Iceland is increasingly becoming a hugely popular travel destination, with millions of people visiting each year. Many people are drawn to the icy landscapes including world renowned wonders such as the blue lagoon. But how many of these visitors take up the challenge to learn Icelandic in Iceland? My guess would be not many. Icelandic is notorious for its complex grammar and difficulty to learn.
Personally, I am fascinated by Iceland and Icelandic language, but I have not had a chance to travel to Iceland or learn Icelandic in Iceland. So this week, to continue my languages around the world series, I am handing it over to fellow polyglot traveller, Anja from Voyaging Viking, to describe her experience learning Icelandic in Iceland.
While I was growing up in the Pacific Northwest, my mother and her family would often speak Icelandic with each other and eventually their children. In Washington State, there is a fairly large number of Icelandic Americans and I was lucky enough to meet them.
My mother’s family emigrated from Iceland so I grew up with phrases and colloquialisms. As I grew older, we joined the local Icelandic Club but it wasn’t enough! I studied Icelandic for about 6 months before traveling to Iceland for the first time when I was 15. I only had very basic knowledge before I returned after high school to learn Icelandic in Iceland and stay for two years. Unfortunately, I’ve lost a lot of my Icelandic due to lack of use but I still work to keep my skills in the conversational range.
How to Stay in Iceland
If you are from the EU, the US, and select other countries (including Australia and New Zealand) you do not need a visa to enter Iceland. You can get a tourist visa for up to 90 days. Any longer, you will need to apply for a residence permit, provide proof of enrollment in an Icelandic university, or a contract of employment from an employer in Iceland. For more information, or to check if you need a visa, head to this website.
The University of Iceland hosts a large amount of foreign students. Upon acceptance, students can get their visa and stay in the dorms or work with campus personnel to arrange housing. If you get a residence permit, you can work with the Icelandic government and they will assist you in finding housing and work.
I was lucky in that I have extensive family that lives in Iceland. Most of my family lives in the eastern fjords which are fairly isolated as compared to Reykjavik. If you are serious about learning Icelandic, you should move away from Reykjavik.
There are expats and a large amount of tourists and business people that go through Reykjavik so you will have a smaller chance in having a thorough Icelandic conversation.
Languages in Iceland
English in Iceland
Study of the English language is required in Icelandic schools. Generally, people under 50 years old can speak English fairly well. People that live in Reykjavik especially have a good command of the English language.
In eastern Iceland, while they generally know English, they do not use it as much and many aren’t as confident in their English skills. In small towns, some people likely won’t speak English at all. These kind of environments force you to use and practice the language.
Icelanders do like to practice the English language. When people would realize I was from America, they would often switch and I would have to request we speak in Icelandic so I could practice. There is a considerable amount of American media in Iceland, especially in Reykjavik, and the internet really strengthens the language’s importance abroad.
It is, however, rude to assume that everyone will speak English with you. Not everyone is confident in their English skills and it is Iceland after all. Play it safe and approach with Icelandic first.
Icelandic in Iceland
Icelandic is only spoken in Iceland. Iceland is a very isolated country and Icelandic is often categorized as “pure” or “insular”. The language has not been largely affected by other languages because of its limited interaction with other countries until recently.
Icelandic is one of the closest languages to the original Old Norse spoken by the Vikings (the other being Faroese, spoken in parts of Denmark). The Vikings originated from Denmark and settled in Norway and brought their language to the rest of Scandinavia. Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish have all had influences from their neighbors and have drifted from Old Norse. Iceland was isolated throughout history with few immigrants or visits by neighboring countries. The language, for the most part, has remained the same.
Some remnants of Old Norse:
- The letter Ðð: the “Eth” as it is called in Icelandic was used in Old English and Old Norse. In other Scandinavian languages, the ð has been replaced with a d. In Icelandic, it sounds like the “th” in “that”. It is a voiced “th” noise (phonetics: ð).
- The letter Þþ: the “thorn” was used in Old Norse and Old English as well. It is replaced by “th” in English and other Scandinavian languages. It is a non-voiced “th” like in “breath” (phonetics: θ).
