The Icelandic Language



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INTRODUCTION

Do you think you know enough Icelandic to read this sign?
One of the things that I learned when Julie and I turned our waterfalling attention internationally was that travel was all about building bridges between your own perception of the world and the actual experiences in the real world. And so I realized that one of the best ways to build this bridge was to try to learn the local language as this would help me to keep an open mind and be prepared to expand my horizons as I went. Besides, I feel that trying to speak the local language (no matter how awkward it might be at first) goes a long way towards being encouraged while also being greeted with kindness as opposed to the opposite reation when you expect or even demand the locals to speak English on their own soil.

In the case of Icelandic, it was probably one of the biggest challenges that I partook in terms of preparing myself for a language that was not widely spoken outside of Iceland, yet it was said to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. I wanted to see for myself whether the reputation was worse than the reality, and I had to test my knowledge once we finally made it to the country.

I gave myself around 6 months to learn so I knew that I didn't have very much time. Of course, that was nothing compared to the so-called "Brain Man" whom I saw on the Science Channel and demonstrated fluency after only seven days! Anyways, he was the real-life person whom Dustin Hoffman was trying to emulate in the Rain Man movie. Clearly I wasn't going to pick up the language that fast, but I figured it was worth the try to unveil the inner workings of the old language.

Just to give you an idea of what I was in for, I recalled a Norwegian tourist once told me that Icelandic was actually the pure and original form of his language brought over from the days of the Vikings. The difference was that Norwegian contained mixes of other linguistic and cultural influences from neighboring cultures as it was modernized (i.e. simplified) over the years. However, Icelandic pretty much evolved on its own isolated far out on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between North America and Europe. So it turned out that Icelandic had all the cases, conjugations, declensions, and numerous exceptions and idiosyncrasies that Norwegian had dropped or simplified over time, and I guess that was what made Icelandic so difficult to learn as far as foreigners were concerned.

Given its limited use around the world, I probably didn't need to try learning the language. However, I ended up learning a bit about the country, its culture, and even the meanings of the place names on the maps even before Julie and I had set foot on Iceland! So I felt the effort certainly paid dividends regardless even though its benefits weren't apparent immediately...

Anyways, the point of this page is to familiarize you with the language of Icelandic and perhaps motivate you to give the language a go. I know for certain that I'm not fluent in the language and I'll make no effort to even come across as if I am. Nevertheless, in this page, I'll delve into what I went through to get up to my current understanding of Icelandic. I'll also try to divulge all that I know about the language to at least get you acquainted with it. Hopefully, you'll find this page useful...






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THE LEARNING PROCESS
I essentially did my learning of Icelandic through a single course that included a series of textbooks and some audio CDs from Teach Yourself. I pretty much went through all of the lessons from start to finish, and all of my Icelandic to this point was exclusively through this resource.

I'll go further into a review of this language course in the next section.

As for the process of my learning, I basically used my work commute (typically an hour at a time) to get through both the textbook and the audio CDs. I could listen to the audio CDs in the car, and I could read through the textbook little-by-little on the metro. This method allowed me to go through the lessons at my own pace without costing me any of my free time outside my normal day-to-day work routines. In fact, I could argue that doing this during the commute was a far more productive use of this time than say listening to talk radio or whatever else was on the radio. It's infinitely better than filling up my mind with road rage. I was even able to review or go back through chapters before proceeding onto the next chapter once I was learning while on the train.

I haven't had much of an opportunity to practice my Icelandic outside of visiting Icelandic itself because I don't know anyone with whom I could consistent practice with face-to-face. Thus, I'm aware that my knowledge of the language is pretty much limited to book learning.



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REVIEWS OF LEARNING RESOURCES

Teach Yourself Icelandic [Overall Rating: 2.5/5]:
The Teach Yourself Icelandic course (I used version with the glacier close-up on the cover) was the only resource that I could find at the time (back in late 2006-early 2007) that I knew contained audio CDs that I could listen to repeatedly while driving while also trying to read through the accompanying textbook. I didn't recall seeing any other resource that could fit into my work schedule, though I certainly could have benefitted from having a different perspective from this course.

As for the course itself, it followed the standard progression like the other Teach Yourself courses in that it began with a dialog to try to paint the context in which new vocabulary and expressions were used. Then, it went into grammatical explanations of what you had just seen before going into exercises while ending off with a little bit of a culture lesson.

I found the content of the lessons to be a bit of an exercise in flipping back and forth through the book being stuck on a few words or expressions. And since the index and glossary was so thin while the local glossary in the chapter tended not to have the translations for the word I was looking for, I quickly lost the meaning of the conversation and had to "fly blind" through the rest of the chapter until I had a chance to repeat the whole chapter again. In fact, I recalled having to go through each chapter at least twice before feeling confidence enough to move onto the third chapter.

Speaking of the course progression, the context of the conversations seemed kind of random and not terribly likely to be encountered as a tourist unless I somehow lived there and was regularly meeting with friends and family or something. I don't think I'd be likely to be commenting on whether someone had dark hair or was fat/skinny or was reading or something like that. And instead, there wasn't much in the way of asking for directions or going out exploring, which is what most tourists to Iceland would do. Thus, I kind of lost the motivation to keep at the lessons as much as I should have since I was skeptical whether or not the lessons I was learning were applicable to what I was likely to encounter on our trip.

So progress on the lesson was painstakingly slow and frustrating. That said, I guess given the limited amount of content in such a concise language course, the assumption was that I the student had to play catch-up. Moreover, the audio CDs were a little hard to follow (though they spoke slowly and clearly) because I couldn't follow through the conversations without following along in the book in my car (which of course could not be done safely). So that further made the course difficult.

