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The hardest thing about learning Icelandic

Our next guest post [and final one in this round as I’m heading back to Iceland in a couple of days] is from Tom Harper, a loyal reader of this blog who is a masochist fascinated by and intent on learning the Icelandic language. In fact, he spent the summer in Reykjavík learning about declensions and cases and why Alda sometimes changes to Öldu and all that fun stuff. However, as you can read below, the grammar was the least of his worries. Tom’s experiences with Icelandic and the Nicelanders continues tomorrow.


As an Icelandair plane taxis toward its gate at Keflavík International Airport, the bilingual flight attendant makes the usual announcements in both English and Icelandic.  In English, this starts with a cheerful, “Welcome to Iceland”.  In the Icelandic version, however, this same sentiment is rendered as “Velkomin heim”, or “Welcome home”.  I noticed this with a tinge of amusement as my plane landed this last July, when I came to Iceland for an month-long intensive summer course in intermediate Icelandic.

Like many of the readers of this blog (I assume), I’m a self-confessed Icelandophile.  I visited Iceland for the first time last year and fell helplessly in love with everything: the people, the nature, the culture, and, perhaps above all, the language.  In addition to my Icelandic obsession, I’m also one of those “language freaks”.  I have studied linguistics and several languages “for fun”.  I am generally drawn to those languages for which I have an aesthetic or cultural appreciation.  After visiting Iceland just once, the language drew me like a moth to a flame.

Without a doubt, Icelandic is a challenging language,  The grammar makes the initial learning curve for constructing simple sentences steep enough to put off many a beginner.  The pronunciation doesn’t help either, as it contains quirks rarely found in other languages.  The vocabulary doesn’t provide too many hints either (unless you happen to be familiar an Old Norse scholar), as the Icelandic language and its speakers largely reject the loanwords that we are used to seeing across European languages for things like “telephone”, “computer”, or even scientific terminology.

But none of these things is the hardest part about learning Icelandic.

According to my highly credible source Wikipedia, Icelandic has approximately 320,000 speakers.  With such a language community, Icelanders are no strangers to dealing with the outside world in another language.  I have found that they possess impressive English language skills from a relatively young age.

And they don’t hesitate to use them.

Prior to the course, I made a resolution: While in Iceland, I would speak Icelandic as much as possible.  I was not about to spend a month in a classroom for 3 to 4 hours a day learning Icelandic and then waste time using English outside of it.  I already knew that Iceland presented a particularly difficult challenge in this respect, because Icelanders are quick to “make things easier for you” by speaking English.  I knew I would have to be stubborn.

I boarded my plane in London with this at the forefront of my mind.  When the flight attendant came by asking what I wanted to drink, I proudly replied in Icelandic, “vatn” (“water”),   and–squee!–it worked!  I even bought a prepaid-SIM in Icelandic from the duty free cart.  No pain whatsoever. Reality struck when I arrived and took the bus to Reykjavík.  The first thing I did was go to the bus terminal’s cafeteria and buy skyr to satisfy my year-long craving.  Despite attemping to conduct the transaction in Icelandic, the slightly creepy, leering man behind the counter insisted on speaking English.  Fine, I had only spoken in short phrases which any foreigner might know, so maybe he didn’t realise that I spoke Icelandic.

My cab driver was a different story.  I went up to him and told him the address of where I was going to be living.  I stumbled a bit over the name of the street, and apparently this meant that it was English Time™.  This is the only time I can recall where my Icelandic was better than an Icelander’s English.  The cab driver was very nice and wanted to make conversation.  Unfortunately, this degenerated into shouting short phrases and words at me.  I wanted so badly to understand and be nice to him, so I sort of made up a conversation from his words and responded to what I decided he said. He seemed okay with this, although I was very glad that the cab ride was only 5 minutes long.

