trying to speak icelandic

try to learn a little of the language of the country you're visiting

4 min, 683 words

I and a good friend recently travelled for a week in Iceland. The landscapes, glaciers, caves, natural hot-springs, and waterfalls that Iceland is known for were, truly, incredible. But some of my fondest memories were of my interactions with Icelanders while trying out my very limited Icelandic.

I've travelled in Italy, and have experienced Italians welcoming, and warmly embracing, my attempts to speak Italian -- but the shock and happiness of Icelanders took me by surprise.

I've wondered about this... I'd estimate that two-thirds of the folk we met in restaurants and hotels did not speak Icelandic. Most were in their twenties, from other parts of Europe and especially Eastern Europe, working in Iceland for the summer, and all spoke English.

So perhaps part of the warm reaction I experienced was due to the fact that during the summer tourist season, many Icelanders have the odd experience of going to many places in their country where they will only be understood if they speak English.

But it could also simply be that the 330,000 Icelanders know theirs is a small country, that their language (an ancient form of Danish, I'm told) isn't spoken elsewhere, and that it is, by many accounts, more difficult to learn than many other European languages which are spoken by more people over a wider geographical area. And so perhaps they were simply appreciative that an effort was made.

Regardless of the reason, the surprise and warmth I experienced was moving. A few minutes after checking in (in English) to a hotel with a nice restaurant at the other end of the room, I went back to the front desk, paused, and said in English, "I'd like to try my poor Icelandic." Then I said, in Icelandic, "I'd like to eat, over there, at seven-o'clock. Is that ok?" The attendant looked at me blankly, and I said, in Icelandic, "I'm American; yes, my Icelandic isn't very good." He slowly shook his head, then started speaking rapid Icelandic that I couldn't understand -- which I told him, in Icelandic. He then told me, in English, that no, I had spoken perfectly, which was why he was so surprised. He then took me over to the bartender, and asked me to repeat what I'd said. The bartender, then, called over a waitress, and asked me to repeat what I'd said.

Great conversations ensued each time this happened. And even when my attempts at Icelandic failed with the summer European workers, talking with them about their language experience was fascinating. I asked some of the Eastern Europeans: If they were to run into someone from another Eastern European country -- would their common language tend to be Russian? They said no, that for some folk in their parents' generation that would've been true, but all the young people spoke English. In fact, two different twenty-something Eastern Europeans said that growing up, they learn a dialect if from a small village -- and both their country's language and English -- and then for a foreign language they'll most commonly learn French or German or Russian. That's right -- that phrasing of English not being included in the listing of foreign languages is accurate.

I'm cutting this post off here -- I've written more, about how I don't think of myself as very good at languages, despite what the above may imply. But I'll put those thoughts about learning languages in another post. To finish here, I'll just suggest that if you have even a passing interest in languages, and have a foreign trip coming up, take a stab at learning a bit of the language of the country you're visiting. Trying to do that stretches the mind; you're confronted with little conceptual shifts and subtle differences in thinking. For instance, in Icelandic, the shift from "restaurant" to "the restaurant" doesn't add another word, like in English or French or Spanish or Italian -- the word "restaurant" itself changes. Many of these shifts and mental challenges you'll feel but not understand. But that's ok -- that's exactly the attitude that can make your traveling experience richer and more rewarding.