Að tala íslensku

Time for an update on how the language-learning is going, I think. My feelings on the subject are conflicted, and also subject to wild fluctuations, but I will try to force them into some semblance of coherency.

I've been thinking a bit about attitudes towards learning Icelandic. I've written before on this blog about the intricacies of Icelandic grammar, but I've also mentioned my view that Icelandic is not nearly as difficult as some people would have you believe. It's easy to buy into the myth. You hear it everywhere - that Icelandic is one of the most difficult languages in the world, that it's unpronouncable, that the grammar is prohibitively tortuous. 

Even Icelanders, or perhaps especially Icelanders, believe it. This might come off like some revolting false modesty, but I honestly don't think that it takes anything special to achieve what I've achieved over the space of two years. I won't lie - of course I enjoy the look of astonishment when people hear me speaking Icelandic and learn that I only got here in January. But then I always tell them that I was learning Icelandic before I came. For two years. It sounds like such a long time - when I remember that I think that really, if anything, I should be better than I am. Obviously the truth is that there are simple bits and complicated bits in all languages, and what those bits are depends on how much or how little it diverges from your mother tongue. Icelandic is very closely related to Old Norse, a language that had a considerable influence on the development of English, and therefore diverges from English a hell of a lot less than a lot of other languages. From that point of view I would put it with French and German as one of the languages that us English speakers should find some sort of natural affinity with. It's amazing sometimes how much Icelandic resembles archaic English.

The danger of the myth is obvious. If you get it into your head that "Icelandic is really difficult" then that can easily turn into, "Icelandic is too difficult for me". And then of course you can't do it. Which is why, although it makes me feel sort of proud of myself when people say that Icelandic is a hard language, I think it's an unhelpful thing to say in general.

I know that actually I am lucky enough to be pretty receptive to language learning. When I put my mind to it, that is. I didn't work that hard at learning French in secondary school, something I regret now, and never spoke it that well. What I did learn has now mostly fallen out of my brain through disuse, or been supplanted by Icelandic. But I'm reasonably intelligent, and my brain is that way inclined, so I think that I find Icelandic easier than a lot of people.  I've always been inclined towards reading, writing, words and language in general. Really I'm trying to avoid coming off as arrogant here, but those are my skills. I have to work a great deal harder at anything to do with numbers. Just ask anyone who's seen my face when I'm trying to do simple mental arithmetic. The distant, slightly panicked stare into the middle distance as I concentrate on carefully stacking up the numbers without dropping them all is a source of great amusement for my family. But my brain can handle words, and they stick quite easily.

I'm a fair mimic as well. Apart from that pesky rolled r, I haven't really had that much trouble learning to reproduce the sounds of Icelandic. Of course I speak with an accent, but I'm confident that I rarely pronounce things incorrectly, if I am careful about how I'm speaking. Evidently some people find it difficult to even distinguish between the Icelandic sounds and the sounds that they are making, which must also make it harder to identify words that you hear other people saying. I had to practice a  fair bit to train my tongue to produce the 'au' sound easily, but I could hear what it was supposed to be, and I can hear the difference between the weird noise I make and a proper Icelandic r. 

I also know that my situation here in Iceland is incredibly advantageous, and I'm lucky in that respect as well. I live with many native Icelandic speakers, so I am exposed to the language, and interact in it, on a daily basis - although I still suffer from guilt pangs because I don't use this opportunity to its full advantage. I said on here before that I planned to give up English for Lent. I failed spectacularly at that, you may not be surprised to hear. It went almost as well as my attempt to give up caffeine. The trouble is that although I can communicate in Icelandic, I can't really express myself well enough to feel comfortable. My English reaches right to the edge of my thoughts. In fact, it's probably inseparable from my thoughts. But for me speaking Icelandic is  still like being stuck in a little cave, and all my thoughts keep banging against the ceiling. It's maddeningly claustrophobic, now that the thrill of simply communicating in a foreign language has pretty much worn off. Still, to extend the metaphor, I remain confident that if I keep bashing about in there, I will have more and more room to move around. One day I might even be able to be funny in Icelandic. That's one of the hardest things, not being able to be funny. Not saying I'm hilarious in English, but you know what I mean.

If I had to assess my level right now... I don't know what I would say. It's very hard for me to do that. I understand most of what is said to me, although rather less of something like the news, when the readers are speaking quickly and using more complicated language. Then I can usually get the gist, but I miss important details. However, I can easily follow Icelandic programmes when there are Icelandic subtitles.

I would say my vocabulary, in terms of words I understand instantly when I read or hear them, is expanding at a steady rate, although the rate has slowed down considerably from when I first started learning Icelandic and was picking up all the simple words. My vocabulary in terms of words that I use myself, that come readily to mind when I am speaking, is not nearly so good. I think what I need to do is carry around a notebook and write down every time I want to say something, but can't think of the word, then look it up and actively learn it. 

My grammar is a lot better in theory than it is in practice. I can write out a lot of declension tables, but unless I speak very carefully I still muddle things up.  My current thing that I notice myself doing is adding the definite article to the ends of words when I shouldn't, just because the declension comes more smoothly for me with the article. Today, for example, I said, "It's like in the restaurant," when I was not talking about a specific restaurant. People understand you if you do that, but it's not ideal. I still plan out my sentences before I embark upon them, which is tedious and I wish I didn't have to.

Yes, as expected, this has turned into a long post which lacks focus. Which fully reflects my rambly internal reflections on myself and the Icelandic language. I hope you enjoyed it.


  1. Seriously, think about becoming an Icelandic literary translator- it might take twenty years before you have learned enough Icelandic, but there will still be Laxness novels waiting to be translated. Magnusson and Scudder are dead, Roughton is tied up with Gerpla for three more years, and Victoria Cribb is committed to Sjón and Indriðason for the foreseeable future. You've evidently got the English literary background. J.A. Thompson taught English in Iceland for only a few years before he translated Independent People (although he did work very closely with Laxness on the project.)

  2. I would pretty much die of happiness if I could be an Icelandic literary translator. Love your round-up of others in the field - dead, dead, busy, busy.

    J.A. Thompson is my hero - I think his translation is so much richer than Magnusson's. Laxness' input probably helped immeasurably, though.