Icelandic, a North Germanic language with over 330,000 native speakers, is the official language of Iceland and the closest equivalent to the language of the Vikings spoken today. Due to Iceland’s cultural insularity and geographic isolation, the Nordic tongue has remained so well preserved that present-day Icelanders can still read ancient Viking texts in their original Old Norse with little to no assistance.
This dynamic language, with its elaborate grammar and rich literary heritage, has fascinated writers, scholars and linguists across the world for centuries, including J.R.R. Tolkein, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
For Washington native Julie Summers, coming to Iceland has been more than just an extended vacation or a conventional study abroad trip—it has been an opportunity to explore her great grandfather’s heritage and a chance to immerse herself completely in the Icelandic language and culture.
Time for a Change
Julie visited Iceland for the first time in 2012, when she participated in a study abroad program for U.S. citizens of Icelandic descent who want to explore and learn more about their ancestry.
“Part of the program involved a home stay with distant relatives who spoke almost no English, so I had to use my Icelandic, however limited it was,” she explains of her initial travels to Iceland. “Communicating with them was a daily struggle but so rewarding when I succeeded. After that experience, I decided to apply for a grant that would allow me to return to Iceland as a student. I was at a point in my life where I needed a change, and I wanted to find something challenging and rewarding, something of which I could be proud.”
After moving to Iceland in 2014, Julie enrolled in the Icelandic as a Second Language program at the University of Iceland, which has proven to be an intellectually-stimulating if not exhausting endeavor.
“The most difficult part is not the grammar, pronunciation, or huge amounts of memorization involved, but the mental and emotional toll of trying to exist in a second language,” she says of her continuing studies in Iceland. “It can be draining and disorienting not understanding what’s going on around you, always lagging a bit behind. And there’s the constant looming presence of English to combat; Icelanders are swift to switch to English with foreigners, which can be frustrating for learners.”
Despite its challenges, learning Icelandic has been personally fulfilling for Julie and has given her a deeper understanding and insight into her family history: “The most rewarding part is noticing progress and being able to connect with people,” she explains about the process of learning such a complex language. “Recently, I was able to translate my great-grandfather’s obituary from Icelandic to English, which allowed me to connect to my roots in a deeper way and also do something meaningful for my family.”
A Chance to Explore
Although Julie has spent the majority of her stay in Iceland hitting the books and delving into her Icelandic heritage, she has also ventured outside Reykjavík on several occasions to catch a glimpse of the nation’s breathtaking scenery.
“Reykjavík’s rich cultural life offers countless opportunities: concerts, literary events, festivals for every occasion,” she describes of her daily life in Reykjavík. “But one of my favorite experiences this past year was taking an impromptu 24-hour road trip around the Snæfellsnes peninsula with four friends. It’s an easy drive from Reykjavík and you can easily drive around the entire peninsula in a day; the challenge is not to stop every 100 feet to take another picture!”
She recalls another noteworthy trip to Iceland’s rugged and desolate Westfjords, a prime destination for amateur and professional nature photographers alike.
“There is nothing quite like seeing the farm where your great-grandfather was born and lived the first nine years of his life before emigrating to North America,” she says of the journey’s personal significance. “Besides that, the Westfjords are stunningly beautiful and because the region is a bit off the beaten path, there’s much more solitude to be found.”
Julie’s interactions with Icelanders during her studies have been generally positive, as she’s been able to forge relationships with distant family members she would have otherwise never met.
“I’ve generally found Icelanders to be a bit reserved at first but very warm and sincere once you get to know them,” she reports. “I’m lucky to have distant relatives here, and they have welcomed me with open arms. In some ways, the Icelandic idea of family is a lot broader than in the U.S. Here, it doesn’t matter so much if you’re someone’s first cousin or fifth cousin; either way, you’re a frændi or frænka (the Icelandic words for cousin).”
A Daily Adventure
While studying abroad can be a difficult adjustment for even the savviest of travelers, Julie has determined to make the most of each day she spends in Iceland, learning from every experience and growing academically and personally as much as possible.
“Life in Iceland is a daily adventure and a wonderful opportunity,” she says, summarizing her experiences. “Although adjusting to any new place can be challenging, there is a supportive community of expats and foreign students here, and there are plenty of ways to get to know locals.”
She highly recommends Iceland to others both as a travel destination and as a place to study abroad: “This country has so much to offer, and whether you come for a semester, a year, or longer, you will leave with beautiful memories and a desire to come back.”