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Hot learning all the way from the Arctic;Platform;Opinion

Undertaking a term's course in Icelandic by e-mail isn't as outlandish an idea as you might think, says Martin Axford.

LEARNING A minority Scandinavian language is not easy, particularly Icelandic. There is not much of a market for courses in a language whose 250,000 speakers are traditionally good linguists, speaking English and Danish with equal competence.

The only classes in Britain in modern Icelandic are on Tuesday evenings in London, a long weekly commute from Bridge of Weir. There is a self-tuition course but it dates from the 1940s and (though theoretically modern Icelandic is the same as the language spoken by Eric the Red) changes happen over 50 years. Friends tell me that if my ear was good enough to model the accent on the tapes I would sound like John Mills. ("Ectually, thenks.") Two friends used the course intensively before they went north to a fish farm, and were regarded as great comics. My friends found they were listening to the wireless, putting their child in a pushchair and beginning their conversations with "What say ye".

Fortunately, a close friend unearthed a distance learning course in Icelandic literature - "jslenska 102" - at the local FE college, designed for native Icelanders who want to qualify to enter Menntask"li, the (selective) stage of post-compulsory education which qualifies for university entrance.

The college - Verkmenntask"li Akureyri - was keen to take on a student from Scotland, and from the start could not have been more encouraging. The instructions on how to use e-mail were much the hardest part. Icelandic-English dictionaries do not include an IT vocabulary, and Icelanders avoid the international, English-based terms. The net happens to be net because the word is good Icelandic as well as English, but a computer is a tolva (like a bank teller, it counts) and a television is a sj"nvarp ("sightwave"). It took a huge transatlantic telephone bill to reassure me I didn't need to translate the first 10 pages of the course.

jslenska 102 began in true Icelandic style. A country the size of Ireland with a total population not much more than Aberdeen has a built-in problem with the public borrowing requirement. As with all governments, when the chips are down teachers get it in the neck. Term began with a 25 per cent pay cut and a teachers' strike. The net was buzzing with furious letters aimed at the private address of the minister of education. I am sure it was the ones that began "Fr sj"manni" - from a seaman - that put the pressure on, because the Icelandic balance of payments depends totally on fish. The strike was settled.

During the course of a term's work my teacher and I exchanged many comments on our personal reading, and our correspondence was peppered with little bits of information about our daily work. But she always called me Herra Martin, and students were always addressed by the FE college as "Blessaoir og g"oir nemendur" - blessed and good pupils.

Parts of the course were worse than others. Great writer though he is, Halld"r Laxness's books are as tiresome as Shaw's, because he too has his own spelling system. You can't find the words in any dictionary. The grammar questions - Icelanders are very prescriptive about their language - were oddly easy, because they were aimed at the sorts of mistakes no native English speaker could ever make (like saying, "to me it looks forward" instead of "I look forward to"). I learnt enormous respect for Icelandic poets, who make Swinburne look like an amateur. I tried writing verse (in English) using their triple alliterations with feminine rhymes and strict rhythmic patterns, and managed two lines.

In a country where everybody is related to everybody else it makes sense that certificates ultimately depend on an external examination. The Verkmenntask"li had to approve examination supervision, and gave as examples an embassy, a trawler captain or a university. I couldn't find a trawler, but John Wheatley College in Glasgow agreed to invigilate without charge. The instructions were faxed out - in Icelandic. The college had to ask me to translate them. (I managed to resist the temptation to add "the candidate is entitled to a further hour if required".) My Icelandic is awful. Sturdy farmers of both sexes fall off their tractors howling with laughter when I open my mouth. But I passed. The reasons have implications for other distance learners. The Verkmenntask"li, as I should have expected of an FE college serving the sub-Arctic, was experienced in working with distance learners. It knew just what it wanted to assess, and perfect Icelandic from a foreigner was not the issue (they cheerfully stretched their own rules and let me use a dictionary in the examination).

The teaching materials were always clear and learner-friendly and the teacher knew exactly how to use e-mail as a teaching medium. My assignments came whizzing back while I was still excited about writing them, and the comments were always helpful and hvetjandi - whetting the appetite to move on.

Knowing I have a degree in English literature, the teacher encouraged me to use Dunbar to make a point about Icelandic prosody, and in the process we decided that middle Scots is practically Icelandic, anyway. It would have been difficult to find a more interesting and challenging term's work.

My last experience of distance learning was a Wolsey Hall correspondence course taken 30 years ago. I expected to find change for the better between snail-mail and e-mail, but had never anticipated how much. But however brilliant the teaching - and it was - the course was still hard work.

I can only be thankful that the change to modular courses is international. Especially when the modules - as with jlenska 102 - are nice and short.

Martin Axford is a former HMI.

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