Overcoming Icelandic Language Learning Plateaus

It feels too early in my Icelandic language learning adventure to hit a plateau—I mean, I definitely don’t have all of the basics mastered—so perhaps I just need to get into more of a routine and be less hard on myself for sucking at Icelandic grammar. 😉

I think part of why I feel so stuck at the moment is that while I can follow an Icelandic noun declension chart just fine, it seems as if there are so many exceptions to the rules; it feels nearly impossible to figure out for certain on my own.

  • First, look up the noun to identify if it’s male, female, or neuter. (Because sometimes I can guess the gender correctly, but not always.)
  • Then sort out if it’s strong or weak. (This still does not feel obvious to me.)
  • Then follow the noun declension chart which has some of the common endings, but not all. (I know I probably just need to get into a groove with noticing/remembering patterns.)

Getting over the noun declension hump feels brutal. I’m sure I’ll grasp it with time and more practice, so perhaps it’s best to move onto Icelandic adjectives. And perhaps I need to be a bit kinder to myself and remember that while learning the many forms of Icelandic words is for sure a must—I don’t have to figure it all out right now. 

I’ve read a good bit lately about getting over language learning plateaus, and here are a few takeaways that resonate most with me at the moment:

  • Recommit to your routine, and adjust it if it’s not working for you. I know that I felt my best when I practiced with Pimsleur audio lessons during my commute to and from work each day. I haven’t done that for awhile—instead, I’ve often switched to podcasts totally unrelated to Icelandic. Oops.
  • Try out new materials. Feeling like you’re in a rut with your same old Icelandic workbook or app? Switch things up. Try a different app (Mango Languages, Memrise, and Drops are the best, in my opinion), hop onto YouTube (I haven’t practiced with these much, but there are lots of seemingly helpful videos to practice your Icelandic here), or get a few Icelandic children’s books to apply what you’ve learned.
  • Practice speaking aloud no matter what. It can be easy to practice Icelandic on an app and slowly get into the habit of listening and playing one of the app games with less and less any verbal practice. (It defeats the purpose, I know, but I’ve been there.) I think one area I struggle is when I have no idea if I’m saying things correctly…then sometimes I just pause. In Sid Efromovich’s “5 Techniques to Speak Any Language” TEDxUpperEastSide talk, he describes our “language database,” which contains “all the sounds and structures that we know.” Diving into all of the new sounds and structures beyond our database—when we’re practicing Icelandic, for example—is the space where, as he puts it, “nothing within our knowledge […] will tell us when we’re getting the structures right, nothing to tell us when that sound is precise.” He adds, “When we say it, we could say it perfectly, but in our minds, it will sound like a mistake.” The discomfort here is what we need to embrace, he says; it’s “the trigger that you need to look for because that is the signal that tells you that you’re going beyond your database and that you’re allowing yourself to explore the realm of the new language.” Okay! Talk about motivation!
  • Practice both parts of a conversation. In his same talk, Efromovich suggests having a “shower conversation,” where you practice both speaking parts of a conversation. He says, “the beautiful thing about a shower conversation is that it allows you to find wherever you have a gap in your knowledge, because you’re having a conversation on both ends.” Whether it’s while getting ready in the morning, cooking a meal, or driving to work—I kinda love this back and forth solo practice method.
  • Keep a language learning journal. I aim to use this blog to jot down my language learning journey—the wins, the struggles, the aha moments, and just cool stuff I experience along the way—but I also have a (lengthy) Google Doc that I use to write out questions I have for my Icelandic tutor or just areas I don’t want to forget to review with her. 😉
  • Pause practicing if you’re not in the right headspace. There won’t be much learning going on if you’re exhausted or having a bad day. I can attest to this, and I imagine you can too. Give yourself a break when you’ve had a rough day or are low on sleep. Some might disagree with this one and suggest practicing a few minutes anyway, but I know that I only grow more frustrated with myself when practicing if I’m at an energy low or distracted with something in my personal life.
  • Change things up if/when language learning stops being fun. This one is tough for me to live out. I want to figure out this grammar stuff! I also know that I should probably focus more energy on practicing speaking instead—so that’s what I aim to do at the moment.
  • Be honest with yourself about whether or not you’re really experiencing an actual language learning plateau. Are you definitely at a halt or are you using a learning plateau as an excuse? Hell, I might be.

To end, I want to include this thought from Dreaming Languages; the author writes: “To avoid encountering a plateau we should change our focus from learning towards acquisition, and try to acquire language as used by natives in context, without grammar explanations and without using translation. If we avoid confusing learning about the language with the acquisition of the language, the place we draw gratification from will change completely.”

