People of Nordic origin have spoken Icelandic since the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century AD, and the language hasn’t changed all that much since. But as the world has opened up more, it’s pretty clear that not much of the outside world speaks Icelandic. So do they speak English in Iceland as a way to reach out to the rest of us?
Icelandic began life as a language spoken in the Middle Ages by people living in Nordic countries, but quickly spread throughout the world. In fact, Icelandic has been recorded as being spoken by people in far-flung places such as Constantinople, Russia, France, the Hebrides, the Orkney and Shetland Islands, Scotland, England, and Ireland!
Unfortunately for the rest of us, Icelandic is considered one of the most challenging languages to learn because of its arcane grammar and outdated vocabulary (it’s even got letters that have survived from Old Norse!), which you might think would make visiting or living in Iceland a bit of a problem for foreigners. Fortunately, as you’ll see, many visitors find that they’re in luck, as the majority of Icelanders are multilingual and are fluent in several foreign languages – but does this include English?
Do they speak English in Iceland?
Not only is English spoken in Iceland, but the English language is also a subject in Iceland’s compulsory schools. Even Icelandic secondary schools teach English as a second or third language alongside Danish (or other Scandinavian tongues). Consequently, most Icelanders speak English well, and many speak English fluently.
For whatever reason, Iceland is a hotbed of polyglots. Apart from English, many Icelanders, probably even most Icelanders, are polylingual, and it is routine to meet Icelandic people who are at least trilingual. Apart from English and, as detailed earlier, Danish, many Icelanders can happily converse in Danish, French, German, and Spanish.
How widely is English spoken in Iceland?
Iceland is a remarkable country that is chock full of several amazing facts, but none more so than that nearly 90% of Icelanders hear spoken English every day. Of this enormous proportion of Icelanders listening to English, about two-thirds hear the language for more than one hour a day.
It is true that simply because people hear a language, they might not necessarily be speaking it. In fact, if you want to be really picky, you might question whether hearing English every day, as per the figures above, is actually the same as it being “widely spoken”. That may be true, but it’s also correct that those numbers definitely reflect the reality of most people actually speaking English in Iceland, especially given that Icelanders learn English so thoroughly at school.
There is also another reason why English is widely spoken in Iceland, and that is, the country is host to numerous foreigners. Granted that these foreigners are primarily concentrated in Reykjavik, English is indisputably the common language that is settled as the lingua franca between foreign nationals from different countries.
As with any country, it is good to have some notion of what passes for good behavior and what would be considered gauche or just plain bad manners. Although it is absolutely true that English is widely spoken in Iceland, it is deemed to be poor manners to simply assume that everyone speaks English. That is, it’s pretty basic to show good manners simply by making the first thing you say is to ask an Icelander if they speak English (even if the answer is likely yes).
As a literal aside, let me offer you this advice: don’t talk politics with an Icelander. Although there are only slightly over 320,000 Icelanders, they have a robust and cantankerous political arena, and your interventions may lead to accidental offense. Forewarned is forearmed!
Why do Icelanders speak English so well?
The reason Icelanders speak English so well is likely because they are so thoroughly exposed to the language. Icelanders are exposed to English at school from an early age, but outside of school, Icelanders can watch a lot of English-language TV and hours of English-language film.
Many people might find the idea of becoming proficient in another language simply from watching TV or movies unbelievable, if not even preposterous, but I can confirm it’s absolutely the case – both in Iceland and the rest of Scandinavia! In fact, one of the reasons that Scandinavia is considered (alongside the Netherlands) as having the best non-native English speakers in the world is largely because they generally don’t dub in these countries into their native language.
Instead, from a very young age, you have children watching most of their cartoons in English. While there may be subtitles in their native language, those enjoying the shows can’t help but pick up a foreign language vocabulary that the rest of us can only dream about.
Do you need to know any Icelandic language basics to visit Iceland?
It certainly doesn’t hurt to be able to speak basic Icelandic before visiting Iceland. It never hurts anyone to know some words spoken in any country they are about to visit, and that goes for Iceland. However, it would be unusual for a reasonably cosmopolitan visitor to struggle with communicating in Iceland in English.
It is a laudable goal to try and pick up Icelandic. After all, it is reputed to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. Based on this, it would be better for most visitors to Iceland to take a quick dip into travel guides that point out need-to-know helpful things such as Vik (a south Iceland town) is pronounced ‘Veek’ rather than ‘Vic’.
Some useful Icelandic words (that you should be able to pronounce!): “Halló” (hello), “takk” (thank you) and “bless” (bye).
Can you live in Iceland by only speaking English?
It is certainly possible to live in Iceland and speak only English. With the vast majority of Icelanders speaking excellent English, you will not have any trouble interacting with most locals. Some exceptions may include if you need to complete government forms, which will only be in Icelandic.
Of course, there is a big difference between living a life of the idle rich and working somewhere. If the plan is to work in Iceland, then the would-be immigrant must ensure that the job itself doesn’t require fluent Icelandic as a prerequisite.
Some jobs, unfortunately, will not, and cannot, be open to people who don’t speak Icelandic, but there are plenty of other opportunities for those with the right skills.
Can you get a job in Iceland speaking only English?
It might not be possible to get certain jobs in Iceland for those who don’t speak Icelandic, but in industries such as leisure, service, and tourism, English-only jobs do exist. Even many office-based jobs don’t require Icelandic as the country seeks to attract foreign talent.
Of course, it can definitely help to learn some Icelandic, even if it’s just to joke around with your colleagues. But Icelanders are well aware that the rest of the world doesn’t speak their language and with such a small population, they need foreign workers to sustain their economy.
This fact combined with their comfort in speaking English means that, in many cases, getting a job in Iceland speaking only English will be fine. This is particularly the case for those with specialist skills such as computer programming/science or something of a highly technical nature that can stand a somewhat better chance of being hired.
However, the fly in the ointment with this tactic is that Iceland might not have too many of these jobs going at any one time. That said, if you really want to experience this country for a longer period, you could always work remotely for a company based outside of Iceland given Iceland’s visa for remote workers that they have introduced!