How to Learn Icelandic

The only real way to learn a new language is through trial by fire.

I have been living in Iceland for just over one year and have taken two Icelandic courses. My comprehension is coming along meira og meira, but I am not a confident speaker.

Part of my struggle is that so many Icelanders speak excellent English. Another part is that I work in the tourism industry and only really speak English with my colleagues. I try to practice with my in-laws, but sometimes the need to communicate outweighs the effort of an attempt. My husband and I practice…until we eventually slide back into English.

But today, my hand was forced. I was sitting in the back office at work, trying to catch up on emails. The phone rang, and because my colleague was busy, I answered. It was a guest, calling to order a taxi back to the hotel after dining out.

Our most reliable local taxi driver is known as Jón Gamli, which literally translates to “Old Jón.” He is very friendly but does not speak much English. I knew in that moment that it was time to put my Icelandic skills to the test and order a taxi instead of waiting for my Icelandic colleague to do it.

I gulped and dialed the number. My words came out in a jumble, but eventually they straightened themselves out into something that sounded comprehensible. At least I knew the words were close enough to correct, even if their endings weren’t.* I even said einmitt (precisely) a few times, as if I were directing the conversation. Jón Gamli seemed to understand my request and mentioned something about how I was dugleg** at learning Icelandic. I hung up the phone, feeling awkward but proud about my semi-comprehensible Icelandic baby talk.

Of course, I asked my colleague to call Jón back and double check that he had understood my message. She said that he had understood einmitt and that he was impressed by how much I had learned. Usually, I would say something self-deprecating, but instead, I smiled and took the compliment. Meira og meira. Einmitt.

*In Icelandic, the endings of words bend depending on how they are used in a sentence. Even people’s names!

**Dugleg is high praise–it means hardworking. Whenever I first heard this word being spoken, I legitimately thought Icelanders were saying Diglett, like the Pokémon.

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