How to Learn Icelandic
There are 112 waking hours in the week. Every one of those hours is an opportunity to improve your Icelandic, and the fastest way to learn is not to spend more time in a classroom. The fastest way to learn Icelandic is to learn to make the most of every waking hour.
I’m the laziest private Icelandic teacher around because I avoid teaching Icelandic as much as possible. Instead, I teach my students how to learn.
This goes back to that old adage: “Feed a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. Every piece of information I teach a student is a fish given, but today - today we’ll learn how to fish.
Focus on getting comprehensible input. That means reading and listening to Icelandic that you understand. This is the single most important thing for learning a language.
As a beginner, it can be hard to find comprehensible input. Try not to get overwhelmed with overly difficult things (children’s books are surprisingly difficult): try to find things made for language learners.
Vocabulary is also hugely important. Grammar is hilariously overrated.
Comprehensible input is listening to and reading Icelandic, and it is ridiculously, enormously, obscenely important. If you’re a beginner, you need to find material specifically made for second language learners.
What is Comprehensible Input?
Input is something that you put into something. That’s Icelandic that you put into your brain via your eyeballs or ear drums, aka reading and listening to Icelandic. This is basically synonymous with exposure or immersion.
Comprehensible is synonymous with understandable, and means that you understand what you’re reading or listening to. If a person talks so fast you can’t catch a word, or if a text is so advanced you have to look up every single word, it’s not comprehensible. You zone out, and your brain turns it into white noise. You don’t learn from white noise.
You don’t have to perfectly understand every word, subtlety, and nuance, but if you don’t at least get the gist, it’s not comprehensible.
The Importance of Comprehensible Input
If you come away from this article with just one thing, let it be a deep appreciation for the importance of comprehensible input.
Comprehensible input is essential, absolutely vital, the single most important thing for learning a language. Nothing else even comes close: not vocabulary, not speaking or writing practice, and certainly not grammar study.
Comprehensible input gives you thousands of examples of what the language is supposed to look like, helping your mind subconsciously internalise all that information. In that way, reading and listening improves your speaking, writing, grammar, vocabulary, and even pronunciation.
Speaking practice improves your speaking. Writing practice improves your writing. Reading and listening improves your everything.
Where to Get Comprehensible Input
The more advanced you are, the easier comprehensible input is to find. Advanced speakers can just live their lives and get tons of comprehensible input, no special effort required. Relaxing in front of the TV, reading the news, chatting with a friend: it’s all comprehensible, it’s all input, and it’s all good.
The less advanced you are, the harder comprehensible input is to find. If you can barely put two words together, reading a book or watching TV is nothing but an exercise in frustration.
Children’s Books Are Good for Native Children
Children’s books are not the magic bullet many people think. I can understand the thinking: kids are pretty dumb, so if they can read it, I should be able to, too.
The thing is that by the time kids are reading they have already been getting comprehensible input for hours a day, every day, for SIX YEARS. You will not be their equal in your first weeks.
Adults learn languages faster than kids, though: you can catch up in a couple of months, if you get enough comprehensible input.
Beginners Need Beginner Materials
Beginners need material that is specifically made for language learners. Intermediate learners benefit from those materials as well, but can often make do with simple texts for natives, such as children’s and teen literature.
For beginners, some of my favourite options are:
- Viltu læra íslensku? (a video series available on Youtube)
- Árstíðir, by Karítas Hrundar Pálsdóttir (printed book. Audiobook available on Storytel)
- Dagatal, by Karítas Hrundar Pálsdóttir (printed book. Audiobook available on Storytel)
- Short Stories in Icelandic, by Olly Richards (printed book. Audiobook available on Audible)
For intermediate learners, some additional options include:
After comprehensible input, vocabulary is the most important thing you can spend your time on, no matter your level.
You will learn a lot of vocabulary if you get enough comprehensible input, but some direct vocabulary practice is also beneficial.
What about grammar? Pronunciation? Accent? Speaking? Writing? WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?
The best way to improve nearly anything is through copious amounts of comprehensible input. Your pronunciation, accent, and grammar, and thus also your speaking and writing skills, will all improve if you give your brain lots of examples of natural usage.
In exceptional cases, direct speaking and writing practice can sometimes trump comprehensible input. This is only the case for advanced learners.
For example, if you understand everything around you but you have a mental block about speaking due to anxiety, you need more specific speaking practice. If you’re preparing to write university essays in Icelandic, you need specific writing practice.
10 words: Read a lot, listen a lot, to things you understand.
Consider buying me a cup of coffee =)