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Article Reviewed:

 Börestam, 2015: “Excuse me, but can you tell me where the Nordic House is located?
Linguistic strategies in inter-Nordic communication in Iceland illustrated
through participant observation”, in Linguistics: An Interdisciplinary Journal of
the Language Sciences, vol. 53, pp. 219-254

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The article, “Excuse
me, but can you tell me where the Nordic House is located? Linguistic
strategies in inter-Nordic communication in Iceland illustrated through
participant observation” by Ulla Börestam aims to investigate Icelanders’
choice of language in speaking to other Nordic speakers who do not speak
Icelandic, and how this has changed in recent decades. The researchers used a
modified form of participant observation in which they engaged participants aged
between 15 and 20, chosen at random from off the street, in an unexpected
conversation in a Nordic language other than Icelandic. The field workers from
mainland Scandinavia – i.e., Denmark, Sweden, and Norway – approached participants
and asked in their respective native languages for directions to the Nordic
House, a cultural institution created to promote relations between
Nordic-speaking countries. The study was initially carried out in 1983, and
then repeated twice over the course of 23 years, once in 1999/2004 and once in
2006, and found that the proportion of those who comprehended the other Nordic
languages decreased by over 30 percentage points between 1999 and 2006, while
the proportion of those who preferred to speak in English rose by around 50
percentage points. Also of note is that the proportion of participants who were
noted as giving up (p. 229) (i.e., did not understand the question and did not
successfully attempt to respond) decreased by around 25 percentage points, thus
giving credence to the idea of English as a modern lingua franca in Scandinavia.

Research question, hypothesis, and purpose

The purpose of the study is made clear in the title of the
paper – they wished to investigate the “linguistic strategies in inter-Nordic
communication in Iceland” (p. 219). The research question of the study is not
ever explicitly asked in question form, but the subject of the research is made
clear – they were investigating whether “the respondents managed to
understand and did they continue in a Scandinavian language or switch
languages, presumably to English.” (p. 220) This seems unambiguous and easy
enough to investigate. I was, however, unable to find a hypothesis anywhere in
the paper. This could be due to the fact that the paper was written after all
three studies were carried out; however, it still may have been beneficial to
include their hypothesis at the time of the initial research in the paper, as
this would further clarify for readers exactly what the team was working



The article includes an abstract, as is standard in modern research
papers, and I feel the abstract does a good job of summarising the background,
the methods used, and the results of the study, which is useful for anyone who
may be looking for relevant research. It also includes keywords at the end of
the abstract, which makes it even easier for someone searching through articles
to find the paper.



The introduction introduces both the sociological and the
personal background of the study. The author begins by briefly describing her
experiences carrying out the original study done in 1983, which I feel gives
the reader some good context for the later expansion of the study. We are then,
however, presented with three long paragraphs on the social background of the
paper. Although it is important to understand the historical context of the
changing attitudes towards foreign languages, I feel this may be too long, as
it takes focus away from the study itself, so perhaps some more concision would
be more effective.

After the explanation of relevant history, the author
explains what the rest of the paper will contain, meaning the reader will have
to wade through the several paragraphs of context to find the contents. I
believe that this would have been more useful at the beginning of the
introduction, as it saves the reader time by immediately showing them which
parts of the paper they may find relevant.

The rest of the introduction is separated by two headings, “Prerequisites for inter-Nordic
communications in Iceland” (p. 221) and “Other research using participant observation” (p. 225). The first
section describes the linguistic background of the situation among Scandinavian
languages, which is quite useful, as the subject matter is not generally common
knowledge among those outside of Iceland. It also reviews some other recent
literature about the subject, which strengthens the stance of the paper overall
by backing its methods through other reputable research.

The second section provides further literature reviews,
particularly pertaining to the method itself. The author then describes the
similarities between her own research and these studies, which, again, gives
more credibility to the methods used. However, she does not explain very deeply
how her study differs from these, and in fact barely provides a comparison at
all for the second reviewed piece of literature, providing mostly just an
overview of the paper.

Research Design and methodology

This section of the paper does a good job of explaining the
researcher’s methods and how she came to decide upon them. The researcher
explains in the introduction that she was inspired by a study run by Labov
(1966) in which he acted as a patron to a department store and asked for the
location of a product found on the fourth floor. The methods used here and in
that study were very similar, but one major difference between the two is the
sample size. Whereas Labov interviewed 264 subjects, with between 68 and 125
subjects in each location (2006: 46), the field workers in Iceland interviewed
only 120 subjects with 40 subjects in each language in the 1983 and 1999/2004
studies (p. 230), and 60 subjects in the 2006 update, with 28 or 32 subjects in
each language (p. 242). I feel this is a major weakness in the study,
particularly in the 2006 update, as 40 interviews does not seem like enough to
extrapolate to the entire population, particularly for a quantitative analysis.
Due to this, she is even forced to examine all three languages as a single
block in the conclusion (p. 248), which overall weakens the analysis.