The first week of the course was total language shock. Inside the classroom, everything was fine.  I could make mistakes, I could ask for a word I didn’t know, and was only talking about grammar. Outside, I finally understood what my resolution really entailed.  Every time I wanted to buy something, order something, eat something, it meant anxiety.  The holes in my vocabulary became completely obvious.  I had to prepare, while in a queue, everything that I wanted to say when I got to the front.  If I got a response I wasn’t expecting, utter panic ensued while I tried to figure out what they said and how I should respond.  The real sting, though, came when a mistake I made, or asking someone to repeat what they thought was simple, drove someone to resort to speaking English to me.  The implicit demand for perfection, or at least a very high standard of grammar and comprehension, made me even twitchier.

Nevertheless, I navigated most interactions totally in Icelandic.  My blood pressure was probably unhealthily high, but I counted each 100% Icelandic interaction as a worthy accomplishment.  After the first week, I had a good sense of the standard phrasings for certain things and had tuned into the language to the extent that new phrases didn’t induce a fight-or-flight response.

During my second week, I was able to more calmly approach Icelandic language situations and started to observe a trend.  A great many Icelanders refused to respond to me in Icelandic, even though I now knew that I was not making any (grievous) mistakes, and some were even addressing me in English before I opened my mouth! I am sure that, at least 99.9% of the time, Icelanders meant no offense by this.  For the average tourist, this probably feels reassuring.  For me, it increased my awareness that the barrier I was facing was not purely linguistic.  An unsolicited greeting in English, or a refusal to speak Icelandic back to me, became a giant finger exclaiming, “Something about you is foreign.”  Suddenly, Icelandair’s translation seemed less amusing and more alienating.  Icelandic was for Icelanders, and English was foreigners.

[To be continued …]



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • hildigunnur August 18, 2010, 11:23 pm

    haha, the shop attendant at Krambúðin (small shop next to Hallgrímskirkja) addressed my husband in English yesterday. When hubby didn’t answer the attendant did a double-take, Ó, fyrirgefðu… So this does happen, even to Icelanders.

    Hope you get more responses in Icelandic from here on.

  • Gunnar August 18, 2010, 11:27 pm

    I believe the proper thing to do is to withhold judgement or comment on your post until it appears in its entirety. I’m looking forward to the rest.

  • kevin oconnor,waterford,ireland August 19, 2010, 12:02 am

    Gott im Himmel, still at least your having a go my tactic is to speak english very loudly and slowly till the natives get to understand, which is probably why all I know is a few phrases in German ha ha.

  • Vicki August 19, 2010, 12:25 am

    Like you, after one short trip last year I absolutely fell in love with Iceland and am completely obsessed, I hope to be able to move there soon. As an old girl, learning the language will be the most difficult challenge for me as I am no linguistic. Coaxing my tongue to perform the gymnastics required for many pronunciations will be laughable and highly amusing, especially for those Icelanders on the other end of the conversation.
    Great post!

  • jim August 19, 2010, 4:30 am

    Can only say that I’m in awe of you Tom.
    Tried to learn to speak Icelandic over three years living there and maybe ended up with 3-400 words. No grammar for me. Too hard and I just needed to understand what was going on around me. Because the family I lived with wanted me to feel welcome they would use English to communicate with each other. ‘Pass the salt please Pabbi’ and such only served to make me feel more awkward.
    My triumph was years later jumping into a cab a meeting a driver who had driven a coach for me for two or so months when I had first arrived. His name was Hreggvidur and he still couldn’t speak more than a handful of English. I on the other hand could now tell him how much I enjoyed meeting him first and re-meeting him and would he kindly take me to Tjartnstig at Seltjarnarness.
    Tom, you are going to be able to read Laxness in the original and Njals and I envy you.

  • Rajan Parrikar August 19, 2010, 7:34 am

    Do you mind transcribing this song for me? It is rendered by Hallbjörn Hjartarson whom I had the pleasure of recently meeting in Skagaströnd.


  • idunn August 19, 2010, 7:44 am

    I respect your resolve and dedication.

    I’m not particularly adept at languages. With any of them the easiest approach might be as a native learned, meaning as a child. They have the advantage of being flexible, knowing nothing, possibly having attentive parents, not to mention literally years to absorb it well.

