How To Learn Icelandic (Beginner's Guide)
- Written byJohann Brennan
- Read time14 mins
Want to learn Icelandic?
Íslenska (the Icelandic language) is mainly spoken in Iceland, but you’ll find native speakers across the globe - particularly in Denmark, Canada, and the US.
It’s a beautiful language with a fascinating history, and knowing Icelandic will enrich your travel experience in Iceland.
If you’re eager to become one of the few people who speak the language, follow this guide to learn Icelandic.
Table Of Contents
- The Icelandic language 🇮🇸
- Why learn Icelandic?
- How to learn Icelandic
- Learn the alphabet
- Learn the numbers
- Learn the most common Icelandic words
- Practice speaking Icelandic
- Choose your Icelandic resources
- Resources for learning Icelandic
- Apps for learning Icelandic
- Icelandic grammar breakdowns, textbooks, and dictionaries
- Icelandic vocabulary builders and word games
- Icelandic texts, fiction, and movies
- Inspiring and useful texts and fiction
- Movies to learn Icelandic
- Icelandic videos and classes on YouTube
- Other resources for learning Icelandic
- Learning Icelandic FAQ
- What is the easiest way to learn Icelandic?
- How long does it take to learn Icelandic?
- Is the Icelandic language dying?
- Is it worth it to learn Icelandic?
- Is Icelandic hard to learn?
The Icelandic language 🇮🇸
Icelandic is the official language of Iceland.
It’s an ancient language that’s closely related to other West Scandinavian languages, such as Faroese and Norwegian.
Interestingly, Iceland’s language regulator has an active policy of coining older Icelandic terms, words, and phrases instead of borrowing from other languages.
Because of this, the language is not too different from old Norse, and as a result, Icelandic speakers can often read old Norse text from the 10th century.
What better reason to learn Icelandic than to open up a world of rich, ancient texts? 😊
Some consider Icelandic to be a hard language.
While the language includes very long words and complex conjugations, the rewards are well worth the effort.
So, whether you want to learn Icelandic to impress your friends, take a trip to Iceland, or simply want a challenge, this guide will help you.
Why learn Icelandic?
Icelandic isn’t one of the most common languages in the world. In fact, surprisingly few people (outside of Iceland) speak Icelandic.
However, that’s no reason not to pick Icelandic as a second language.
Like any skill, Icelandic fluency will be hugely beneficial and rewarding.
- Iceland is a small island with a small population. However, with their official language under your belt, you’ll be able to converse with all 350,000 native speakers in their homeland.
- You can travel more enjoyably throughout Iceland.
The country is beautiful. Even if you’re not fluent, understanding Icelandic will allow you the freedom and confidence to explore the magnificent Icelandic scenery.
- Learning Icelandic will help train your brain and improve long-term mental health (like all language learning).
- Bilinguals generally earn more money - languages like Icelandic are valuable in Europe.
- It will help you learn other Scandinavian languages.
While Icelandic isn’t the same as Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish, they are related and mutually beneficial. Once you know one, it’ll make learning the others a lot easier.
- Discover old Norse texts.
As mentioned, Icelandic is relatively unchanged, and most speakers can easily read texts over a thousand years old.
How to learn Icelandic
So, what’s the best way to master this unique language?
There is a lot to consider, from speaking skills to reading and writing. Everyone’s language learning approach is different.
However, I have a few basic steps to help you learn Icelandic.
1. Learn the Icelandic alphabet
You may have seen Icelandic words written out.
They’re long with lots of accents and new symbols. Don’t worry - the alphabet isn’t too different from our own.
Icelandic orthography bases itself on the Latin alphabet, like English and other European languages.
In addition to our 26 characters, Icelandic has duplicated letters with acute accents and extra characters.
New letters (and acute accented characters) you will see in Icelandic include:
- Ð (eth - transliterated as ‘d’. Icelandic words never start with ð, the capitalised version - Ð - is rarely used in written Icelandic.)
- Þ (thorn - transliterated as ‘th’)
Icelanders call these ten extra letters séríslenskur (meaning, ‘specially Icelandic’).
Although, you’ll find eth in Faroese and Elfdalian and the thorn in many dead languages, including Old English.
Icelandic learners should quickly pick up the new alphabet.
2. Learn Icelandic numbers
Learning Icelandic will be extremely useful to further your knowledge of the language as a whole. Understanding the basics will improve your grammar and Icelandic vocabulary.
Numbers one to 20 are unique.
Above 20, we add a digit to the ten.
It’s also helpful to know that when a number ends in a one, the noun after it is singular.
