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Ask A Linguist: Why Is Icelandic Such A Difficult Language To Learn?

Ask A Linguist: Why Is Icelandic Such A Difficult Language To Learn?

Noemi Ehrat
Words by
Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published July 12, 2018

Whether you’ve already been to Iceland several times or whether it’s your first visit, you might encounter some struggles in deciphering or even speaking Icelandic. This is why we asked Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, a Professor for Icelandic at the University of Iceland, what makes Icelandic such a difficult language to learn.

Icelandic is not more difficult than most other languages, but the level of difficulty depends on your mother tongue and other languages you have been exposed to. True, Icelandic nouns, adjectives and pronouns have four cases, three grammatical genders, and two numbers; adjectives inflect for gender; and verbs have three persons, two numbers, two morphological tenses, and two finite moods.

This may seem complex but none of this makes Icelandic special—there are languages with more cases or more complex verbal systems. There are also some peculiarities in the Icelandic syntax, as well as some uncommon sounds, such as voiceless sonorants, but the relationship between spelling and pronunciation is fairly regular.

However, I realise that many foreigners find Icelandic difficult and hesitate speaking it to natives. One of the reasons for the hesitation may be that Icelanders have not been very tolerant of grammatical errors, foreign accents, and other signs of “faulty” Icelandic. Until very recently, Iceland was a strictly monolingual society, so we were not used to foreigners trying to speak the language and tended to criticise their attempts rather harshly. But only practice makes perfect, and to master a language we must get the opportunity to use it actively in different situations.

Unfortunately, Icelanders have the habit of switching to English whenever they realise that the person they are speaking to is not fluent in Icelandic. We must change that attitude – we need to be more patient and tolerant of “incomplete” Icelandic. Icelandic with a foreign accent is also Icelandic.

Read more “Ask A…” here.


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