ELSA SIGRIÐUR JONSDOTTIR
During the last few years a multi-cultural society has developed in Iceland. The
play schools are faced with new challenges of caring for and teaching children
whose first language is not Icelandic and who are accustomed to different cultures,
habits and paradigms than are the norm in Iceland.
Cultural diversity has been increasing in most countries over the last few
decades. The concept relates to a variety of cultural and social aspects which shape
the lives of people, e.g. nationality, disability, age, sex or religion. Conflicts between
groups are one of the largest problems of societies and therefore it is urgent to
understand the situation of different groups within the societies. Recently policy
work on the issue of minorities in the Nordic countries has been based on the idea
of integration. This means that minority groups keep their own culture, language
and characteristics at the same time as they understand the culture of the majority.
People will be equally at home in two different cultures, speak two languages, have
two sets of customs, values and ways of communicating.
The number of people of foreign origin is increasing rapidly in Iceland. Holders
of foreign passports were 2.66% of the inhabitants at the end of 1999. It is estimated
that about 60 languages are spoken as a mother tongue here in Iceland. Research
has shown that a good command of the first language is a prerequisite to gaining a
good command of a second one. The play schools have recently started to show an
interest in bilingual children who have not had formal instruction in their own
language or in Icelandic, but little has been done to incorporate their cultures into
the play school community.
The article deals with three pre-school children, Kristín, Lárus and Perla. They
have one Icelandic parent and one foreign. They are all in the same play school,
Barnaborg. Each of them lives in two cultures and are bilingual, as they understand
and make themselves understood in two languages. Kristín, who has a parent from
Thailand, had poorly developed language abilities when she started play school.
She was brought up to become Icelandic and therefore her mother spoke to her in
Icelandic, but she had been living in Iceland for one year when Kristín was born.
Lárus was two and a half years old when he moved to lceland from France. He had
only a limited command of French and when the family moved to Iceland his
language development stopped completely. Lárus had a hard time during the first
months in the play school because he did not understand anybody and could not
make himself understood. Perla is half Chinese. Her main language is Icelandic,
because her upbringing has been mainly in the hands of her Icelandic grandparents
on her father's side.
The mothers of these three children have not found their place in Icelandic
society. They have not made many Icelandic friends and have had problems in
adjusting to Icelandic customs. They see both positive and negative sides to the
society. Marie from France appreciates the freedom and the relative absence of
pollution and violence. Li from China thinks that the upbringing in Iceland lacks
discipline and that it is difficult for Icelandic youth to make the transition to