  • WiseWoman August 19, 2010, 11:11 am

    I took a course in intermediate Icelandic three years ago up in Ísafjörður that is offered at the end of the summer season at the University Center there (Háskólasetur Vestfjarða).

    Ísafjörður is a relatively small place (but they even have – or had – a movie theater there), and everyone knows the crazy German guy who runs the Háskólasetur Vestfjarða (Hæ Pétur!). Before our class started (it was the first one offered) he ran around town and told all the shop keepers to NOT speak English with people trying to speak Icelandic, just with the crazy people who pay to travel on those large ships that dock every day so they can see some “real Iceland”.

    And all the shopkeepers, even the girls at the cash register in the shopping center, refused to speak English with us. It was really great, we were so proud to be able to purchase a thriller by Stella Blómkvist (have they figured out who she really is?) and these unbelievably good French waffles the bakery makes.

  • Aidan August 19, 2010, 11:45 am

    Nice one. I am really looking forward to part two. I noticed the same thing with speaking Swedish in Sweden and Dutch in my first years in Holland (when I moved here 10 years ago). In countries where people generally speak English well they often switch over by default unless you speak their language at near native level.
    It always amuses me because English speakers often get criticized if they haven’t picked up the language of the country after six months.
    – Why don’t you speak X if you have already been here for a year?
    – Oh let me see. Maybe because you guys keep replying in English every time I attempt to to speak X.
    In that respect learning French or Spanish say is much easier 😉

  • JimJones August 19, 2010, 2:25 pm

    Ahh yes, Icelandic. My somewhat old nemisis. One of the three reasons that Iceland is for visiting, spending money, and leaving. The others, btw, are employment and dating. I love Iceland dearly ever since I visited in April but(for me at least) it is for visiting, not living.

    On an unusual note, I actually had the exact opposite problem when I visited. For reasons I have yet to fully understand, people mistook me for a local and just refused to speak English to me. A particularly awkward conversation at the Museum of Photography comes to mind. I think it was the corderoy blazer and fedora.

  • vikingisson August 19, 2010, 2:27 pm

    I’m with you on falling in love with Iceland and the language. It sounds beautiful to my ears. As an old fella this is a very difficult language to learn and for the other reasons as mentioned. Immersion is a great method but not so easy when their English is generally so good.

    I hope to be able to go back and stay much longer, I want to learn the language. I think that by keeping a tv or radio blasting as much as possible might help but then I’d miss the outdoors where I really want to be, and then bump into English too easily.

    Even the hobos speak English. Indeed, going into small town South America is a much easier way to immerse oneself in Spanish. Almost missing a connection and getting stuck without money gained me months worth of skills in 30 minutes.

    Volunteer at a retirement home where English is less likely? Find an Icelandic girlfriend? (anyone in the Toronto area want to help out an anglophone?)

    bless bless.

  • Jon August 19, 2010, 5:56 pm

    I am in awe of your ambitious drive to learn. As someone in early geezerhood, I find learning new languages to be very difficult without someone to help practice. Heck, English is difficult enough for a native speaker.

  • Joerg August 19, 2010, 7:28 pm

    I have heard similar experiences from people, who tried to apply their learned Icelandic and it has been the same for me in Norway with my limited Norwegian language skills .

    The hardest thing about learning Icelandic for me is to find an appropriate language course near the place, where I live. Unfortunately, there is no one on offer. I have tried self-study and have got some ideas about pronunciation but without proper instruction by a native speaker it’s just too frustrating. Hopefully, some day I will have the time to spend a summer in Iceland just for the sake of learning the language.

    For the time being I have changed over to learning Spanish, which is apparently much easier to learn and makes a great experience, when applying the language. People in Spanish speaking countries are usually pretty patient, when communicating with language novices and they don’t switch into English very easily. And different from French and French people, they are lenient toward usage of wrong grammar. The hardest thing in this case is, that those, who are not familiar with the concept of foreign languages, tend to perceive any listening comprehension problem as hearing impairment. So, instead of rephrasing they repeat the same, just a bit louder.

