The impact of English on language education policy in Iceland

Amanda Mary Hilmarsson-Dunn

University of Southampton, United Kingdom


Iceland is a small country of 300,000 inhabitants. Its language, Icelandic, has a long and stable history and has changed little in 1000 years. Iceland’s policies for its language are underpinned by a protectionist and purist ideology which aims to maintain Icelandic as it has been for a thousand years, and also to modernise Icelandic in order that it functions in the modern world. Because of its isolation, Icelanders have always recognised the need to learn foreign languages. Up until 1999 the first compulsory foreign language taught in schools was Danish, as Iceland was part of Denmark for five hundred years and shares a common Nordic culture and values. However, globalisation has brought with it the spread of English. Daily contact with English, through, for example, television, pop music and the internet, means that many children have obtained considerable knowledge of the language before they start learning it formally at school. Other foreign languages lack this out-of-school support and hence the decision was taken to replace Danish with English as the first foreign language (Gunnlaugsdóttir, 2005). Danish is still a compulsory subject but most pupils have no desire to learn it, as they perceive there is no benefit for them, although the policy makers consider it important as a language of communication with the other Nordic countries.

In higher education, policy is to teach through Icelandic. However, mobility has been promoted by the Bologna process, the Erasmus programme in particular, which has encouraged an increasing number of exchange students to Iceland each year. While policy dictates the use of Icelandic, in practice there is great flexibility: for example, students may write their exams in English, individual lecturers may teach through English. However, any change in the policy would be met with great resistance by Icelanders. Attitudes are that English is a valuable language that is necessary to acquire, but that it is also necessary to keep Icelandic intact and fully functioning in this domain. However, global trends and the situation in the other Nordic countries suggest that Iceland is likely to wish to benefit from the market for students worldwide and offer more courses taught through English. The education domain may then shift to English.

Drawing on research carried out with policy makers and students in Iceland, this paper seeks to investigate whether Iceland’s policies for education can be maintained in practice.


Gunnlaugsdóttir, M. (2005) "The situation of modern language learning and teaching in Europe: Iceland". National report produced for European Centre of Modern Languages

Session: Paper session
Bilingual Education 3
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 08