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Icelandic Language Day 2023 – The rocky path to perfect Icelandic

Today is the Icelandic Language Day or in Icelandic: Dagur íslenskrar tungu. Firstly celebrated in 1996, the day is supposed to remember the importance of the Icelandic language. November 16 was picked as it is Jónas Hallgrímsson’s birthday, one of Iceland’s most famous writers and poets. This day is an opportunity to celebrate Icelandic in its entire form – with all the ups and downs the language brings. Especially to new language learners.

Immerse yourself in Icelandic

Icelandic seems notoriously difficult to learn and is often called “the hardest language in the world” in the media. While this might be true in some cases, especially for learners whose native tongue differs entirely from Icelandic, the same can not be said for me. I am a native German speaker and therefore quite used to declensions, words longer than one’s attention span, and gendered nouns. Nevertheless, my path to perfecting Icelandic is rocky. 

I started studying Icelandic when I moved to Iceland in 2019 as a 19-year-old naive Au-Pair. To be entirely honest, I didn’t even really know how the language sounded like before I landed in Keflavík Airport. While I tried finding some last-minute resources on some simple phrases in Icelandic that I could say to my Icelandic host family, the internet was quite scarce back then (or my searching skills were inferior). So I basically ended up in Iceland with Icelandic language skills that equaled zero.

Luckily for me, I was living with an Icelandic family, taking care of their two children who were too little to speak English yet. So every day, I was surrounded by Icelandic for most of my day and had to pick up the language fast to communicate with the kids. Naturally, I started understanding quite a lot in a short amount of time and after just two months, I was able to communicate on a basic level. But then the true hardship came. While my vocabulary was enough to communicate with the kids, my Icelandic has also been stuck on their level. And the feeling of being a toddler when talking to adults has remained ever since.

Jónas Hallgrimsson, Icelandic Language Day
Fun fact: This is one of the only depictions of Jónas Hallgrímsson as there are no photographs of him

Learning language and culture through Icelandic TV

I’m not a grammar enthusiast when it comes to learning languages. To be honest, I detest grammar entirely. So my path of perfecting Icelandic takes more of an unconventional (at least not textbook) approach. My best progress was made when I completely immersed myself in the language – while I had the luxury of doing that by living with Icelanders, not everybody has the chance to. Then the next best option is to listen to Icelandic podcasts, Icelandic TV shows and read Icelandic news. Many people like the kid’s version of the news, aka krakkafréttir, as the language is a bit easier. Personally, my ego doesn’t like “dumbed down” things, so I tend to fight my way through the regular news which often leaves me entirely frustrated and close to giving up. But why make it easy? 

Another recommendation for beginners is “Learn Icelandic now!” on Instagram. The account is run by David, a young Icelander, who is teaching one Icelandic word of the day. If you’re curious about some truly unique Icelandic words that are untranslatable, check out our other blogpost

Here are some of my favourite TV show/film recommendations for learning Icelandic:

  • Nætturvaktin: A funny three-seasoned Icelandic show about three Icelandic guys working at a gas station, featuring a power-hungry communist Georg Bjarnfreðarsson, who is played by the former mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr. The show is hilarious and perfect for indulging in some “everyday” Icelandic.
  • Venjulegt fólk: The show features two best friends and their funny struggles of everyday life. Highly relatable and easy to understand through the relatable context!
  • Lóf mér að falla: This very dramatic and typically dark Icelandic film is about a drug addict and her history in underground Reykjavík. I remember shedding a tear.
  • Katla (On Netflix): Iceland is not the same without volcanoes, so why not watch an Icelandic show about the fictitious eruption of the volcano Katla (which would be highly catastrophic). Lots of elves, Doppelgängers and other shenanigans, clear recommendation! 
  • The Valhalla Murders (On Netflix): It is necessary to mention at least one more typical Icelandic noir. Of course, one of the protagonists has a drinking problem. Typically Icelandic, highly dramatic and notoriously dark!

The secret to fluency in Icelandic...

Many people ask what the secret to becoming fluent in Icelandic is. Well… I actually can’t tell you as I’m not fluent myself. Yet. But what I’ve heard from non-Icelandic friends who have reached a fluent level of Icelandic is to just continue trying to speak (making a note for myself here). Who cares if your Icelandic isn’t perfect and your sentences are perforated by grammatical errors? Icelandic people know that their language is not the easiest to learn, so they will forgive you. Well, they don’t have much choice as it is one of the smallest national languages in the world. The most important thing is to simply not give up. Eventually, you will pick up the right words and declensions. It will just take time and practice. Lots of practice. 

Þetta reddast! (eng. “It will be fine!”)




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