  • Knute Rife August 19, 2010, 7:37 pm

    I would submit that the hardest thing about learning Icelandic is the same thing as is hardest in English: learning which parts of words to slur over or leave out altogether.

  • ÁB August 19, 2010, 7:53 pm

    Hvaða, hvaða! Erum við svona erfið?
    Góður pistill og ég hlakka til að lesa framhaldið, ég fylgist með iceland weather report til að æfa mig í enskunni. 😉
    Og WiseWoman, nei við vitum ekki ennþá hver skrifar Stellu Blómkvist!

  • Nevin August 20, 2010, 1:16 am

    I remember being inordinately pleased when I asked a Japanese woman accompanied by two small, identically-faced girls “Musumesan-tachi wa, issho ni umareta n desu ka?” (Were your daughters born together?) and receiving the unhesitating but helpful answer, “Hai, fuatgo desu.” (Yes, they’re twins.)

    I’m occasionally tempted to learn Suomi, but I think Irish has to come first.

  • Mike Richards August 20, 2010, 12:30 pm

    Hi Tom,

    You’re a brave man. Last summer I met an English lady who now lives in Iceland and she said much the same story – the sheer difficulty of stopping Icelanders ‘practicing their English’ when such is their proficiency that they could work for the BBC, and the gaps in her vocabulary. One bit I really liked was that she could only ever remember the number five, so when she went shopping it was five apples, five loaves of bread…

    As for me, I am terrifyingly monolingual. I’ve done French and German, even attempted Swedish; but everytime it comes to actually using the language for real, its a few words, a lot of ‘erms’ and then an embarrassed ‘do you speak English?’

  • C. A.K August 20, 2010, 12:52 pm

    “A great many Icelanders refused to respond to me in Icelandic, even though I now knew that I was not making any (grievous) mistakes, and some were even addressing me in English before I opened my mouth! I am sure that, at least 99.9% of the time, Icelanders meant no offense by this. For the average tourist, this probably feels reassuring. For me, it increased my awareness that the barrier I was facing was not purely linguistic. An unsolicited greeting in English, or a refusal to speak Icelandic back to me, became a giant finger exclaiming, “Something about you is foreign.” Suddenly, Icelandair’s translation seemed less amusing and more alienating. Icelandic was for Icelanders, and English was foreigners.”

    Haha.. The icelandic national sentiment… It really make you realize how remote and isolated this place is from the rest of the world – with a notion of, that the icelanders doesn´t realize this for themselfes. Or at least, they don´t realize just how remote and how isolated they are. Which is quite funny, as they also like to consider themselves as always being an important if not trendsetting part of ‘the loop’.

  • Simon Brooke August 20, 2010, 6:23 pm

    You speak for me, there, Tom. I would love to learn Icelandic, but I’ve never managed to get an Icelander to speak to me in it. It’s almost as if they were ashamed of it; or else as it it were the secret language of a criminal fraternity or arcane cult.


    I may try one of these immersion courses, one day!

  • james wesneski August 23, 2010, 1:57 pm

    i phuqqing hate this attitude of Icelanders responding in English. If they do, start speaking super fast and include black or southern slang or whatever so they won’t understand, then, when they look quizzically at you because they don’t understand, ask them ‘You don’ hang with the lingo bro? What it is, word.’

  • Marie August 29, 2010, 5:33 pm

    Getting drunk in French was how I got fluent…. I intend to try it in Spanish too! It helps with the fear of being wrong and the embarassment. Good luck Tom.

  • Pieter van Pelt September 30, 2010, 1:34 pm

    Tom, I am in awe.. Icelandic is not for pussies, that’s for sure. I tried a few weeks from a self-learning book, but the pronunciation was just too difficult. But on another note: if you look carefully at Icelandic text, there are so many old-English words to be recognized that some 20-30% of the words can be understood, I think.
    As for Suomi (Finnish): forget it all together. That language is very easy to speak (completely phonetic), but the grammar is horrible with some 16 cases / declensions to handle things like: on the table, under the table, near the table, toward the table, away from the table etcetera, both in singular and plural.

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