For instance, you would say “thirty-one man” (þrjátíu og einn karl), not “men”.
4. Learn the most common Icelandic words
Whether you have opted for textbooks, literature, film, or any other resources, you should begin to learn the most frequent Icelandic words.
Some courses suggest you learn up to 500 of the most common words; others recommend 200.
It doesn’t matter how many words you learn - the trick is not to overwhelm your brain.
You want to commit your learning to long-term memory.
Don’t try to cram every Icelandic word into your head at once.
Consider which words will be most practical and relevant to you and find a technique.
For instance, you could try flashcards or a vocabulary-drilling app (see below).
5. Practice speaking Icelandic
The Icelandic accent is quite different from English or other central European ones.
However, you’ll never grasp the language unless you practice speaking Icelandic.
The best way to practice pronunciation is to speak with an Icelandic native.
If you don’t have the time or money to jump on a plane to Iceland, I highly recommend italki.
This platform helps you connect with Icelandic speakers - both teachers and tutors - to practise with online.
3. Choose your Icelandic resources
Once you have the letters and numbers down, it’s time to advance to the next learning stage of Icelandic.
The key to your success is finding the right resources.
For instance, you could take Icelandic lessons online or immerse yourself in Icelandic culture with books, films, and music.
From textbooks to radio shows, there is no shortage of ways to teach Icelandic to yourself.
Pay attention to how you learn.
If you know you’ll zone out in a classroom setting and spend your first lesson staring out the window, consider less traditional methods to study Icelandic.
6. Use an app to learn Icelandic
We spend so much of our daily lives on the go that it’s hard to find the time and effort to sit down and learn a new language.
Fortunately, there are many valuable and time-saving language-learning apps to help you.
Some are free while others cost money - how do you know if the cost is worth it?
Fortunately, I have recommendations below for the best apps available to assist you as you learn Icelandic.
Resources for learning Icelandic
Best apps to learn how to speak Icelandic
How do you find the right app for you with so much choice?
Luckily for you, I’ve narrowed down the top ten apps to learn how to speak Icelandic.
- Pimsleur - Each lesson helps build your fluency with essential vocabulary, grammar, and conversation skills. It has 30 lessons suitable for beginners and pros. Plus, you can learn multiple languages at the same time.
- Optilingo - Skip the flashcards and memorisation techniques. Optilingo encourages you to learn Icelandic through conversations with native speakers.
- Drops - A free platform, Drops offers a unique and dynamic way to learn languages. It boasts beautiful aesthetics and interactive vocabulary lessons.
- Label Icelandic - Intending to make Icelandic accessible to everybody, Label Icelandic, is an easy and thorough course that guides you through the basics.
- Clozemaster - This app has games, quizzes, and a range of learning tools to help you learn Icelandic online. If competition motivates you, try Clozemaster.
- Mango Languages - Using colour coding recognition, this relatively new player helps you learn patterns in Icelandic. Plus, it offers personalised reviews to keep you on track.
- Bluebird Languages - With over 2,000 pre-recorded lessons, Bluebird Languages allows you to select the most relevant courses to your current job, skill level, and learning goals.
- Memrise - A community-based platform for beginners and advanced learnings, Memrise offers various user-made learning content, games, and flashcards.
- italki - Do you want to learn with an Icelandic speaker? Italki matches you with professional or community teachers to help you improve your studies.
- Preply - Preply provides a virtual classroom setting to allow you to learn live with an Icelandic tutor.
Icelandic grammar breakdowns, textbooks, and dictionaries
While apps and online tools can help you speed up your language learning, sometimes all you need is a good grammar book and dictionary.
Learning Icelandic vocabulary will only get you so far.
As mentioned, the Icelandic conjugations are challenging - a handy grammar breakdown will be your best friend as you advance your lessons.
- Complete Icelandic by Hildur Jónsdóttir - A highly acclaimed textbook perfect for beginners. Plus, you get a free audio guide with the book.
- Colloquial Icelandic - Looking to chat with the locals? Slightly more challenging to read, this guidebook will teach you the more casual, conversational sentence structures.
- Íslenska Fyrir Alla - This collection of Icelandic material is wholly in Icelandic.
Therefore, it’s aimed at more advanced learners.
However, once you get to grips with reading Icelandic, you’ll enjoy this guide written to help immigrants and visitors.
- Icelandic: Grammar Texts Glossary - While it’s a slightly older textbook, this grammar guide remains a helpful tool for mastering Icelandic.
Icelandic vocabulary builders and word games
Who says learning has to be boring? Fun word games will improve your understanding of another language.
