How to learn a language


If Icelandic is the first foreign language you have learned, or is the first one you are seriously learning, then you should consider some important points about language learning in general before you begin. First, when you learn a language you should ask yourself what exactly your motivation is for learning the language. If you cannot answer the “why?” of learning your second language, you are already setting yourself up for failure. Maybe it’s the sound of the language, the people and culture, the nature, the media, the food, etc.? Find the reasons that the language interests you and keep that at the front of your mind always when you are learning. At some point down the road, it is likely that you will hit a slump in motivation or a plateau in your level growth; knowing your motivation will get you through this phase and prevent you from throwing in the towel.
One must not forget that there is a culture and a people (sometimes several) attached to the language you are learning. It is not advisable that you learn the language in isolation without any connection to the country/countries where it is spoken, as then your language will very likely sound book-y and unnatural. While you are learning, try to make use of resources such as media, places for chatting such as Discord, and other things that enable you to “give life” to the language you are learning by seeing how natives use it, manipulate it, and pronounce it. Icelandic, for example, is much different as a written language vs. a spoken one. For this reason you should search out ways to see how Icelanders, for example, speak Icelandic.

Preventing burnout

I would now like to touch upon the topic of burnout. When venturing into the beginnings of your new second language, you should keep in mind that languages are a marathon, not a sprint. In wanting to learn efficiently, one may be tempted to learn loads of words or grammar information all in one day, spending hours upon hours in order to feel like one is progressing. This is a fatal mistake for several reasons. First, “cramming” by its very nature ensures very little retention of useful information. Whether it is vocabulary or grammar, learning too much in one day can actually become counter-productive, as most individuals' brains just do not efficiently retain things learned in that manner. Second, pushing oneself to learn massive amounts of information in one day is not sustainable. Doing this over a period of time may seem fine for some at first, but in the long-term it will almost without fail lead to burnout. This is a situation where your energy begins to die out, and you begin to feel bored or tired of the language you’re studying. Moreover, one may lost motivation after seeing that studying five to six hours a day has not been giving equal returns in progress in one’s second language. In many and even most cases, this leads to one giving up the language entirely. For this reason, paired with finding a motivation and connecting to natives & the second language’s culture, I urge you as a learner not to cram and push yourself too vigorously in the early stages of your learning. If you do feel yourself at the onset of burnout, take a few days away from the language to let your mind rest. You will likely be able to come back to it feeling refreshed and continue back on your moderate but consistent track.

Building a habit

In the last paragraph, I noted the very real topic of burnout in language learning. To avoid burnout, there are several things you should know a language learner. When I say that language learning is a marathon, I mean that a language is best learned by moderate and consistent effort over a long period of time. When I learn a language, I always dedicate myself to a consistent (but not exhausting) level of learning each day. Usually, this means roughly ten vocabulary words (or more if I know a language closely related to the language I’m learning) and reading and copying down a chapter in a grammar book; this in all typically does not take more than one hour of learning per day. You may also wish to switch up your routine; try watching series in that language (rely on English/native-language subtitles only at A-levels of learning - otherwise use the subtitles of that second language or no subtitles at all). Similarly try learning songs in that language and singing along with them for pronunciation/accent practice. You can also try reading material that is appropriate for your level. Basically, try to reach 30 minutes to an hour daily of content that is understandable to you to some degree, i.e. content that you can absorb and learn. You do not have to start out at this amount of time each day, either. You can start at twenty or even ten minutes a day, for example, and work up to that level over time.
The key to truly successful language learning is making learning that language a part of your routine. If you want to improve at a steady and relatively fast pace (e.g. reaching B1 in a eight months, reaching B2 in a year and a half, etc.), you are required to make learning that language a habit, to the point where it will no longer feel like a chore (if it does at the beginning) but rather a normal part of your day. This will require conscious effort on your part to make learning your second language a part of your day; to make it a habit, it will take somewhere between 20 and 30 days. After it has become a habit, it will become easier to learn your second language even on days where you are particularly busy. Have a lot of homework? Try reviewing words or learning 5-10 new ones on Memrise while you eat dinner. Are you on your lunchbreak at work? Try watching a few minutes of a series in your second language or listening to a few songs. Doing this often, even if it feels weird at first, will make learning the language natural to you, which is crucial in achieving long-term success.


