Iceland is a small country with a population of only about 350,000 people, yet it still attracts some tourism and is famous for it’s outdoor baths and beautiful scenery. But is English widely spoken there and can an American or British tourist expect to get by there just speaking English?
English is almost universally spoken in Iceland, with many people very fluent as well. Icelanders learn English from a very early age and are exposed to English language film and TV a lot and so are very proficient at English. Almost the entire population can speak it to some degree.
English is mandatory in schools in Iceland from around the age of 7 or 8 and they also receive a lot of English language media which is not dubbed into Icelandic but played in the original English with subtitles. Therefore they are very adept at speaking and understanding English since they have so much practice from such an early age.
Most Icelanders also learn a second and sometimes a third foreign language as well, with many also being fluent in Danish, German, French or Spanish. So it is a very friendly country language-wise for foreign tourists. You can certainly get by very easily with English anywhere you go in Iceland.
However, there are some useful rules to follow when trying to converse with Icelanders. They are known for being quite a shy and introverted population and do not appreciate loudness or boisterousness, so approach them tactfully and quietly. Although English is widespread it is also a good idea to ask them if they speak it first and not launch into an inquiry straight away.
Why are Icelanders so Fluent in English?
This is something that comes up with all the Nordic countries – they all have very high rates of English fluency and proficiency, with a very high percentage of the population in all the Scandinavian/Nordic countries being conversational or fluent in English. Why is this the case?
Education is part of the picture, with youngsters in Iceland learning English from a very early age in schools like all the other Nordic countries, but this isn’t the whole reason, since many other countries like Japan and South Korea also invest heavily in teaching English in schools, yet spoken proficiency in these countries remains poor.
So how do Iceland and all the other Nordic countries nail English fluency so well compared to the rest of the world? In some cases like Swedish and Danish, it is because the language is actually quite similar to English in many ways, but this is less so with Icelandic, which as a language stands largely on it’s own and has remained pretty much unchanged since the 9th and 10th centuries.
Rather, it seems that the real reason that Icelanders and other Nordic countries are so good at English is the amount of real world practice they get at using it, as opposed to the theoretical learning of loads of vocabulary on paper that so many countries fall into when teaching English, which is boring and does not actually train a person to speak and understand the language.
The amount of un-dubbed English language film and TV shows they are exposed to in Iceland and other countries like Sweden and Denmark no doubt helps the youngsters to pick up English more easily.
Their learning extends beyond just classroom lessons and is more practical. This along with them starting to learn so young means that almost all people are proficient in English once they are adults in Scandinavia.
Basic Icelandic Phrases
In most of our posts we provide a section on some basic phrases in the language of a country to help you get by with the locals in case there is a language barrier. However, the Icelandic language is renowned for being one of the hardest in the world, brutally difficult to learn and pronounce.
Therefore there isn’t much point in this case, since the language is so hard, plus the fact that English is so widepsread that you won’t need to use Icelandic anyway. If anything, you could learn the three basic phrases: Hello, Goodbye and Thanks; here they are:
- Hello = Hallo
- Goodbye = Bless
- Thanks = Takk
- Jes = Já (Yow)
- No = Nei (Nay)
Other than that you are best leaving the Icelandic language alone! It is consistently ranked as one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn, so beyond the vary barest of basic greetings it is best to save yourself the hassle when visiting Iceland. English will get you by fine.
- Essential stats on Iceland:
- Population: 385,000
- Time zone: EST +5 hours; GMT +0 hours.
- Currency: Icelandic króna (IKR) ($1 = 144 IKR; £1=170 IKR at time of writing)
- International calling code: +354 (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad)
- Drives on the right
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.