Learning Icelandic in a Tin Can Factory

When I first arrived to the country, a friend told me about an alternative Icelandic school called Tin Can Factory, so I decided to check it out.

I was expecting something more factory-like when I first walked into the school the next day. There were a few unique characteristics: a shared kitchen, herbs laid out neatly on a table and a guitar resting against the wall. However, everything else was typical of a school setting: multiple classrooms, whiteboards and a reception in the front with a smiling lady.

That lady was Gígja Svavarsdóttir, who started the school in 2008 when she moved back to Iceland without a job, ironically arriving on the day the country’s first bank collapsed.

Instead of searching for work in a difficult job climate, she decided to be entrepreneurial—the general spirit many Icelanders hold—and started her own school. Her first class was held in the living room of her tiny Reykjavík apartment.

“The first group that knocked on my front door was a group of deaf foreigners who had been studying Icelandic with me online,” she says. “They said to me, ‘Since you are back here in Iceland we want to have a speaking class.’”

Gígja couldn’t have imagined that the first class she’d teach Icelandic to would be a group of students who were deaf. It ended up being a rewarding experience though, which inspired her to build a school that celebrates diversity and inclusion.

“It’s important that if we are working for peace, we have to know each other,” she says. “We can’t be isolated with just the people we can communicate with or the people who share our background.”

There is an old saying that says, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.”

This happens a lot in Iceland, she tells me. Some foreigners group together and do not integrate with the Icelandic community. When I first arrived in Iceland, many people told me that Icelanders are reserved and hard to forge friendships with. I didn’t experience this at all; everyone was very warm and welcoming to me. However, I have heard stories from English-speaking friends and colleagues who have had a difficult time integrating.

Though ég er að læra íslensku (I am learning Icelandic), I recognize my privilege in English fluency, whereas other immigrants here come from countries that speak Thai or Arabic. Usually they have a longing to integrate into the community, but the communication barriers are difficult. Icelandic becomes a gateway for them to feel a sense of belonging in the community.

What I liked the most about Tin Can Factory is the experiential nature of the classes. This is where the word “alternative” comes into play. There is an intentional effort to take students outside the walls of the classroom, she says.

We took trips into nature to identify and forage for plants and herbs. Every Thursday, we cooked together as a class. When we were learning the colors, we visited an art museum and talked to artists. We learned about the history of Iceland on a walking tour throughout the city. All of these experiences were done solely in Icelandic.

Gígja says she wants to put the “cool” back in school.

On the final day of class, each student prepared a dish that represented their home country. It was a potluck focused on cross-cultural sharing, which is the main vision of the school.

Fellow students led us in songs—completely in Icelandic—and Nýdönsk’s “Hjálpaðu mér upp” was a class favorite after a group of us heard it performed at Menningarnótt (Culture Night).

Learning Icelandic has helped me experience the country on a deeper level that transcends the nature and music scene for which it is often stereotypically appreciated.

The best part of Tin Can Factory, however, was to be a part of a community that had a shared goal of bridging the distance between foreigners and locals. This is especially important in a country like Iceland where tourism is booming and immigration a hot topic of discussion, things I can relate to coming from Hawaii. If we can bring people together in meaningful ways in the process and help others feel a sense of belonging, that’s even better.

2 thoughts on “Learning Icelandic in a Tin Can Factory

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