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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Icelanders speak up for languages
Icelandic: Not just useful on a trip to Reykjavik
An academic behind one of the UK's more unique courses has condemned the policy of foreign languages being optional in schools after the age of 14.

Dr Tom Lundskær-Nielsen, Scandinavian Studies head at University College London, says the policy and the drop in language GCSEs are "disastrous".

His department's Icelandic degree has been backed by funding from Iceland's government for the next three years.

Up to 15 people a year start learning the language of 300,000 Icelanders.

Missing a trick

On Wednesday, the Icelandic government signed a three-year deal with the department for a £13,000 annual grant for the course. This year 2-5 students will start it, alongside students on other language and Scandinavian degrees.

Outside the North Atlantic island, it is the only Modern Icelandic degree in Western Europe and takes in language, literature, history and linguistics.

Hello: Sæl (to a woman) Sæll (to a man)
Goodbye: Bless bless
Thank you: Takk fyrir
How are you:
Hvað segirðu gott?
I'm well, how are you?:
Allt fínt, en þú?
I'm a bit cold:
Mér er svolítið kalt
Two beers please:
Tvo bjór takk
I love speaking Icelandic!:
Mér finnst ofsalega gaman að tala íslensku!
Source: Lecturer Dr Daisy Neijmann

But Dr Lundskær-Nielsen says the drop-off in languages taken at GCSE level shown in last week's results - French down 14.4% on 2004 figures and German down 13.7% - means Britons will be at a distinct disadvantage in the future.

"It's disastrous that it has been made optional after the age of 14," he said. "I don't think it helps the country at all."

"It doesn't help Britain as part of the EU, with 20 languages now. To downplay the importance of learning a language, that can't be right."

Business link

He said basic opportunities in business and negotiation could be missed, at a time when more and more Icelandic businesses are looking to invest abroad, including the UK.

"You don't just learn the language, you learn the whole culture and background. In all walks of life - trade, politics, people should be familiar with the traits and backgrounds of different cultures," he said.

"You lose out if you don't, if you're dealing or negotiating with people who know your background, but you don't know theirs.

"It's important in higher education that we try to attract as many people to language studies, but it can be difficult if there's a gap between what people have done to 14 and beyond that."

Germanic roots

Modern Icelandic is a Germanic language. Its predecessor, ancient Icelandic, grew out of a common Scandinavian language that existed up until about 1,000AD.

It is complex and difficult, with many grammatical cases - inflectional endings on words - and a rich morphology - the internal structure of words.

But Lecturer Dr Daisy Neijmann said the benefits of learning it were broad: "If you can learn Icelandic, you can learn any language - you can read the sagas in the original and you're pretty close to knowing Old English.


"You also learn lots of nifty words, as Icelandic makes up its own words for new things."

A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said it was committed to increasing the take up of languages at all levels of education.

"If pupils start learning languages at an early age we believe that more of them will be engaged and enthused and want to continue learning languages from age 14 and into adulthood," she said.

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