Cheers to having fun with Icelandic, speaking it aloud daily no matter what, and pausing on grammar when it feels like too much. 🙂

Bless í bili,


P.S. — Unless you have to for work or some other commitment, might I suggest that we all resist the urge to try to learn a language in three months, six months, or even one year? I’m always so stunned when I see blogs and products that promise fluency in a set amount of time. That’s never been my goal—becoming fluent in a specific amount of time—but I imagine that must be so stressful to attain. Yikes!

Icelandic Pronouns + Possessives

Okaaay, so remembering the basic Icelandic pronouns and possessives can still be a struggle for me, so I wanted to have a quick reference here. 🙂

I still mix up which form of “they” to use.

Icelandic Pronouns
Credit: Dr. Jennifer Wagner

The video below should be helpful if you’re unsure of how to pronounce Icelandic pronouns; the narrator even goes into the verb, “to be”:

Aaand I also often confuse minn / mín / mitt.

Icelandic Possessives
Credit: Dr. Jennifer Wagner

I will definitely be referring to these charts often, and I hope this helps a few of you as well. 🙂

Sometimes Icelandic is Logical

Icelandic might be quite tough for native English speakers like me to learn, and I might be terrified by noun declension tables, but Iceland does have moments where things feels all too logical.

Hard to believe? I know, but check this out:

  • almenningsbókasafn = public book museum = public library
  • ísbjörn = ice bear = polar bear
  • inniskór = inside shoes = slippers
  • hitastig = heat points = temperature
  • gleraugu = glass eyes = glasses
  • svefnherbergi = sleep room = bedroom
  • eldhús = fire house = kitchen
  • dýragarður = animal garden = zoo
  • flugvél = flight machine = airplane

See? And there are lots more logical words just like this. 🙂 So in those moments where you’re deep into Icelandic grammar and want to cry, remind yourself of these easy to understand words. 😀


The First Time I Correctly Heard and Spelled an Icelandic Word

Spelling in Icelandic isn’t something I focus on much right now. I definitely care about reading and writing in Icelandic, but I care more about being about to listen and understand it—and being able to respond back in Icelandic.

Yes, I know how to spell a number of words thanks to lots of Icelandic vocabulary practice (the app, Drops, is my favorite resource for vocab practice), but I hadn’t necessarily heard a new word spoken and immediately thought that I could perhaps sound it out and spell it…until this month!

In a recent episode of an Icelandic culture podcast I quite like, All Things Iceland, the host (Jewells) asks her guest (Aldís) about her favorite Icelandic word or phrase. Aldís has a few, with one of them being “kraðak,” which she shares just after the 42-minute marker in case you want to check that particular part out.

Obviously, while listening to the podcast, I didn’t have a reliable way to check the spelling of this word—so I sent my Icelandic friend Vilborg (who is a literal angel for answering my plethora of incredibly random Icelandic questions that pop up) a message recapping this bit of the podcast episode. I explained what the word meant and how I thought it was spelled (k-r-a-ð-a-k), and then asked her if she knew what word I was referring to.

And guess what?! I was correct! I know—kraðak is not a lengthy, super difficult word, but it does have an Icelandic letter (called “eth”) so I was pretty pleased with myself for guessing the correct spelling on this one. 😉

Cheers to small wins, language learning firsts, and Icelandic friends who help along the way.



Are Icelanders frustrated with Icelandic learners?

This feels like an unfair question, but it’s something I read about here and there in a myriad of blogs and Iceland-based English news publications.

From everything I’ve read or been told, Icelanders of course appreciate people who attempt to learn Icelandic. However, I do read things similar to the below via The Reykjavík Grapevine:

“Even for motivated speakers, Iceland’s language environment is studded with obstacles to frustrate immersion. Perhaps because it lacks this history of foreign language students, Icelanders themselves have […] particularly ‘little patience’ to listen as foreigners transmute the foibles and fortes of their native tongues into Icelandic. Furthermore, there is remarkably little difference in the accent spoken between different Icelanders, phonetically speaking, which creates friction when foreigners with their own accents try to assimilate.”

I don’t live in Iceland, nor am I even nearly fluent in Icelandic, so I’m sure these situations definitely happen—but if you’ve read things similar to the above on your own, try not to let it discourage you from trying. 🙂

I’ve only visited Iceland a couple times (so perhaps I’m not much of a credible source on this!), but with each bookstore / bókabúð and coffeeshop / kaffihús I visited, I said the standard “Halló! Ég er að læra íslensku. Ég tala bara svolítið íslensku.”—followed by the simple exchanges I knew about books, coffee, numbers, and money. Not one Icelander seemed frustrated with me. Each smiled and offered simple slowly-spoken responses in Icelandic, and some even taught me some new words (like receipt, which I think is kvittun?). I never felt an ounce of impatience from them—only encouragement.

