I think it’s just polite to try to learn a few words in the language of the country you’re visiting. You don’t need to speak fluently, and you’ll probably mangle the few words you know, but learning just a few — please, thank you, hello — is nice. I hate seeing people just start talking to others in English (or German or whatever) and assuming they will understand (even if you know they will). It just seems…rude.
Although, I have wondered sometimes if trying to speak the local language (badly) comes across as annoying or presumptuous. Maybe I’m overthinking this. At any rate, I’m a proponent of trying, at least a little. Memorize a few phrases, and try. At worst, someone might laugh. It’s not the end of the world.
Of course, everyone that we met in Iceland spoke flawless English. They switched between Icelandic and English instantly and completely. English as a second language is taught in schools from an early age, and even if you try a little bit of icelandic, everyone is likely to respond to you in English anyway. I’ve read that it’s a real problem for people trying to learn Icelandic — they have no chance to practice!
Icelandic is not an easy language. Remember the laughable attempts to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull when it erupted? I think most news agencies just said, “that icelandic volcano” after a few botched tries. There are sounds in there that are nearly unpronounceable to non-Icelandic speakers, not without a lot of practice. That ‘ll‘ in there, for example. It’s pronounced like ‘tl‘ with an odd little click at the end, and the very common ‘hv‘ is really ‘kv‘. And those weird vowel-looking consonants for the sound ‘th’ — þ and Ð/ð…it’s a bit daunting. I had exactly five lessons from Pimsleur before we went (the audio wasn’t released until the day before our flight!), but it was enough to say hello and ask if people spoke English.
First an easy one: Icelander say Hi and Halló. I think everyone in the world understands ‘Hi!’. There are a bunch of other greetings, but they tend to get confusing since there are versions you say to a man, and versions you say to a woman. For example, sael to a woman (seye-l) and saell to a man (seye-tl). You’ll hear ‘Goðan dag’ and ‘Goðan daginn’ a lot (good day, good morning). I can’t quite manage the -g sound on the end of things yet, but they sound roughly like gothan dai and gothan dai’n to me (with a soft ‘th’, like in though). And, when everyone says “Bless bless’ to you, it’s not that they are so devout; it just means ‘Bye!’
Yes and no are já (yow) and nei (nay). Thank you is easy, too — ‘takk’ (tock).
You’ll find coffee cups and t-shirts everywhere with ‘Ég tala ekki íslensku’ (yegh tala ek-ee eeslenskoo)— I don’t speak Icelandic. To ask if someone speaks English, you ask, ‘Talarðu ensku?’ (talar thoo enskoo). Chances are, you won’t have a chance to ask — just the way we pronounced ‘hello’ was enough to mark us as English speakers and every conversation started out there.
I found a very nice set of youtube videos on basic pronunciation for Icelandic, with simple, common phrases and nice, slow, clear enunciation.
Oh, and that pesky volcano? I think I finally managed to do it right – based on this: Ay-yah fyat-la yokut-l(uh)