There are two ways you might expect this article to start. One route would be to begin: “Icelandic is an inflected north Germanic language in the Indo-European group of languages”, at which point you'd fall asleep. The second way you might expect this article to start is thusly: “Icelandic is really weird and phunking difficult to learn!” but no, that's not right either.
Icelandic is hard to get perfect, it's true. In fact, to get away with being mistaken for a native speaker you probably need a sparkling intellect, the fascination of a child, a native Icelandic speaking partner and ten-or-so years. But here's the secret: you don't need to speak any language perfectly in order for it to be useful and fun.
There are, one could argue, three main elements to learning a foreign language: the vocabulary, the pronunciation and the grammar, and Icelandic actually does pretty well on two of them.
Icelandic has tonnes of cognates – words that are similar to their foreign equivalents – in English. It has even more in German and even more still in Danish/Norwegian/Swedish. It even has some in French.
Here's an experiment by way of proof which may succeed or may backfire horribly: there follows a paragraph from a random news article about Björk which appeared on Vísir.is. We are going to translate it as literally as possible to point out cognates and see if it makes any sense. Ready? Good!
Literal translation: Birch daughter of Godmundur has given from herself new tone art picture band with song (could also be layer) the Mutual Core.
Actual translation: Björk Guðmundsdóttir has released a new music video for the song Mutual Core.
Original Icelandic: Myndbandið var framleitt af Sagafilm og leikstýrt af virta, bandaríska leikstjóranum Andrew Thomas Huang.
Literal translation: Picture band the was fore-led of Sagafilm and play steered of celebrated (maybe also virtuoso) United (as in banded together) 'Statesian' play manager the Andrew Thomas Huang.
Actual translation: The video was produced by Sagafilm and directed by the respected, American director Andrew Thomas Huang.
Original Icelandic: Björk Guðmundsdóttir hefur gefið frá sér nýtt tónlistarmyndband við lagið Mutual Core.
As you can see, it's dead easy!
Icelandic pronunciation is fairly regular. You pronounce all the letters, and usually in an entirely predictable way. It might take a week of hard effort to get the pronunciation right – less time if you can already roll your ‘R's.
And as for the notorious grammar: yes it's damn near impossible – but it's also not essential to getting yourself understood. “Farðu frá mig – þú skrítið lítin maður” is a perfectly understandable way of saying “Leave me alone – you strange little man”, even though the grammatical endings to the words are all wrong.
Linguists often recommend people learn Ancient Greek or Latin as a way to better understand the origins and workings of modern European languages. But who wants to learn a dead language? Icelandic is a living language and it is also an ancient European language which will teach you a lot about the origins and workings of modern European languages…especially the Germanic ones like English, German and the Scandinavian tongues.
If this means nothing to you, then remember that while most Icelanders speak excellent English, we really love it when tourists turn up with a few basic bits of vocabulary under their belt. So putting academics aside, maybe you should still give it a try?
If you want to learn Icelandic, the University of Iceland's free online course is free and it's better than ever due to recent updates, and it's free. Highly recommended. And did we mention that it is free?