- The double ll: I haven’t found this sound in any other language. It is made by putting the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth while making the “k” noise with the back of the throat. Air should be pushed around your teeth and against your cheeks. Try to smile or open your mouth slightly so that the air can pass through and the sound is clear (phonetics: tl̥).
Icelandic grammar is known to be difficult. Some features of Icelandic are:
- There are four grammatical cases: accusative, nominative, dative, and genitive.
- There are three gender categories: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Icelandic also uses three voices: active, passive and middle.
- There are strong and weak nouns.
Grammatical gender isn’t usually too bad. But unfortunately, Icelandic does not use any articles. Words for “the” and “a” are instead included in the nouns. It can be difficult to determine the case, the gender, and the overall meaning of a sentence because of the irregular changes.
We have an irregular pattern for noun declension when using an indefinite article (like “a”):
For instance, we can look at the translations of the English word “hat” which is masculine in Icelandic.
Or the word for “thing”:
This form is very common for feminine nouns:
The use of a definite article (“the”) basically creates new patterns for noun declension:
Polish in Iceland
Polish is the second most spoken language in Iceland second only to Icelandic. There are many Polish immigrants in Iceland. Many Poles that live in Iceland tend to stay in their communities and learn Icelandic at a basic level or use their German skills to interact with the locals. It depends, but if you encounter any Poles they may not speak Icelandic. The children will learn Icelandic in school generally but the parents may barely learn Icelandic or English. The Polish language and culture is strong in Iceland because of this.
Danish in Iceland
Icelanders learn English and Danish in the Icelandic school system. You will see signs in both languages and find that the general population is fairly fluent in both of these languages. They are, however, secondary to Icelandic.
German in Iceland
Many Icelanders can also speak or understand a good part of German.
I’ve reached level C1 in German and have found a lot of similarities between Icelandic and German. There are similar words and sounds that have both helped and confused me in my language studies.
Translation of “yes”
With that being said, Icelandic and German are not mutually intelligible. Icelanders can understand a bit of German without studying it but a German may struggle with the sounds and noun endings of Icelandic.
People and culture in Iceland
Coming from America, Icelanders do seem abrasive upon first meeting them. It can be intimidating to practice your second (or third, or fourth!) language with someone who doesn’t look to be very happy.
It’s important to remember that the stoic outward appearance and tendency to keep to themselves is just a difference in culture. It can be seen across Europe but it is very strong in Iceland.
However, Icelanders are usually pretty impressed with foreigners who dedicate themselves to learning even a bit of Icelandic. They know their language is difficult for others to learn and therefore appreciate it when foreigners take the time to learn Icelandic or even just a bit about the culture. Icelanders are known for being fairly direct so don’t be alarmed or offended if they correct your grammar or accent.
Icelanders are proud of their language and how pure it has remained despite the world becoming more and more globalized. They can largely understand original texts written hundreds, even thousands of years ago because of the linguistic purism. Many Icelanders are fearful that with their low population, Icelandic may die out.
How to learn Icelandic in Iceland
It can be hard to find comprehensive materials to learn Icelandic and even harder to find a teacher, class, or private tutor. Moving to Iceland made my studying of the Icelandic language really take off. I know that without having lived there, I wouldn’t have become conversational, let alone fluent. I was lucky enough to have a tutor in Seattle who was a native Icelandic speaker who provided weekly private lessons and learning materials.
Icelandic is tough and has some unfamiliar sounds and rules that don’t always make sense. The best way to learn Icelandic isn’t by studying the grammar – there are too many exceptions to the rules and nuances to learn. Study the sounds and learn sentences together. It is the most practical and useful way to learn Icelandic.
In learning a language, especially Icelandic, you will make mistakes. Be okay with making mistakes as it is a great way to learn and make sure you don’t make those mistakes again. Don’t let the fear of making mistakes hold you back from practicing Icelandic!
> Further reading: things to do in Iceland
Anja is a writer, language enthusiast, and avid traveler that traveling to historical sites around the world and immersing herself in the local culture and language. Bit by the travel bug back in 2009, Anja is currently living as an expat and documenting her (mis)adventures on her travel and language blog, the Voyaging Viking.
> If you are interested in learning Icelandic in Iceland, comment below as we’d love to know your thoughts!