Which Words to Learn

May 11, 2024
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Keys on a keychain in front of a white background
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To speak any language, you need to know a LOT of words. For Icelandic, that number is somewhere close to 6,000: much less than for English (15,000-ish), but still a challenge.

Eventually, you’ll want to know all the words, but if you stop to look up and memorise every single word, you’ll never get anything done. Also, you’ll get frustrated and quit, which is… *checks notes*... bad.

The important thing is to pick your battles.

Key Takeaways

Don’t stop to look up every single word; focus on keywords, which are words that are important to the context and which you couldn’t easily guess.

Don’t add every keyword to your Anki; only those which are relevant to you.

Learn words and phrases, even expressions, but don’t bother learning whole sentences, unless you’re a beginner and the sentence is really important. 

Focus on KEYwords

That capitalisation on the word “key” in the heading is important. If you stop to look up every single word that you don’t know perfectly, you’ll never get anything done. Instead, focus on keywords.

A keyword is two things:

  1. Important to the context where you find it
  2. Hard to guess in that context

Keywords Are Important

Let’s take an example of an unimportant word.

  • That ??? monster is coming, run for your lives!

That ??? word is certainly hard to guess: it could be almost any adjective. Is the monster big? Vicious? Randy? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. The point is that it’s a monster, it’s coming, run!

Our mystery word isn’t important in the context, so it’s not a keyword. It would be a waste of time to look up this word and add it to our Anki.

Keywords Are Hard to Guess

Let’s take a look at a word that isn’t hard to guess.

  • He’s so tall that he bumped his ??? on the ceiling

It’s certainly important to know what he bumped, but it’s also quite obvious from context that it was his head. If we already know the answer, why would we waste time and energy looking it up and adding it to our Anki?

The mystery word is easily guessed from context, so it’s not a keyword. It would be a waste of time to look it up and add it to our Anki.


Finally, one more golden rule:

  • Only add words that are relevant to you into your Anki.

If you read a text where the word jarðhitavirkjun (geothermal power plant) is important and also hard to guess it’s a good move to look it up so you can understand the text. Unless you’re a volcanologist, though, it’s probably not worth adding to your Anki for later study.

Grey Areas

Obviously, the importance of a word and how easy it is to guess is subjective. You’re the final judge of what feels important or easy to you. 

You’ll have to make a lot of judgement calls.

Learn Words and Phrases, not Sentences

You should learn words and phrases, and even expressions.

  • að gefa = to give
  • að gefast upp = to give up, to surrender
  • Að sjá ekki skóginn fyrir trjánum = to not see the forest for the trees; to be so focused on details you miss the big picture

All of those indicate a single concept that we want to learn.

Don’t bother learning sentences.

  • Strákurinn gaf henni gjöf = the boy gave her a gift.

Sentences introduce too many points of potential failure. Will your guess count as correct only if you get all four words right? What if you conjugate gaf wrong? What if you decline henni wrong? Or if you accidentally use the singular of gjöf?

You also just don’t gain much from memorising sentences. How often do you need to say the exact phrase he gave her a gift? Not often. It’d be better to learn the individual parts, and then practise making sentences.

Beginners Should Learn Some Sentences

The exception to the “don’t learn sentences” rule is when you’re a brand-new beginner. At that stage, it’s a good idea to learn by heart a few sentences that you’ll need to use all the time. Here are a few examples.

  • Hvernig segir maður ___? = How do you say ___?
  • Hvað þýðir ___? = What does ___ mean?
  • Ég heiti ___ = My name is ___

Learn One Meaning at a Time

Many words have more than one meaning. Some even have dozens; the verb run has 170 different meanings.

When you run into a word that you want to learn, you’ll often find a whole bunch of different meanings. It can be tempting to put all of them into your Anki, but don’t

That would be overwhelming at best, and at worst counter-productive as you are so occupied with unimportant and rare meanings of a word that you fail to remember the important one.

Focus on the meaning that makes sense in the context. If you later run into the word with a different meaning, learn that meaning then and add a new card into your Anki. You might end up with three different cards in your Anki all with the same word on the Icelandic side, and that’s okay.

  • Mál = a cup
  • Mál = an issue
  • Mál = speech, a language

The important thing isn’t to learn words, per se, but meaning. When you review your words, focus on that.