And this past summer, while talking (in English, of course…sigh) with my Icelandic friend and her Icelandic boyfriend, he recalled hearing two foreigners speaking Icelandic while he was in line somewhere and he indicated how lovely it was to witness. My friend’s sweet mother even greeted me in Icelandic when I entered their home and was so gracious with my (surely) very jumbled attempt at responding back in Icelandic.

I appreciate The Grapevine’s concluding advice in the same article I reference above:

“To that end, reams of shamelessness and Icelandic friends to make accountable for error correction and speaking practice will go far, as will education that puts a premium on ‘on task’ speaking and listening. It’s not until you start speaking and interacting that it suddenly all makes sense because of a process you arbitrarily set in motion with a heavy investment in time. Adequate language resources and an understanding of how you learn are critical, but with Icelandic, it’s best to just dive in.”

(Speaking of Icelandic friends helping with error correction—this really is a massive gift, even from afar. My closest friend in Iceland sends me an occasional message politely correcting my attempt at writing an Icelandic Instagram caption 🙂 and I love her so much for it! I’m often wrong, and she knows I’m eager to learn and how much I appreciate her help. Ask your Icelandic friends to correct you—it really is helpful beyond measure.)

My point is this—if you’re like me and were a bit bummed to read about the (potential) impatience of Icelanders with regard to speaking with Icelandic learners, practice speaking anyway. There’s a good chance I’m super naive (or just have had lots of random luck) and you very well may have some bummer encounters like the one described by Grapevine, but I also know from experience that there are also lots of Icelanders who will gladly chat with you in Icelandic. Keep practicing and hold onto those memories of helpful Icelandic exchanges when they happen. 🙂

Bestu kveðjur,

My Dream: An Icelandic Crash Course in the Westfjords

Okay, so this is one of many dreams for me, but you get my point. 🙂

The University Centre of the Westfjords (in Ísafjörður) offers a one-week Icelandic “crash course” that I really, really want to take next summer—or perhaps even the Intermediate B1 class…but that might be a bit of a stretch goal. 😉 Read more about their intensive course offerings here.

You can also check out the below articles from summer 2018, which each offer a nice overview of the program:

  • “Fólk er of gjarnt á að skipta yfir í ensku” via RÚV
  • “Vinsamlega talið íslensku, takk” (by one the University Center’s Icelandic teachers) via BB
  • “Don’t Speak English To Those Trying To Learn Icelandic” via The Reykjavík Grapevine Magazine

It all sounds absolutely amazing. #Goals, right?


Icelandic Language Learning Goal Setting

Autumn is in full swing and we have just about one quarter left (!!!) of 2018. Why not make use of it and squeeze all I can out of these next three-ish months?

I know setting some manageable goals for myself will both motivate me and help me better notice my progress. (Because ambiguous goals like “learn Icelandic” and “practice every day” haven’t been working well for me lately.)

Lindsay Does Languages has this to say about measuring progress: “The first flush of a new language is fun and joyful and lovely. But then things start to get harder, the ‘slope’ of achievement gets steeper, and complete lack of motivation seems to become our closest friend. Sucks! Do you want to know one thing that really helps to stop this? Measuring your progress. Documenting your learning has a huge impact on motivation, improvements, and overall success.” <– This! This! This!

In the remaining quarter we have left in 2018, I hope to complete the following:

  • October 2018
    • Be able to recite the Icelandic alphabet from memory. 🙂 I have most of it down, but I still forget the pronunciation and order of some letters.
    • Complete all of Pimsleur’s Icelandic Level 1. (There are 30 lessons, and I’ve completed 20+ of them.)
    • Complete Chapters 6-7 in my “Learning Icelandic” workbook.
    • Complete Mango Language’s Icelandic Unit 2. (I’ve only completed Unit 1; I stopped using the app once I started Pimsleur lessons.)
    • Complete the “Food & Drinks,” “Nature & Animals,” “People & Health,” and “Travel & Health” vocab categories in the Drops Icelandic app.
  • November 2018
    • Complete Mango Language’s Icelandic Unit 3.
    • Complete Chapters 8-11 in my “Learning Icelandic” workbook.
    • Complete the “Home & Garden,” “City & Shops,” “Business & Tech,” and “Society & Politics” vocab categories in the Drops Icelandic app.
    • Complete Icelandic Online 1 through the University of Iceland.
  • December 2018
    • Complete Mango Language’s Icelandic Unit 4.
    • Complete Chapters 12-15 in my “Learning Icelandic” workbook.
    • Complete the “Fashion & Clothing,” “Fun & Recreation,” “Science & Wisdom,” and “Sports & Fitness” vocab categories in the Drops Icelandic app.
    • Complete Icelandic Online 2 through the University of Iceland.

I work full-time and I’m teaching an evening college course this semester, but these milestones do feel manageable for me now that I’ve written them out. And I’m familiar with all of above resources already, so I won’t have to figure out how to use a new Icelandic program/app.