Other things I really struggled with in this course were the explanations of the grammar, especially the cases and the declensions. There were whole tables of how you have to modify words according to how they were being used. Clearly, there were too many for a foreigner to remember and it was pretty clear to me that you had to have grown up or lived for a while in Iceland to get the grammar without having to think about it. Anyways, the lean grammatical explanations left a lot to be desired yet I could see how at the same time, you could get so caught up in the many rules and exceptions of the grammar that you can easily lose sight of the forest for the trees, so to speak. I'd imagine if you had studied German, you might grasp some of these concepts already then focus more on the idiosyncrasies and rules specific to Icelandic.

I don't think I finished going through to the very last few chapters as I had run out of time given my slow progress. So I guess six months wasn't enough time. That said, when I did try to use the language, I had some limited success communicating with a B&B owner in the Northwest of Iceland as well as with a fellow German who was working at the Hotel Djupavik in the Strandir Coast of the Westfjords. I even had one waitress compliment me while being shocked at the same time saying that when I said, "takk fyrir mig" to her, she thought it sounded like a local person was saying it.

So take it for what it's worth. The course did get me up to a point where I felt confident to try the language in certain situations. But there was still way more to learn before I could really feel confident about trying the language regardless of the situation. Maybe on a return trip to Iceland, I'll go through this lesson once again (especially now that I've finally familiarized myself with German), but I think I might need to complement the course with another independent source just to cover my bases.



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SOME USEFUL EXPRESSIONS
Here's a list of very basic expressions that I have come across that you might find helpful. To learn more expressions or go through a much more comprehensive list than this, please check out more authoritative language resources.

  • Góðan daginn / Góðan dag / Blessaður / Blessuð - Good day / Hello (note the last 2 words pertain to saying hello to a man or a woman, respectively)
  • Takk (fyrir) / Takk fyrir mig - Thank you (very much) / Thanks for the food (after having a satisfying meal)
  • já / nei - yes / no
  • Fyrirgefðu - Excuse me / Sorry
  • Talarðu ensku? - Do you speak English?
  • Jeg talar (ekki) ensku / islensku. - I (don't) speak English / Icelandic


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SOME USEFUL VOCABULARY
I'm sure there can be any number of words that would be helpful to know, but I'm going to do things a little differently and try to bias this vocabulary list with things more related to waterfalls or other geographical features or even transport-related words. I figure that might at least help you read some maps or at least have a better understanding of what some of the local place names mean.

  • foss - waterfall. Example: Gullfoss is the Golden Falls< and Svartifoss is the Black Falls
  • jökull - glacier. Example: Vatnajökull is the Glacier of Rivers (breakdown of the individual words suggests "Water Glacier"), which is said to be Iceland's largest glacier
  • skógur - forest.
  • fjallið - mountain. Example: Eyjafjallajökull is the Island Mountain Glacier, which happened to be where the major 2010 eruption took place
  • áin - the river. Example: Þjórsá is the Thjorsa River
  • dalur - valley. Example: Haukadalur is a famous valley containing Golden Circle attractions like Geysir and Gullfoss
  • fjörður - fjord. Example: Hvalfjörður is the Whale Fjord and Seyðisfjörður is a scenic fjord and town on the east coast of Iceland, but Vestfirðir is the Westfjords
  • sandur - sand, but typically refers to sandy plains left behind by the meltwaters or recession of glaciers. Example: Sprengisandur is the highland plateau where the most accessible of the roads passing through the desert interior of Iceland also bears this name
  • vatn - lake. Example: Mývatn is Midge Lake and Hraunsvatn is Lava Lake
  • lónið - lagoon. Example: Bláa Lónið is the Blue Lagoon while Jökulsárlón is the Glacier Lagoon


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CONCLUSION
Do you think you know enough Icelandic to read the top part of this sign?


Well, as you can see from the very limited content I have on Icelandic, I have a long ways to go before I even come close to having some form of command in the language. Nonetheless, even knowing a little bit of the language made me feel like I was somehow connecting with the heritage of Iceland. In fact, we observed that the Icelandic people were very proud of their language and almost everyone seemed genuinely pleased (and impressed) that some foreigner would even try to learn and use the language in their own home land!

That said, I probably struggled more with this language than other languages because there's a lot to remember about its grammar. I think it would have helped quite a bit had I learned German first because they both use cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive). That's just one part of the story. There are also declensions (or modifications done to various words) based on the cases as well as the gender and number. Then, there are many exceptions or usages that would seem inconsistent with the grammatical rules. You really have to get used to just accepting how the language is used and try not to overthink it.

I probably wouldn't be able to go beyond one or two back-and-forth exchanges in a conversation in Icelandic given my very limited vocabulary and grammatical understanding. Still, when the situation arises and we're fortunate enough to bring our daughter to Iceland in the future, for sure I'd make the effort to try to go through the course again and supplement my learning with other resources as well. Perhaps by then, I should have a much better understanding and confidence in the language than I do now.

In our 2007 trip to Iceland, Julie and I learned that just about everyone we encountered can speak good English. Of course, we would hear Icelandic spoken between locals. Perhaps the only one instance of difficulty I had was with an elderly man near our hotel in Reykjavík whom I thought was a parking enforcement guy. After a bit of struggling through the language with him (trying to figure out what he wanted from us), it turned out after having our receptionist translate his words for us, all he really wanted to say to us was "Hi!". Once that revelation was made, the man stuck out his hand and said to me, "Blessaður!". Red-faced as I was, I shook his hand and said the same. I'm sure that could've been a much deeper conversation had I knew a bit more Icelandic.

So to make a long story short, all I can say is don't be discouraged by awkward exchanges at first as more often than not, I've observed that people are genuinely pleased and more encouraging when you try to speak their language. Besides, you'll never know if you don't try, and who knows where your learning will take you next? So what have you got to lose?






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