- Digital Dialects - Offering a selection of games, Digital Dialects will help you learn essential Icelandic words, phrases, and conversation starters.
- Tobo - With daily mini-games and quizzes, Tobo is a dynamic way to quickly learn the most common words.
Tip: change the language settings on your phone to Icelandic.
Icelandic texts, fiction, and movies
While your reading comprehension might not master the archaic vocabulary of Iceland’s more challenging texts, reading and watching movies are excellent ways to learn.
Reading is an integral part of Icelandic culture - the country has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
Inspiring and useful texts and fiction
- I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir - This ghost story (and others by the same writer) celebrates what so many love about Iceland. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir manages to capture the beauty of the country while telling a chilling horror story.
- Njál’s Saga - Perhaps one of the most challenging texts, an unknown writer wrote this saga around the 13th century. It’s long and overly detailed, but a great way to learn Icelandic and to get to know the country’s history.
- Independent People by Halldór Laxness - One of Iceland’s most internationally acclaimed texts and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Independent People tells the story of Iceland’s modernisation and industrialisation in the interwar period.
Movies to learn Icelandic
- Angels of the Universe - Released in 2000, this film follows a young man and his battle with a dangerous mental illness. Both funny and sad, it’s an Icelandic classic.
- Children of Nature - As the only Icelandic film to get nominated for an Academy Award, this film follows Thorgeir and his friend Stella as they enjoy an adventure at the end of their lives.
- 101 Reykjavík - A comedy/romance about Hlynur, an unemployed and unmotivated man still living with his mother. One day she brings home her girlfriend, and Hlynur’s life is changed forever.
Icelandic videos and classes on YouTube
YouTube is an excellent resource for language learning.
Whether you follow organised and structured lessons or watch Icelandic bloggers, videos are a great way to immerse yourself in another language.
- Learning Icelandic with Speak Viking - This channel offers quick videos that explain the ins and outs of Icelandic, longer courses on his website, and entertaining vlogs.
- Let’s Learn Icelandic - If you’re looking for a more structured lesson plan, this channel has 50 introductory videos.
- Just Icelandic - Not all the content is exclusively in Icelandic, but it is a great resource to learn more about Icelandic culture, geography, and media.
This channel has tourist info, current news, history, movie clips, and more.
Other resources for learning Icelandic
What else do you need to master a language? Here are further resources to aid your learning.
- Icelandic Online - A comprehensive course run by the University of Iceland with beginner to advanced levels.
- Forvo - Struggling with pronunciation? Forvo is a thorough guide to help you pronounce difficult Icelandic words.
- Icelandic Radio - Listening is one of the best ways to learn.
Icelandic radio will share news, music, and daily updates on Icelandic life.
Learning Icelandic (FAQ)
Learning Icelandic is rewarding.
Icelandic might be subjectively more complicated than other languages depending on your experience and background.
Yet with the right resources and motivation, you’ll make progress with Icelandic in no time.
What is the easiest way to learn Icelandic?
Everyone learns differently.
But the most important approach regardless is to practice Icelandic daily. The more you immerse yourself in Icelandic, the easier you’ll find each lesson.
Listen to Icelandic music, podcasts, radio, and audiobooks. Play word games in Icelandic.
Watch Icelandic movies.
The key is consistency.
How long does it take to learn Icelandic?
According to the Foreign Service Institute, it’ll take around 1100 hours of study (or 44 weeks) to master Icelandic.
However, depending on your ability to pick up languages and the resources, your needed time may vary.
Is the Icelandic language dying?
Not at all.
Over 300,000 people in Iceland speak the language natively and it’s estimated that over 50,000 Icelandic emigrants speak it in other parts of the world. The population may be small, but it’s thriving.
Is it worth it to learn Icelandic?
While relatively few people speak Icelandic, it’s definitely a worthwhile language to know.
The more you understand the language, the more you learn about the Icelandic culture and history of Iceland.
If you include Faroese, a closely related West Nordic language, then there are potentially another 80,000 speakers you could communicate with.
Is Icelandic hard to learn?
The Icelandic language has consistently been ranked (e.g. FSI) as one of the more difficult languages for English language speakers to learn.
Unlike Spanish, French, or German, Icelandic has vastly different pronunciation, long compound words, and complex grammar.
While Icelandic is an Indo-European language with Germanic roots, it’s considered by some to be more complicated than German.
This is due in part to the Icelandic Linguistic Purity Movement in the 19th century which discouraged loanwords from entering the language.
Icelanders stick to their ancient roots with few loanwords so there’s less of a headstart for English speakers.
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