Icelandic Language Blog

Basic guide for studying Icelandic Posted by on Feb 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

I’m first going to talk about how I did things, which was almost all an entire mistake. Then I’ll give you my basic recommendations.

In the very beginning I downloaded an Icelandic news podcast to listen to every day. The problem with doing this is that you listen to the radio… and you can understand nothing, not even a single word until probably a few weeks in. I think you should start out with something more at your level and then gradually move onto more complicated things, because all the topics can be so varied in these newscasts that even if you’re learning words you might never hear them. When you get to a point where you can spell out words from how they’re pronounced, this turns into a new problem – you don’t know enough grammar to even make sense of what you’re spelling. 80% of the time you probably wrote down a conjugated version of a word, and then you spend a week wondering how to use it. The good thing about doing this in the beginning is that you learn how Icelandic sounds pretty fast, so your intonation is better, faster. Once you can recognize spoken words from the podcast, you’ll always remember the correct, natural pronunciation.

Here is a lot of podcasts you can download. Podcasts are just recorded (or simply digital) radio programs that you can listen to on your computer. Click on the “Allt” (all/everything) tab to see more.

My very first textbook was a small, simple one with audio that tried to teach you basics for everyday life as if you were going to be an exchange student. This was a terrible book for anyone who’s serious at all about learning, because its goal is to have you memorize set phrases instead of grammar. Chances are, no one is going to ask you “Viltu hafa brauð með kæfu í nesti – Do you want to have bread with pate/spread for (a packed) lunch” exactly like that, if it ever comes up at all. Since it doesn’t teach much grammar, if you try to make your own sentences they’ll most likely be completely wrong even if you memorized the entire book. This is also a bad idea because unless you’re extremely lucky, you will never get to stay with an Icelandic family who is so nice as to only ever speak clear, simple Icelandic to you.

Then I decided that I should learn a lot of vocabulary and not focus on all this tough grammar, because at the time my textbook used grammar terms that I’d never heard of and couldn’t find explanations for that made sense. I was stuck on what cases were – nowhere could I find a clear explanation of “what exactly is a case” and “when exactly do you use them”, and most textbooks will immediately introduce you to all of the cases at once.

I learned thousands of words before I dared to start on grammar. I can say that this really did help me a lot and I don’t regret it so much. However I should have at least tried to slowly learn grammar at the same time. This is because grammar rules are a lot more important than vocabulary – even if you know all the words in their dictionary form, if you can’t decline/conjugate them correctly you’re going to make zero sense. And worse, you’re not going to be able to understand other people or things that you’re reading properly, because the grammar changes so much of the meaning. If you do want to take this route, you really need to learn how compound words are put together in Icelandic, and learn the rules for recognizing noun genders. This will make your life ten times easier even though you’re only going to be memorizing words.

I got a thick book that was basically just charts and charts of grammar. This was really great as I’ve still never found an English textbook that covered so many grammar points, but all the charts were confusing, messy, and they pressured me to think that I had to memorize all of this page and then all of that page before I could ever go onto the third page.

I ended up in “Icelandic for Foreigners” classes at the University of Iceland. This was complete immersion in Icelandic from day one. This was really, really bad in a few ways. I had focused on learning whatever vocabulary I could find when I was in America, but the problem with that was I had never seen any examples of vocabulary that they use in classes. So I couldn’t even understand what they were teaching because I didn’t know any of the words, and on top of that even though I’d been listening to audio, since they speak so differently in beginner’s textbooks versus real life I couldn’t understand anything at all. I also had no idea about the pace – I had thought I was learning a lot on my own, but when I got to class everything was taught at a speed five times what I would ever have tried to learn by myself.

Improving your listening skills in Icelandic is extremely easy compared to everything else, so I still wouldn’t actually recommend anyone focusing on listening or pronunciation until they’ve got a large part of the other subjects down, because you can learn the gist of it so quickly. Unless you end up taking immersion classes like me and really need to learn it more in the beginning. It also may depend on your teacher, but mine were all sincerely doing their best to never speak English and glare disappointingly at students who didn’t understand.

It took me about two months to be able to understand most of what was going on in class in a basic sense, and not understanding anything every single day is pretty crushing. I never ended up using my grammar textbooks that were in Icelandic (and required for the classes in school), I had to look up all explanations online in English. I did end up learning a huge amount, but the entire time I was in these tough courses I was constantly afraid someone was going to talk to me because I couldn’t understand what was going on – the speed of the course was so fast that as soon as I had sort of caught up, I was actually really behind again.

