You may have heard that Icelandic is a difficult language to learn, but it's actually not much more difficult than any other Germanic language, just that it might sound intimidating. You can start with the basics and learn to pronounce all the letters of the alphabet. From there, you will be able to spell any word in Icelandic with ease. Then you can expand your vocabulary so that you can understand the new words through context. Gangi þér vel! (Good luck!)
Method 1 of 3: Master the Pronunciation
Step 1. Practice the short and long vowel sounds
Icelandic has 14 vowels in total, all of which can be short or long. Vowels in words that have only one syllable are always long. They are also long when there is a single consonant or a particular combination of consonants after them (for example, P, T, or K in combination with R, J, or V).
- In some cases, the vowels have a mark on them ("á", "é", "í", "ó" and "ú"). This is not an accent like the ones we have in Spanish, but rather they constitute separate vowels that have their own sounds.
- On the website of the Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós, you can find a pronunciation guide on how to pronounce all the vowels. You can access it here.
Step 2. Memorize how the consonants are pronounced in Icelandic
In the Icelandic alphabet, there are two consonants that are not listed in the regular Latin alphabet that you are likely familiar with. Both consonants are actually pronounced similarly.
- The "Ð / ð" is pronounced like Z in peninsular Spanish but much softer (like the combination "th" in the English words "they" or "them").
- The "Þ / þ" is also pronounced with the same sound. In case you do not have these characters on your keyboard, it is possible to use the letters "th" to replace them when typing words in Icelandic. This consonant is never found at the end of a word.
Step 3. Work on consonants that sound different than in Spanish
If you know English, most Icelandic consonants have the same sound as English consonants, although there are some that sound different and others that have another sound in combination with another consonant.
- The "G / g" at the beginning of a word is pronounced like the G at the beginning of words in Spanish, as in "gato". When the G is in the middle of a word, it has a softer sound. In essence it disappears, but it is not considered silent, since Icelandic does not have silent letters.
- The "H / h" usually has a sound the same as the J in Spanish, but it sounds like a K when combined with the letter V. This combination can be seen in the basic interrogative words in Icelandic, such as "hvað" ("what"), "hver" ("who"), "hvenær" ("when") and "hvernig" ("how").
- The "J / j" is pronounced the same as the Y in Spanish. You can remember it by the word "jójó", which means "yoyo" in Icelandic and is pronounced "YO-yo".
- In Icelandic, the R is always pronounced the same as the double or initial R in Spanish.
- The double L has a sound a bit similar to the "rl" combination heard in some English words (like "settle"). It may take a bit of practice to achieve this. In case you are familiar with Welsh, it closely resembles the pronunciation of LL in this language.
Step 4. Emphasize the first syllable of each word
In Icelandic, you don't have to worry about accentuating the wrong syllable, as the accentuated syllable is always the first. This applies to all Icelandic words regardless of their length.
The only exception to this rule is when a word begins with the negative prefix "ó-" (similar to the prefix "in-" in Spanish). In the case of these words, the first and second syllable are stressed equally or the stress falls mainly on the second syllable
Step 5. Find the Icelandic words that are cognates of English words (if you know this language)
Because Icelandic is a Germanic language and English also has Germanic roots, there are many Icelandic words that resemble English words. You can automatically incorporate them into your vocabulary.
- For example, "sson" and "dottir" in Icelandic are the equivalent of "son" and "daughter", respectively ("son" and "daughter" in English). In Iceland surnames are not used, but either "sson" or "dottir" is appended to the first name of one of the child's parents (usually the father).
- Also, the names of the months of the year in Icelandic should be familiar to you: "janúar", "febrúar", "mars", "apríl", "maí", "júní", "júlí", "ágúst", "september", "oktober", "nóvember", "desember". Don't forget that, as in Spanish, months are not capitalized in Icelandic unless it is the first word in a sentence.
Step 6. Expand your vocabulary gradually using labels
You can learn the Icelandic words for what you see and use every day (for example, objects you have at home). Attach a sticky note to the object and write the word there. Over time, you will begin to think of that object in terms of the Icelandic word and not in Spanish.
- Choose specific types of words that you are going to learn and focus on them for about a week. For example, you could start with the names of different types of food and then expand your vocabulary to basic kitchen utensils or appliances. From there, you could move on to another room in the house.
- This exercise need not be limited to nouns only. It is also possible to include adjectives and verbs that are related. Then, make the conjugation of those verbs part of your regular study of the language. You can use an online search engine (for example, Bín) to find the conjugation of verbs, as well as the declension of nouns and adjectives.
Step 7. Break the compound words down to their constituents
In many cases, the most intimidating Icelandic words, especially place names, are combinations of several words. The same is true in other languages, such as German and Welsh.
- Start small and work your way up to longer words. For example, the capital of Iceland is Reykjavik. It is actually small enough to be manageable, but in fact, the name of the city is a compound word that means "smoky bay".
- Bigger words may be more overwhelming, but they're easier if you break them down first. For example, "Eyjafjallajökull" is the name of the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010. The name is actually a combination of three words: "eyja" ("island"), "fjall" ("mountain") and "jökull" ("glacial").
