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!

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