Icelandic Language Blog

English in Iceland Posted by on Aug 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

Potential tourists often wonder how widespread English is in Iceland, so here’s some examples.

This is the mayor of Reykjavík giving a speech at a memorial for Japan (they planted cherry trees that were donated by one of the nurseries in Iceland).

This is a housing advertisement found here.

1-2 manna herb.Funahöfða 17a -19 Rvk og Dalshraun 13 Hfj M/ baði. eldh., þurrkara og þvottavél. 824 4535.
Room for rent 1-2 person,.Funahöfða 17a -19 Rvk and Dalshraun 13 Hfj Whith Bath, kitch, washing room incl.

Uppl/info í S. 824 4535.
RVK – Reykjavík
Eldh. – Eldhús, kitchen
Uppl. – Upplýsing, information.

I’ve been living here a year and I’ve only met one person who was Icelandic and without good English skills, and that was an old lady at the flea market – she could understand me when I said “I only speak English”, but she talked to me in Icelandic. Everyone else hasn’t been Icelandic. There are a lot of Polish people around that don’t speak English.

The main thing is that Icelanders don’t correct typos, not in English or Icelandic. I’ve seen typos in Emails and on company websites when you’d expect that they wanted to seem a little more professional, and I’ve seen mistakes even on the Foreign Immigration webpage on how to pay for your living permit (which they didn’t correct after I told them about it).

You also can’t judge a person’s English ability by their age. I’ve seen twenty year olds who I could barely understand, and seventy year olds who had accentless English (and could even switch between dialects accentlessly). I’ve also seen a few Icelanders who choose to speak with an accent when they could also speak without one. In past generations it was common to study abroad, and many younger people read and use so much English today that they’re fluent even without leaving the country.

Nowadays Icelanders learn English starting in first or second grade. They start learning Danish in fourth and another language in seventh or so. That’s completely from memory so if someone can correct me that’d be great.

Photo taken by my friend S. (This link is to his tumblr, which is of camera phone pictures of stuff he’s seen around Iceland.)

Most restaurants have their menu in English and Icelandic. So far I’ve only seen two that were only Icelandic, one was “The Laundromat Café” in downtown Reykjavík (the waitresses still understood English perfectly), and one was the smoothie and ice cream bar in Kringlan, the mall. The cashier there was kind enough to translate the menu into English for me when I couldn’t read it (I understood the Icelandic but my eyes are too bad to read menus on the wall).

I’ve seen a few bands playing on the street that sing perfectly well in English, although I will save videos of those for a later post on street music.

Edit: Here’s a note from a doctor:
Að beiði xxxxxxxxxx vottast hér með að hann hefur verið meðhöndlaður vegna þunglyndis á göngudeild geðdeildar frá 22.11.2010 og hefur hann verið a lyfjameðferð vegna þess. Þunglyndið kann að hafa valdið því að að hann hafur átt erfitt með að einbeita sér við nám

This is to certify that xxxxxxxxxx has been treated for depressive disease at the outpatient clinic of the Dpt of Psychiatry at Landspitali University Hospital since 22 November 2010. He uses anidepressants on a regular basis. His disease might have interfered with his studies

I must note that while all the doctors, doctors’ assistants, and counselors have spoken English well, I’ve never met a doctor’s secretary who did (one couldn’t even understand when I wanted to book an appointment, so I had to find someone else in the hospital to help me).

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About the Author: sequoia

I try to write about two-thirds of the blog topics on cultural aspects and one-third on the language, because there's much more out there already on the language compared to daily life information. I try to stay away from touristy things because there's more of that out there than anything else on Iceland, and I feel like talking about that stuff gives you the wrong impression of Iceland.