Let us now suppose that you are well on the road to mastering the language learning habituation described above. If you are beginning from base A0/A1, then here I will lay out what your expectations should be from A1 to the C levels. Let’s say that you are learning 10 new words a day as well as regularly reviewing using a spatial repetition app like Memrise or Anki, and on top of that you are either learning new chapters/units of grammar regularly and watching TV shows from time to time to pick up new words and practice listening. If you steadily hold this pace, and practice speaking and writing equally to reading and listening, you should speed past A1 fairly quickly, maybe within the first 3-4 months. As an A2 learner, you must continue to build your vocabulary and grammar knowledge in order to improve at building comprehensible and increasingly-complex sentences; you can also do this more quickly by finding Icelandic native speakers on language exchange apps like HelloTalk, or joining communities where Icelandic speakers exist such as on Discord. If you continue to work at this daily, and are able to find a way to practice speaking to improve fluency over time, you will likely reach B1 between eight and twelve months of learning.
From the point of B1, your language learning will become relatively more challenging. The path between B1 and B2 is filled with considerably more vocabulary words and much more intensive practice in speaking, grammar, etc. than A1A2 and A2B1. I remind the reader of the section on burnout, as this is the point where you will see fewer visible returns on your language learning, as the material you use or watch will become more difficult and you may feel as though you are struggling. This is the point that requires continued effort on your part, however, and does not mean you should give up. This is a normal phase of language learning and will likely last for months, but over time you will begin to notice breakthroughs that you were not able to see before. Your pronunciation, fluency, and overall understanding of the language will begin to shine greater than it did previously.

The plateau

At many points in your language-learning journey, it is possible that the normal methods you have been using will randomly stop working to help you progress. It may feel like you are no longer gaining anything from the material you are using or the method you are using. This is known as a language learning plateau, a common phenomenon among language learners where you begin to level out at the proficiency you are currently at. In the majority of cases, a plateau is a signal that you should recognize to mean that the material you are using has become too familiar and easy for your current level. You likely have fallen into a place where all of the material you use, all of the conversations you have, are exactly inside your comfort zone. To defeat the plateau, you need to stimulate your language learning by seeking out new and more challenging ways of learning the language. You should try new things such as completely turning off subtitles in media you are watching, talk about more challenging subjects with your language exchange partners, push yourself to speak more fluently in your language, and learn increasingly detailed and niche vocabulary. In order to improve, you must force yourself to go out of your comfort zone and always keep your brain in a mode where it feels the need to be attentive and learn new information.

Well-rounded learning

This brings us to the last section of general language tips I will provide. If your goal is to become proficient in the language you are learning, you must pay attention to train all four main skills of a language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. If you devote all of your time to learning the language from a textbook and texting people, but never speaking to natives or hearing them speak, you will be very shocked when your writing is advanced but you are completely unable to hold a spoken conversation in the second language country. For that reason, you should never let your learning become too lopsided. Always balance out learning textbook grammar and vocabulary with watching shows, chatting with natives or finding ways to speak your second language in some fashion.

Icelandic-specific skills

Written vs. spoken Icelandic

If you are just beginning your journey into Icelandic, there is an important difference that need to understand before you begin: written Iceland and spoken Icelandic are fairly different from each other. This is because Icelandic is by no means phonetic in the way that it is spoken. For that reason, as you begin learning, you should try to learn how certain letters (especially ð and þ) are pronounced in different contexts. There are several resources on this website to help you do just that, so we recommend you take a look within the “Explanations” section. Other ways that you can do this are by watching Icelandic media that have subtitles in Icelandic. This is best achieved by watching media on the website of the popular TV and radio station RÚV with Icelandic subtitles turned on. In order to do this, you will need a VPN switched to Iceland, as the content is only available within Iceland’s borders. Likewise, there are some shows and movies available on Netflix that have Icelandic subtitles such as Brot.
In any case, you should begin practicing the slurredness of Icelandic pronunciation fairly early on so that you can get used to it and not end up speaking phonetically (i.e. strangely). To do this, pair any learning you do with a book with spoken and audio practice whenever possible. There are different ways to do speaking practice. You can use apps like HelloTalk or Discord to find Icelandic speakers to talk to, or if you want more efficient and structured practice sessions you can utilize websites like iTalki to book lessons with Icelandic teachers. You should likewise build vocabulary and grammar, and to do this apps like Memrise or Anki can be useful tools to look at if you are not already acquainted with them.

Written by Árni Angelo Deleo