That being said… this is exactly why I have no idea what goes on in the minds of people who want to do a “full immersion” from the start, with not even an English textbook. Frankly I think that’s crazy – I’ve been there, where everyone only speaks Icelandic and your textbook is in Icelandic and you can’t even understand enough Icelandic to learn the Icelandic. That wastes a lot of time, because Icelandic grammar isn’t something that you can learn instantly or is intuitive. It would be better to have an English textbook and a dictionary alongside you.


In order to say what’s best to study, you have to think about what your goal is in the language right then. Do you want to be able to speak aloud with Icelanders, read books and newspapers, be able to talk understandably to kindergarteners, or write blog posts in Icelandic? All of these can use different approaches. That’s simply because, if all you ever want to do is talk then you have no need to practice writing, and you’ll need to study colloquial Icelandic. If you want to write, then please forget about colloquial Icelandic because there’s improper grammar and lots of slang in spoken Icelandic.

My first warning to you is that most native speakers won’t be able to explain anything at all unless it’s what a word means. Even my teachers, who were all native speakers and had been teaching foreigners for years (along with writing textbooks for foreigners in Icelandic), didn’t know how to explain hardly anything to us students. This is in part because there are some things in Icelandic that simply don’t have rules, and you have to use “route memorization”. Icelanders might also have a problem speaking “simple” Icelandic to you because they don’t know what “simple” is – they don’t know what things you haven’t learned.

If you want to be able to read, personally I started with learning how to read recipes. This is because the same words show up over and over (boil, bake, stir, heat up, flour…) and you can figure out what a recipe is saying even if you don’t know the grammar. If your textbook is in Icelandic, once you start being able to read your textbook you can quickly read textbooks for other languages too – I could read language textbooks far earlier than I could read newspaper articles or comics.

Googling for “uppskrift / recipe” will get you a lot of results. If you’re searching for something specific, you can go to wikipedia and search for it in English, then on the sidebar to the left where the other languages are click on “íslenska – Icelandic” and the headline should be the correct word. Often there are articles for things in wikipedia that aren’t in the dictionary, so you can do this when looking up a word too. (To search in English in the dictionary select “entire entry” in the drop-down list instead of “Headword only”.)

If you want to focus on grammar and cases then start with children’s books. There’s not much difference in what grammar appears in young kid’s books and adult books, it’s just that children’s books have less vocabulary to get in the way of things so you can clearly see how the cases work with their verbs and prepositions. Unfortunately, although they’re planning on making a lot (I overheard this in the library one day a few months ago!) of Icelandic Ebooks to get young adults to read more, I haven’t seen any yet. I also don’t know of any sites with collections of children’s stories online, except for complicated ones that aren’t so fit for learners.

If you want to focus on audio and speech, then I would say do not start by translating songs or singing along. This is because there’s “Icelandic” and then there’s “strange, poetic Icelandic that they like to use in poems and songs”. Sometimes songs don’t even make sense to Icelanders, let alone beginners of the languages. The band Múm is like this, sometimes their songs are just random strings of words. Songs also don’t have the regular speaking melody of someone in a normal conversation, and they might change sounds slightly because some sounds you just can’t sing.

You can go to the various Icelandic news sites and click “TV” to see archived videos from the news, and some programs. I know there’s a Danish program with Icelandic subtitles that you can watch online. I’m not sure if these sites block non-Icelandic located users from watching their streaming tv and their archived tv, although if I had to guess I’d say they block you from streaming tv only.

Vinsælt – popular
Nýtt – new
Fréttir – news
Barnaefni – (barna – child, efni – subject) Children’s topics
Rás 1 and Rás 2 are just music I think.
Sjónvarpsefni – (sjónvarp – television) tv topics. I think this is just actually “episodes of series we’re airing”
Söngvakeppni – Eurovision

One show I like in particular is the channel “Pure Ebba” because the lady speaks very clearly.

Sorry, this post has gone on long enough. If you want personal help on what I think you should work on next just explain your goal and what you’ve already studied in a comment here.

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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.


  1. Verónika:

    What helped you get on with the grammar part? What system did you use for your own particular style of learning? I hate grammar but find myself stuck and know I need to master this part to progress. Did you do any of the Icelandic Online classes before you moved over there?