Method 2 of 3: Strike up a Basic Conversation in Icelandic
Step 1. Greet someone by saying "found"
This is a basic greeting that will work for almost any situation. Likewise, it is possible to say "góðan daginn" ("good day") or "góða nótt" ("good night") depending on the time of day.
- Unlike other languages, such as Spanish or French, there is no separate greeting in Icelandic that is polite or formal, or a formal version of the pronoun "tú". In Icelandic, the same greeting is used for everyone and everyone is referred to by their first name. This is because surnames are not used in Iceland the way they do in other cultures.
- You can also greet someone by saying "velkominn" ("welcome"). This is generally more appropriate when welcoming someone to a place or greeting someone who has attended your invitation.
Step 2. Ask "How are you?
"saying" Hvernig hefur þú það ".
By asking this question, the person will most likely ask you as well. It is likely that he will say "fínt, takk fyrir", which means "I'm fine, thank you" and then he will say "En þú?" ("And you?").
You could also ask "Hvað er að frétta?" This is similar to asking "What's new?" in Spanish. This question is likely to be answered with "ekkert sérstakt", which means "not much"
Step 3. Introduce yourself by saying "Ég heiti" and then your name
Once the other person shows up in response, you can say "Gaman að kynnast þér", which means "nice to meet you." Then you can add "ég er frá" and then the name of your home country in case you want to tell the person where you live.
"Ég er að læra íslensku" is another phrase that might be useful to you, which means "I'm learning Icelandic"
Step 4. Talk about the things you like using "ég elska"
As the conversation progresses, the other person will likely ask what brings you to Iceland or what made you want to learn Icelandic. You can respond by telling him about some of the things that attracted you to the Icelandic language and culture.
For example, if it was your love for the Sigur Rós band that made you interested in Icelandic, you could say "Ég elska Sigur Rós", which means "I love Sigur Rós"
Step 5. Watch your manners by using "takk" and "gætir"
In case you are a fan of Sigur Rós, you may recognize that "takk" is the name of one of his albums. It also means "thank you" in Icelandic. "Gætir" means "please".
- "Afsakið" means "excuse me" or "sorry". Unlike what happens in other languages, it is possible to use the same word regardless of whether you are ordering something or trying to push your way through a crowd.
- Use "fyrirgefðu" to say "I'm sorry." This word is also the same regardless of whether you are going to apologize for a mistake or if you have not understood something.
Step 6. Use the Icelandic word "bless" to say goodbye
It sounds like an English verb, but it actually means "goodbye" in Icelandic. It's a fake friend, but it should be pretty easy to remember even for beginners. Likewise, it is possible to say "sjáumst" (pronounced "siena"), which means "see you later."
Icelanders also say "bæ bæ", which sounds just like the phrase "bye bye" in English. You can use it in circumstances that resemble those in which you would use the phrase in English, as it is a bit more casual
Method 3 of 3: Immerse yourself in Icelandic
Step 1. Enroll in an online course to learn grammar
Icelandic grammar can be very difficult to understand, so the best way to get a solid foundation in grammar is by taking a standard course. You can find many online courses available to you where you can learn Icelandic, some of which are free while others charge a fee.
The University of Iceland offers a free online course with which you can go from being an absolute beginner to advanced studies in the language. Sign up here. All classes can be accessed for free or paid for a tutor to give you instant feedback on your writing and speaking
Step 2. Increase your vocabulary by listening to music in Icelandic
Lyrics are generally repetitive by their very nature, so music is a good way to get the words into your head. Iceland has produced a host of famous musical artists, including Sigur Rós, Bjórk, and Of Monsters And Men. All of them have produced music in English, but many of them also record in Icelandic.
Icelandic Music Rights Society Iceland Music offers streaming Icelandic music in several different genres here. You can also get the playlists on Spotify
Step 3. Read Icelandic newspapers to learn about Icelandic culture
Through Icelandic newspapers, you can learn about current events and news, not only in Iceland but also around the world, while simultaneously practicing your reading comprehension skills in Icelandic.
The main Icelandic newspapers that you can find online are Bæjarins Besta and Vísir
Step 4. Watch Icelandic television to capture native language patterns
As with most languages, it is likely that if you learn Icelandic through books or online courses, you will not get a real idea about the language. On television, you will be able to witness other people talking.
Icelandic television programs from the Ríkisútvarpið (RÚV) channel, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, are streamed online in continuous download here
Step 5. Travel to Iceland
The largest number of native Icelandic speakers live in this country. If you travel there (in case you can afford it), you will get the best opportunity to become familiar with the language and receive feedback on your grammar and pronunciation.
Iceland is relatively isolated, so its inhabitants do not often meet people trying to learn their language. They may get frustrated and just start talking to you in English. You can remind them that you are trying to learn the language and you don't want to turn to English. You could also say "Afsakið, ég skil ekki ensku" ("Sorry, I don't understand English")
- Icelandic is a Germanic language, so it may be a bit easier for you to speak and understand it if you already know German. There are many similar words (for example, "papa" is "kartöflur" in Icelandic, which is similar to "kartoffel" in German).
- Icelandic has 8 short vowels, a e i or u and æ ö, and 8 long vowels, á é í ó ú ý au ei ey. This language does not include the letters “c”, “q”, “w” and “z”, as well as þ and ð.