The Participant Observation method is generally used for
collecting qualitative data, but this study was more geared towards a
quantitative analysis. I feel this, too, weakens the overall quality of the
study, as they could have used other methods to collect more qualitative data
while preserving the quantitative side. One such way of doing this would be by
employing a similar method to Sabaté-Dalmau (2016), in which thirty students at
a Catalonian university were instructed to write “argumentative essays … on
the topic of English as a lingua franca” (p. 267). By analysing the contents of
the essay, she was able to determine the attitudes towards English, not just
the proportion of speakers. Doing this in conjunction with the interviews could
have given Börestam a more balanced analysis and revealed the reasons for the

I feel that the researcher chose a good question to ask
participants, and she described how she decided on the question after careful
thought. She decided upon asking for directions, as that makes it an open
question, and the Nordic House was chosen because it is an institution most denizens
would be familiar with (p. 227). However, as is mentioned in the paper, they
became less and less familiar with the Nordic House with as time went on, so
many participants did not know what the researcher was asking them (p. 228).
This situation could have been avoided by spending more time in Reykjavik, as
would be standard with the Participant Observation method, and then modifying
the question to be more universally understood. Another alternative would be to
have decided upon something more ubiquitous and robust, such as the university
or the airport, which she could have been assured would not have been subject
to waning familiarity. What the field workers decided upon doing was continuing
the conversation further and clarifying what the Nordic House was near (pp. 228
– 229). I feel that this may have, in fact, been overall beneficial to the
study, as it allowed them to continue the conversation beyond simply the
directions, and thus gave them more qualitative data to analyse.

The participants in the study represent the larger
demographic well, as Reykjavik is where the vast majority of Icelanders live. If
the researcher wanted to get a more complete view of the situation, she could
have travelled to some more rural areas of the country to determine whether or
not these trends are only among urban citizens or if they are universal across
all of Iceland. However, given the harsh geography and sparse population
distribution of the rest of Iceland, this would probably become quite
impractical and expensive to research, so I can understand why she opted not to
do that. Another problem with carrying out the study in Reykjavik, is that,
being both the official and cultural capital of the country, there is a sizeable
tourism industry in the city, so a number of tourists could have affected the
results of the study. Börestam does mention that “field workers were also told
… to exclude those who said they were unfamiliar with the Nordic House
because they were not from Reykjavík” (pp. 227 – 228), which does mitigate this
problem somewhat; but if a tourist was unable to understand or respond to the
question and was marked as ‘giving up’ by the field workers, this would have provided
unwanted data that does not represent the overall sample.

The field-workers were not told to consider any factors
about the participants other than their age (p. 227). This could largely be due
to limitations of the anonymous nature of the study, but factors such as social
class, annual income, or educational attainment level could have yielded
different results. It may be possible that the decrease in inter-Nordic
comprehension is not due to declining interest in language learning in Iceland,
but perhaps due to other economic or social factors affecting the availability
of second language teaching. To verify whether or not this was the case, the
researchers could have gone into different parts of the city – the university,
the town centre, less affluent areas, etc. – to determine any differences in
comprehension caused by demography.


In the 2006 update of the study, only one field-worker was
used, and all interviews were conducted in either Danish or Swedish, leaving
Norwegian out of the study. There were both benefits and drawbacks to this. On
the positive side, the results would not have been affected by the differences
between field workers, as was noted writing about the first and second studies.
She also mentions that, they “were also able to compare the Danish interviews
from 2006 with those done in 1999, since those interviews were done by the same
field worker.” (p. 242) However, using the same field-worker for two languages
meant that she would have to collect twice as much data as if it were only one
language, which was prevented by time constraints; only around 30 interviews were
done in each language this time, compared with the already somewhat small
sample size of 40 in each language done in previous updates. It also meant that
the final results of the 2006 study may have been affected by the field worker
in some way – for example, her pronunciation, her appearance, her age, or other
factors – and may not represent the statistics as a whole. To ensure that the
results were not affected by the field worker, another field worker should have
been found to repeat the study. Finally, only using this single field worker caused
Norwegian to be left out of the final results, making it harder to provide a
complete overview of the situation regarding the three different languages.


Overall, the study does quite a good job of investigating
what it set out to, i.e., “attitudes towards inter-Nordic communication in
Iceland”, but is weakened by its small sample size and mostly quantitative analysis.
To strengthen the study overall, the researchers could have used further
methods to collect more qualitative data.


Börestam, U. (2015) ‘Excuse
me, but can you tell me where the Nordic House is located? Linguistic
strategies in inter-Nordic communication in Iceland illustrated through
participant observation’, Linguistics: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the
Language Sciences, 53: 219-254

Labov, W. (2006) The
Social Stratification of English in New York City, 2nd ed. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press

Sabaté-Dalmau, M. (2016) ‘The Englishisation of higher education in Catalonia: a critical
sociolinguistic ethnographic approach to the students’ perspectives’,
Language, Culture, and Curriculum, 29: 263-285

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