    • sequoia:

      @Verónika Back when I started learning, Icelandic Online was REALLY bad. I would never have recommended it to anyone. But now they’ve improved it a whole lot and I think it’s pretty useful for learning useful words and stuff – it still doesn’t teach grammar well though. I did have to learn everything in Icelandic Online for my University courses though.

      Eventually, after trying a lot of methods, I realized that the best way for me to learn conjugations and declinations is to actually just memorize a grammar chart. Like this:

      (singular, masculine noun type one)
      hundur (nominative)
      hund (accusative)
      hundi (dative)
      hunds (genitive)

      Then I did the plurals right next to them, so the lines matched up on the notebook paper (so accusative is always on the same line):

      hundar (nominative)

      I just tried to memorize them four words at a time, in order. Then I’d add in another four lines. I did “strong” masculine nouns first, then “weak” masculine nouns (The pattern “hundi, hunda, hundum, hunda” versus “afi, afa, afa, afa”) then masculine definite articles, then started on the same thing for feminine nouns.

      I memorized other things totally separately. Here’s an example of what I’d learn on the side when I wasn’t just doing memorization:

      Use accusative with the object of a sentence. Ask “subject does what?” to find object. () means the word is in accusative.
      Ég sé (hund). I see a (dog).
      I see what? A (dog). Dog is the object, I is the subject.

      Ég elska (hann) – I love him.
      I love who? – Love (him).

      Words following these are also in accusative:
      um (about), gegnum (through), kringum (around), við (at, against), undir (going underneath, close to a time), með (with, as in “bringing something with you” or “something you have on you right now”)

      [] means the word is what causes things to be in accusative.
      Ég tala [um] (afa). I talk [about] (grandpa).
      I talk about what? About grandpa. Because of “um”, “grandpa” is accusative.

      í and á when meaning “to” (with movement).
      Ég fer [á] (íslandi) – I go [to] (Iceland).
      I go where? To Iceland.

      Before vanta, dreyma, and langa the word changes to accusative.
      (Þig) [vantar] (penna) – (You) [need] a (pen).
      Who needs? You. Needs what? A pen. Pen is in accusative because it is also the object of the sentence.

      I memorized the rules for nominative first, then accusative, then dative… I made sure to always go in the same order when learning things because that made it easier. Now if I can’t remember a conjugation I can really quickly “run through” the chart in my head and get to it fast.

  2. Chocolate Hostage:

    Verónika was asking if you had done the Icelandic Online before you had moved but you never clearly answered the question in your post.

    • sequoia:

      @Chocolate Hostage Yes, sorry. I tried a few times to learn from it before I moved but it was too terrible, I couldn’t do it. I learned from textbooks instead and had just copied its grammar lessons so I could piece together the grammar from those and from what was in textbooks. I ended up learning almost all of Icelandic Online after I did move though, because that autumn they updated it and I had to learn it for class. It’s much easier to learn from now.

      Before, Icelandic Online had only two sections – Menning and Náttura or something like that. Now it has four or five sections, plus a new layout, and I even have a file of what they teach per section. The sections that existed before are now the second sections I believe (two parts make up the second section), and there’s a really useful Bjárgir (or something) which is a survival mode before those two, that actually teaches useful stuff like “I have a medicine prescription”. Plus there’s two (I think) parts after that, which get progressively more advanced. Since at the time you needed to know all of at least Menning (supposedly) to start taking the degree course at the Uni, of course I tried to study it, but their teaching methods were just too terrible. I doubt I knew even half of the vocabulary and grammar but I still passed the entrance exam anyway. Even now I’d really recommend Icelandic Online for vocabulary and maybe listening practice but not for teaching you grammar.

      There were quite a few complaints in my class about Icelandic Online even after they updated it though, and it seems the people who make it almost never get any feedback so they take feedback quite seriously. I’m not sure if this means they updated it again already (It took them some years to upgrade it like this, after all). I don’t use it anymore since I’ve had to quit taking classes for now because of my living permit issues, but I might pick it up again and re-do all the sections. In that case I’ll note if anything’s changed.

  3. Belphoebe:

    I am primarily motivated to learn Icelandic in order to read it, because of it’s similarity to Old Norse. However, speaking it will be very useful as I will be studying in Iceland next year.
    Icelandic Online is very frustrating as the recordings are at natural speech speed and there is no translation of what is being said, just a photo of the situation. It’s difficult for me to believe that anyone actually learns Icelandic with it, so I plan to use it just as a supplement.
    There is also no way to check one’s pronunciation.
    Perhaps you can recommend some good learn to read Icelandic sources.