Greek in a Week – How I Reached the ‘Toddler Stage’

“Isn’t your mum Greek?” they asked. “Yes she is, but…” “So what do you mean you want to learn Greek?” Urgh, how do I explain? The fact that I’m half Greek doesn’t endow me with an instinctive ability to speak the language. It just doesn’t work like that! I haven’t actually heard my grandparents talk in Greek ever since they’ve discovered how creatively they could swear at each other in Hungarian.

So after a whole series of disastrous attempts to learn Greek (which accompanied my life from the age of seven onwards), it was time for a change! This summer, a week into our annual one-month “holiday” in my hometown, Budapest, my family made a quick decision to drive down to Southern Greece for a week. What’s more, we were to stay at a Greek family friend’s house who – although he speaks English pretty well – has been insisting that I learn his language ever since the day I was born. What a wonderful environment for some intensive language practice!

How It All Started

I’ve always been proud of my Greek heritage and have been obsessed with this wonderful language from a very young age. In fact, I’m said to have been able to read a few Greek letters before I got around to learning how to read in my native tongue. I enjoyed listening to my mum singing Greek lullabies to me and even learned them off by heart, despite not understanding a single word. This must have been the point at which I began to have a clear image in my mind about the concept of there being different languages in the world, spoken by different peoples and in different ways.

But the real “fun” began as soon as I was fairly confident with reading and writing Hungarian. By the time I reached Grade 2 of primary school, I was already receiving free private lessons from a teacher who was associated with the Greek community of Budapest. I’m not sure whether she ever deserved the precious title of a ‘teacher’ (I ended up wasting two afternoons a week for 3 years), but at least my reading and writing skills developed – if nothing else did! So I then continued with my Greek lessons at another centre of the minority council, where I was taught by a monolingual Greek teacher. Well, I’m all for monolingual teachers, but it simply doesn’t work if you’re still a complete beginner! Imagine sitting in an empty classroom with your teacher sat directly opposite you trying to explain 3 grammatical genders, 4 cases and all the rest in a language you can barely say hello in.

So how much was all this worth? As I’ve mentioned earlier, I can now read and write Greek fluently, and have no trouble with the quality of my handwriting either – this tends to be a problem considering the Greek alphabet has some rather strange-looking letters. My accent is said to be quite good, some natives have gone as far as claiming I sound just like them… I put that down to hearing my grandparents speak Greek accentlessly during my childhood years, as well as the incredible amount of Greek music I’ve grown up listening to. But let me tell you, all this is worth nothing if you don’t know much of the language itself! I’d say by the age of 14 I was able to more or less understand the conversations my mum occasionally had with relatives on the phone – or with Greek shopkeepers and ‘gyros men’ with whom she struck up a conversation about the quality of Greekness which they shared. As for speaking, not a single word!

Giving It Another Go

So at the age of 12 I moved to England and from then onwards there was no such thing as Greek lessons. I was away from my grandparents too, and were not receiving the monthly bilingual diaspora publications from the Hungarian Greek community either. In other words, I had no exposure to the language whatsoever. My first serious attempt to recap my knowledge of Greek was about two years ago. I started to follow an amazing free online course called Filoglossia (Φιλογλωσσία) whilst creating my own virtual flashcards which I could practise with on my computer and on my smartphone, using Anki.

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50 pages full of notes, not a word spoken!

I ended up with loads of notes and lists and tables, all of which I managed to leave in England this summer. So there I was in Hungary, rather excited about my upcoming visit to Greece but unable to go through my language notes. With little access to the internet, I was forced to rely on my mother for recapping vocabulary and on my own memory for practising grammar. I spent hours imagining basic scenarios and acting out conversations in my head. A bit anti-social, I know, but it works!

So about 2-3 days before departure it was time to absorb some new vocabulary. With limited time and resources, I chose to have a look at some frequency lists for a start. This one, in particular, is based on a database of movie subtitles – in other words, lots of informal conversations and everyday topics! I do recommend frequency lists for learners of all languages regardless of their level, although I must say that one must have a rough idea of the target language’s grammar in order to be able to consult frequency lists as they often include inflected forms.

Holiday Time!

Having spent a night in Bulgaria, we arrived in the early evening at Uncle Antonis’ beautiful fishing village on the island of Evia. It goes without saying that my first encounter with the locals was a rather shocking experience – I managed to grasp the gist of what my mum was saying to them, but did not understand a single word that came out their mouth. Local dialect? Too fast? Nope, none of that. They were just native speakers and I wasn’t at all used to listening to them.

So Day Two followed and by then I had familiarised myself with the various TV channels which were to become my new resources for learning Greek. All the words, phrases and grammar I had learnt in the past were now re-appearing in context – they were no longer words and tables in a book, but essential components of everyday conversations. Voilà, my confidence was thus recovered! Fortunately, Star and Epsilon TV were broadcasting plenty of American series with Greek subtitles. People tend to underestimate just how useful these are for those preparing to go out there and apply their knowledge.

Because that’s exactly what I was about to do. “Speak from Day One,” as the well-known Irish polyglot Benny Lewis would say. And while it didn’t happen on Day One, I soon found myself trying (and very often failing) to strike up a conversation with the local shopkeeper or the next-door neighbour. I wasn’t too scared about talking in Greek, my only significant fear was not being able to understand a single word of their response. To my surprise, I was able to form complete sentences and sometimes managed to keep a basic “conversation” going. Most of these conversations, however, ended with me awkwardly walking off and wishing I hadn’t made a fool of myself yet again! But with hindsight, I don’t regret any of it.

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Small talk with strangers? Challenge accepted!

When It All Pays Off…

Now here’s the bit that turns my boring biography into an exaggerated success story. Our last night in Greece happened to coincide with the arrival of Uncle Antonis’ two (monolingual!) nieces and – as we were aiming to depart around 1am and had plenty of packing to do – I ended up being left alone with the newcomers for about two hours. This was my big chance to test myself and I took it! