Do People Speak English in Iceland?

Iceland is an amazing country on the edge of Europe. Heck, on the edge of the world. A country steeped in Norse mythology and history, yet with a modern and vibrant economy. The people are a proud bunch but very open to good conversation. So, with that in mind, you might be wondering how widely spoken English is in Iceland.

Iceland has a population of 364000 people of whom around 98% or 357000 people speak English. This is a very high proportion of people. The reason for this is that English is taught in school from an early age in primary school and the country is heavily influenced by English through popular culture and necessary business interactions. It is believed that English is more popular than Icelandic as a language on the island. 

English Use in Iceland

  • Reykjavík – The city of Reykjavík is the capital city of Iceland and the largest with around 125,000 people. There are some interesting museums to visit, a fantastic concert hall, great restaurants and lovely natural beauty nearby. The city is the centre of the island’s economy and the major companies and financial institutions are based in the city. As with everywhere else in Iceland the local people speak very good English.
  • Other Towns – There are a significant number of other towns in Iceland but non rival Reykjavík in terms of size. Much like in the capital, the local people speak Icelandic as their first language but they are high proficient in English.

What Languages are Spoken in Iceland?

  • Icelandic – Icelandic is the official language Iceland and is spoken by around 93% of Icelandic people. The language began being spoken in the 9th century when the country was settled. It hasn’t change much since from the old Norse it originated from.
  • Danish – Danish is taught in schools along with English. Iceland was ruled by the Danish until 1944 and consequently has strong cultural and economic ties with the country. It is said that around 75% of Icelanders can speak Danish.
  • English – In Iceland much of the economy relies on the local people speaking English. Medical equipment in explained in English, the vast majority of tourists don’t speak English but do speak some English, and many of the movies are in English with Icelandic subtitles. This has meant that local people have naturally learnt English to a very high level. It is estimated 98% of local people can speak English.

Is English necessary in Iceland?

  • Tourists – If you travel to Iceland, you are going to find that almost everybody speaks English. The people working in all aspects of the tourist industry be it hotels, restaurants, bars and tourist sights will be staff with people who very often speak English like a native speaker. If you wish to try a little of the local language you can but be warned it is one of the more difficult languages in Europe.
  • Locals – The local people come into contact with English everyday. Be it through their work, through the local radio or tv, or in interaction with one of the 2 million tourists who visit every year. In order to succeed in life in Iceland you have to learn English. In fact more people living in Iceland speak English than Icelandic and some worry that Icelandic will be completely replaced.

English vs Icelandic

Many people claim that Icelandic is a very difficult language to learn. This is really a question of perspective. Icelandic is a European language with a shared Germanic root with English. The vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and writing are all very similiar to English in comparison to say Arabic or Chinese vs English.

Here is a quick overview of some of the key features for anyone hoping to learn some Icelandic.

  • Vocabulary – The vocabulary is not too difficult to form and there are a significant number of cognates to speed you up in terms of vocabulary acquisition. Some examples are mother móðir, night nótt and stone steinn.
  • Grammar – Icelandic nouns have 4 cases and 3 genders, this can be tricky for native English speaker. The verbs conjugate like in English, for tense, mood, person, number and voice.The word order is usually subject-verb-object like in English.
  • Speaking/listening – There are a few sounds in Icelandic that English speakers find hard to pronounce. There is the voiceless version of the l sounds, along with some front rounded vowels of œ and ʏ.
  • Writing/reading – The alphabet has 32 letters which include many of the same letters as English with the addition of diacritic markers. There are also 2 extra letters not found in English.

Is Icelandic a Dying Language?

A lot of the local people living on the island of Iceland are worried that their language is dying out. In truth, the language is a very important part of the Icelandic identity. While other Nordic people might say, I am Norwegian because I am from Norway, and Icelandic person would say, I am Icelandic because I speak Icelandic.

The local government has tried to preserve the language though a variety of different means. Anyone who wants to become a citizen has to learn Icelandic fluently. But, many believe this will not be enough. English is the world international language and many economic and cultural norms function in English and a country of 364000 might find it too hard to compete against such a behemoth.

Final Thoughts

Iceland is truly worth a visit. There is such depth of culture and awe inspiring scenery. The land is vast and you could take a good month to explore the island in detail.

In terms of English, you shouldn’t be too worried about communication. The vast majority of people speak English, but if you want to try your hand at a new language, Icelandic is certainly one of the more esoteric you could try.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. Any comments would be apprenticed below.

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