Though arguable, many people consider Icelandic to be the world's hardest language. Spoken by around 350,000 people worldwide, the language is mostly confined to the borders of Iceland, though there are Icelandic speakers in other parts of the world, including the United States. One of the hardest parts of learning Icelandic for non-native speakers is the "noun-bending," meaning that each noun can have a different ending depending on its context. It will have a different ending if it is feminine, masculine, singular, or plural.
Icelandic has not evolved much since medieval times, and linguists often classify it as a dialect of Old Norse! Reading texts written a millennium ago is very similar in language to reading something written today. For English speakers, this would be like reading something written by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. The language is the same, we can grasp it, though a few of phrases are antiquated or some words have gained a different meaning. For example, "condescending" is now seen in a negative light, but in the 1800s it was a compliment. Going back to the year 1000, you would pass through Middle English (this is what the Canterbury Tales are written in, for example), which is often challenging for English speakers though it is clearly related to our modern dialect, but you would also have to learn a new language all together, Old English. Due to its relative isolation until the last century or so, the Icelandic language has not seen the same evolution as English.
There are actually similarities between Old English and Icelandic. Three letters that are in the Old English alphabet, but did not survive to modern English are actually present in Icelandic, the thorn "þ," the eth "ð," and the ash "æ." I took two courses in Old English or Anglo Saxon and Medieval literature while completing my degree in English literature, so I had seen these letters before and knew how to pronounce them, but to most native English-speakers, these look completely foreign. Like in Old English, I can read Icelandic fairly well, but my pronunciation is always a problem. When I first started an Icelandic course, I almost always had the right answers on paper, but my pronunciation was always wrong so my instructor always thought I didn't understand. It was frustrating at first, but my pronunciation is slowly (slowly being the key word) getting better.
The most effective way I've found to learn Icelandic is not the classroom or on any of the online Icelandic courses or on the apps on my phone, but by actually going out and trying to speak the language, as limited as it might be. It has come a long way since my first attempts at speaking the language, but I am still far from fluent. I can do basic conversations like ordering coffee and checking out at the store in Icelandic and now understand a lot of the basic yes or no (já eða nei) questions asked. The place I usually speak Icelandic is the rink, as many of the youngest skaters don't speak English. I usually have another coach or two who can act as a translator for me, but sometimes I do not and it is easier to just directly talk to them. The first time I taught a 40-minute session in Icelandic (a very limited version of Icelandic of about twenty words and lots of demonstrations) I had such a headache afterwards and felt like I had done something a lot more intellectually and physically demanding than just one session. Now I can regularly do that and am constantly learning new words to add to my vocabulary, though it is still a very small vocabulary.
The biggest obstacle to learning Icelandic isn't its difficulty, but rather that everyone speaks English and will switch to that when they realize I don't really speak Icelandic. This is often good in situations where proper communication is more important than trying to improve my Icelandic, but at other times, there is often no need to speak Icelandic and I start to get complacent about my skills.
My second language is Spanish, though I still would not say I am completely fluent, it has actually improved since I've moved to Iceland. When in Spain or other Spanish-speaking countries, I use the language a lot more since English is not as ubiquitous there as it is in Iceland. I often find myself speaking in Spanish even when I am not 100% sure that what I am saying is accurate. By the end of the trip, my Spanish always improves. Here I don't usually have to do this outside of the rink, though there are exceptions. One time I was waiting for the bus and an elderly man began speaking to me in Icelandic. I was able to use my broken Icelandic to tell him that I didn't speak the language, but that I was learning it. We were able to have a ten minute conversation, where I told him that I am from the United States, I am working here as a skating coach, that yes, I did like Iceland, and that no, my family wasn't living in Iceland.
A surprising side effect of learning Icelandic is Spanish. There aren't immediately a lot of similarities between the two, though the word for "sun" is "sol" in both. I hadn't worked on my Spanish too much since graduating high school, but once I began learning Icelandic, all these Spanish words started coming back to me. Sometimes when I don't know the word in Icelandic, I often say it in Spanish rather than English. This was particularly challenging with the word "or." In Spanish, the word is "o." The word for "and" in Icelandic is "og" (pronounced "o") and "or" is "eða." I mix this up a lot and often say "og" when I mean "eða." It confuses people when I try to mix Spanish words with Icelandic, as English is much more widely spoken than Spanish here. I've started to actively work on my Spanish again, as I now remember how much fun it is to learn a new language and how much I like Spanish in particular. Another interesting side effect is sometimes dreaming in Icelandic. Nothing complex, but sometimes I'm speaking Icelandic in my dreams. I've heard that is a sign of fluency, but I am no where near fluent yet!
It always amazes me that so much of the world can speak English fluently in addition to their native language and sometimes even a third or fourth language. While I have yet to master fluency in Icelandic, maybe that day will one day come, though it is probably a long way off!
Hi, I’m Crystal! I love to travel and am currently a graduate student in Scotland. You’ll get all the best tips and insights from my experiences as a former ice-skating coach in Iceland and former study abroad student. Of the 27 countries I have visited, a type 1 diabetes diagnosis has been the strangest land yet. Type 1 has not slowed down my travels and you'll learn how to take type 1 with you on the road! You can connect with me further on Instagram @CrystalChilcott, or send me ideas of where I should travel next via email: firstname.lastname@example.orgHappy Travels, Crystal
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