Icelanders will quickly switch to English if they can hear that the person they're talking to does not have full command of the language.

Until recently, Iceland's geographical location, far from other countries, meant that most foreigners came here as tourists or for a short stay. Those who settled here either had Icelandic spouses or had some kind of family ties to Iceland. Those who undertook to learn Icelandic, usually did so within the family or, conversely, as an academic study at the University of Iceland. Private tutoring was also available, as well as short-term courses. There was little need for a varied selection of study material, as interest in studying Icelandic was mostly driven by a wish to be able to read old Icelandic literature in the original.

As well as being certain that their language mostly appealed to foreigners because of its grammar and its literature, Icelanders also realised that they wouldn't be able to enjoy success in the outside world except by learning other languages. When I was in grammar school I had to learn five languages apart from Icelandic: Danish, English, German, French and Latin. Demands are not quite so strict these days but still all Icelanders realize that knowledge of a foreign language is the key to being able to exploit their talents fully in the marketplace and to fulfilling their potential in a time of globalisation.

Icelandic society has undergone many changes in recent years. On this occasion I can mention that increasingly, notice has to be taken of those who are not native speakers of Icelandic and who have settled here without being connected to any Icelandic-speaking families. Now we need to consider the teaching of Icelandic in schools, not only for those who would like to read old manuscripts or books in the original language, but rather for the increasing number of people who need to use Icelandic in their daily life and work.

Last year, a new curriculum was introduced for both primary and secondary schools where, for the first time, special provisions were included on the teaching of Icelandic to non-native speakers. This addresses the needs of those who do not have sufficient command of Icelandic to be able to conduct their studies on an equal footing with others. These new provisions ensure that Iceland fulfils its obligations to international treaties, including under Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that all children's education should foster respect for the child's parents, its cultural heritage, language and value system, the national values of both its country of residence and country of origin, and for other cultural traditions differing from its own.

When discussing language teaching in Iceland, the focus is not only on how to teach Icelandic to non-native speakers but also on what obligations the school system has in training them in their mother tongue. Icelandic law does not include any provisions regarding the rights of students who are not native speakers of Icelandic to receive instruction in their own language in Icelandic schools. On the other hand, it is not impossible to do this, if done in consultation with their parents. It may be maintained that the parents are the ones responsible for teaching these children their mother tongue.

Ladies and gentlemen

I am certain that this description of the situation in Iceland also applies to more populous nations, as the same challenges must be faced everywhere. If we do not learn the languages of other nations we are, in a way, isolating ourselves. When people decide to settle outside the country of their birth, among people speaking another language, it becomes the parents' responsibility to teach the children their mother tongue and to nourish the cultural heritage of their country of origin.

Wherever we look, we find an intensive discussion going on about how to accommodate people of a different language or culture. In many places, these issues feature prominently in the political debate and, if a sensible response is not found, society may experience a breach, originating in intolerance, if not outright xenophobia. In this respect, educating people on the languages and cultures of other nations holds the key to achieving a balance within society and diminishing the threat of conflict between people of different nationalities.

Your conference here in Reykjavík deals with an important subject that has a strong impact on the development of European societies. It reminds us that a cooperative relationship between schools and parents is not only the key to our children's success and well-being at school, but also involves the well-being of society as a whole and the environment we wish to create for our children outside the classroom. I wish you and your conference every success.