I do have other Icelandic books and apps (too many, perhaps!), but I’ll tackle those in 2019. I think it will help me to stay focused on just a few of my Icelandic resources rather than keep switching back and forth between them all.

And I surely do have more specific goals (like sorting out noun declensions and other grammar difficulties), but I know that will come with practice. For now, I’ll focus on what I can control, like the above tasks. Wish me luck!

Bless í bili,



More Icelandic Numbers

Once you sort out how Icelandic numbers one through four / einn through fjórir work (at the very least, learn the masculine form used with counting), then dive into the other numbers.

I quite like this simple Icelandic counting YouTube video:

Furthermore, as Dr. Jennifer Wagner from ielanguages.com points out:

“The numbers hundrað, þúsund and miljón have set genders (neuter, neuter and feminine), so it is important to decline these as plural numbers when using any number after 1 (i.e. tvö þúsund). It is also important to use the correct gender of the numbers 1 – 4 with these numbers. To make matters worse there can be more than one form of a number in a larger number. For example, hús (house) is neuter. So to say 2031 houses you must use the correct form of 2, 1000 must be plural and 1 must be neuter as it qualifies the noun house. 2031 houses in Icelandic would be tvö þúsund þrjátíu og eitt hús.”

Confused yet? Don’t worry—you’re not alone. 😉 Keep practicing. I promise it gets (a bit) easier, even if it doesn’t feel like it now.

Icelandic Numbers
Credit: Pinterest

Gangi þér vel!


Learning the Icelandic Alphabet

Honestly, I’m embarrassed to say that I still don’t have this down. I sometimes mix up the order and it’s still a bit tough for me to remember the pronunciation differences between o / ó and u / ú. Bless those handful of Icelanders who chose to make Icelandic alphabet YouTube videos because they’ve been incredibly helpful. 😛

This is the first YouTube video that helped me out:

And below is a newer YouTube video that I like even better because a) it doesn’t have any annoying background music with it and b) the narrator pronounces each letter twice. 🙂

And if you’re looking for a song to help remember—or you’ve got it down and you want to practice a bit faster—you can try out this YouTube video made for children:

If you’re anything like me, you’ll both dread this cartoon alphabet video and also have a special place in your heart for the catchy song simply because it makes remembering a bit easier. It’s very much a love-hate situation for me. 😉

And here they all are so you can practice on your own. 🙂

Credit: Omniglot

Good luck!



Becoming Fluent in Icelandic

Let me first clarify for anyone who possibly landed on this page via a Google search that I am not fluent in Icelandic—not even close to fluent. 🙂

Some have asked me why I chose to learn Icelandic of all languages (a story for another time) and if my goal is to become fluent in Icelandic.

I live in the United States / Bandaríkin, so the thought of becoming fluent in a language that really isn’t spoken anywhere near me doesn’t feel very realistic. 😉 And becoming fluent in a language with a category 4 “Language Difficulty Ranking” (out of 5) via the Foreign Service Institute also serves as a bit of a reality check! However, yes—my eventual goal (that surely will take years)—is to be fluent enough to understand Icelandic in everyday life on my trips there and to hopefully even respond back in Icelandic (and not obsess over my incorrect grammar usage) in a way that makes some sort of sense…even if it is at times a mix of Icelandic and English.

In the immediate, I hope I can engage in casual conversations in 2019 that go beyond the standard “Hvernig hefurðu það?” / “Hvað segir þú gott?” with Icelanders during my Iceland visits. I’d be thrilled if at some point in 2019 I can engage in enough common conversation exchanges at stores and restaurants in Iceland with confidence—and with Icelandair / Air Iceland flight attendants while traveling. 🙂

ILSC-San Francisco suggests the following: “Try to relate your goals to actual language functions such as ‘order a coffee’ or ‘understand the main points of a news report’ rather than grammatical functions like ‘learn the subjunctive tense.'”

Okaaay. That feels doable. I do know enough Icelandic to be able to order coffee (yay for small wins!), but understanding main points from Icelandic news would feel like a solid win. I’m working toward that in 2019—specifically with regard to watching to the news via RÚV online.

I’ve heard others who are learning Icelandic share that they could get to a point where they understand what Icelanders are saying, but couldn’t actually speak Icelandic back as a response—thus, they couldn’t ever really participate in conversation without responding in English. If I could ever understand Icelandic enough to be able to respond even in English, I’d be stoked.

So beyond speaking Icelandic in stores and restaurants—and understanding enough of the news to “get it”—I would really love, love, love to be able to speak a fair amount of Icelandic with the Icelandic friends I’ve made. One day…

While becoming fluent in Icelandic may never happen for me, I’m certainly going to work toward that as a (very far away) longterm goal. Until then, you can find me trying to figure out what’s happening in the news / fréttir on RÚV. 🙂