Tools for learning Icelandic

Tags: icelandic

When you study a foreign language you're not just memorizing facts – you're learning a skill. Several skills, more precisely: speaking and listening, reading and writing. And while they reinforce each other, you can't just do one and expect the others to improve – thus, the familiar experience of being able to read a language but completely unable to understand a native speaker asking you for directions.

Because Icelandic has only 300,000 speakers, you don't have as many practice materials to choose from as you would for, say, Italian. Here's what I'm using.

I already owned Complete Icelandic, published by Teach Yourself, because I tend to accumulate language books and had spotted it at Half Price. I'll post a more complete review when I’ve finished it (I'm currently on Chapter 12 of 16), but the course has an annoying tendency to blat out huge tables full of verb and noun endings without providing any exercises that let you practice them. (Remember that "memorizing facts" versus "learning a skill" distinction?) The book includes two CDs, and while the dialogue tends to be spoken rather slowly, you at least get to hear the pronunciation.

I've also been doing lessons from the free Icelandic Online course from the University of Iceland. This has full-speed dialogue (sometimes it's terrifyingly fast), and it introduces much smaller chunks of grammar while providing some practice exercises. On the other hand, the lessons are entirely in Icelandic, with no English explanations at all. I've been alternating between the Teach Yourself book and Icelandic Online.

Instead of buying a dictionary, I've been relying on an online Icelandic to English dictionary. Google Translate often gives good results for short phrases, and can also translate Icelandic to English.

For learning Icelandic verbs, I've relied on Wiktionary, which sometimes provides full conjugations, and Verbix. BE WARNED that some of the Verbix entries fail to apply a common Icelandic sound rule – and when I tried to e-mail Verbix to show correct sources, it turned out that the contact address on their website doesn't exist.

Getting even a basic grasp of a language means memorizing lots of words. I've been using the free Anki flashcard program and making my own cards.

Transparent Language offers Icelandic study materials, and I did the two-week free trial but wasn't impressed enough to sign up for the paid service. The program is pure vocabulary drill, divided into units with a dozen or so words apiece (and the occasional phrase). It doesn't teach any grammar whatsoever, and there's no opportunity to use these words in sentences.

I did find it useful in one specific way. Because there are recordings of all the words, and you're asked to identify them (and type them) by listening to them, the lessons were also good practice on all the little rules of Icelandic pronunciation that cause sounds to change based on the adjacent sounds in the word.

While my vocabulary of a few hundred words doesn't let me read much besides textbooks, I did find an online Icelandic bookstore that ships overseas. The website is, of course, in Icelandic, which might keep you from buying books before you're ready for them.

There's obviously a lot here to help you with reading and writing, and even, to some extent, listening - but what about speaking? I always speak aloud when I'm doing practice exercises - which I've found helps when you're actually ready to stammer a few sentences in the real world. There's also a website, iTalki, where you can schedule conversations and lessons with native speakers and other students. I haven't tried it yet, but there are several Icelandic tutors listed.

While I don't think these books add up to a curriculum to rival my beloved Foreign Service Institute courses, they should be enough to bootstrap up, over the course of three months, to the point where you can benefit from some of the real Icelandic newspapers and radio broadcasts online. Gangi þér vel!

Written on December 20, 2015