Learning Icelandic

“There’s no need to learn Icelandic, everyone here speaks English”

We were sat in the famous Lebowski bar on the main street Laugevegur when a waiter said this to me. He was telling me about the reasons he left the UK to work in Iceland, and I had asked him how his language lessons were going.

I thought it was a shame, although I wasn’t surprised. Reykjavik is a metropolitan city and its inhabitants are taught English from an early age, so any visitors who speak English are able to interact with people there, particularly those in customer facing roles. However, I personally believe that a willingness to attempt to learn the language of the country you’re in is a productive thing to do. As a result, when my wife and I had the genuine conversation about moving to Iceland (I say ‘genuine’ because this wasn’t an ‘I wish’ sort of chat, it was one where we created SMART targets…) we agreed that we should learn the language so we could assimilate a bit easier.

I’m going to take you through three ways I’ve been learning Icelandic for the past year.

1. There’s an app for that

The first thing I did was boot up my language app, Babbel, and search for an Icelandic course. They don’t have one. So I downloaded an app that promised to help me learn through repetition (not a formalised grammar sort of learning, but it would do to begin with) – called Memrise.

Memrise language app

Memrise takes it’s stylistic form from outer space exploration, with the little spaceship representing your language journey and each planet representing specific modules. If the spaceship thing doesn’t interest you it doesn’t matter, after five minutes you won’t even notice it. Memrise allows people to create their own courses, and so I found quite a few for Icelandic (in this picture I’ve started a new one that has a massive vocab library). I even found one that had native speaker videos where you had to translate what they said – it was a quality resource.

In Memrise you are presented with new vocab, flip cards, multiple choice and then spelling tests. In Icelandic this last bit could have been a bit difficult because of their slightly different alphabet, but there is a native keyboard within the app, so they’ve got you covered.

I did find some slight issues with the app however: one caused by it’s style, another through a glitch.

Leiður is not a difficult word

Memrise tracks your progress in learning specific vocabulary, and when you get a question right, a little flower starts to grow in the top right corner of the screen (back to the space theme and the optimistic view of terraforming distant planets and mid-sized moons). But when you get a question wrong, the plant doesn’t grow. The atmosphere hasn’t been put in place by space engineers yet, and your word seed remains lifeless in the frozen and barren vocabulary wasteland. But sometimes, Memrise does something annoying. It says that you find a word ‘difficult’ and so have to repeat the exercise multiple times to get it right. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when it keeps repeating that word it becomes very leiður (or ergjandi if you prefer).

Downloading content

This one really pissed me off.

At the top of the screen there is a little button to download the content for offline use. During my old commute there would often be long periods on the train with no network where this would have been perfect, but it let me down almost every single time. So I often found myself sat in tunnels wishing I could get my 15mins of practice in before I got home and instead ended up staring at a blank blue screen while it searched for network.

In the end I chalked it up to experience and did my daily practice at home with a secure Wi-Fi connection. And I took a book on the train.

It costs $59.99 per year, but after I had been using it for a while I got an email deal where I got the year for £18.

2. Bookworming

I looked for books I could use on Amazon, and I got one result that looked appropriate – Colloquial Icelandic by Daisy L. Neijmann.

This book is incredibly detailed.

It breaks the content down into sections with clear learning outcomes, for example in chapter 2 the learning question (and title) is Hvaðan ert þú? (Where are you from?), which is then broken into sections that are crystal clear in what it expects you to know at the end – “asking for information and giving information about yourself”, “singular nominative adjectives/gender”, “verbs in singular present”.

Just in case you are doubting that this would work for you (singular normative adjectives?!), the book uses an effective form of differentiation to ensure everyone can access the lessons – namely, free audio resources that are then referenced explicitly in the text:

It really works, I definitely recommend. £34 on Amazon.

3. Instagram + Google Translate + native Samsung keyboard

Bear with me here. I was picking Icelandic up from my app pretty easily, and the book made me feel confident that I was starting to get a grip of the grammar. But I wondered how I could check that I could actually understand what Icelandic people said.

Scratching my head (metaphorically, I don’t have nits) I searched for a pen pal type thing, but didn’t have any luck. I couldn’t afford to pay to Skype a tutor, and my mate who lives in Iceland isn’t native, and while I’m sure he can speak some of the language I didn’t want to bother him when he was neck deep in his PhD research.

Then I had a great idea. I can use Instagram and read what Icelandic people say to each other, and try and translate it all. It would be like having a pen pal, and it isn’t creepy at all (it isn’t, back off) because this is publicly available stuff that they want to share. One day when I’m living in Iceland I’ll take them for a beer or something to say thank you. They won’t come obviously, I’m some random from the internet. But I will definitely make the offer.

So I try to read the comments on their photos, and when I can’t, I use Google Translate, and then test myself to read and understand it again. Then I open my notes app, and using the Icelandic Keyboard I downloaded as a plugin for my Samsung keyboard I type out the comment again.

Read, write, repeat.

I’m pretty sure that when we move to Reykjavik the people there would accommodate us in our native language, but I don’t want them to straight away. I want to attempt to meet them on their home ground linguistically, and then if I fuck up they can tell me in English. I’m chuffed that I can fluently speak the most understood language in the world, the language of business and commerce, the language of Shakespeare and Alan Partridge, but when I live in Iceland I want to be able to speak to people in the language their parents spoke to them. I respect the Icelanders, and when I arrive I want to display my commitment to their society through my Mancunian mangling of their ancient Norse.

Góða nótt lesandi, bless bless!

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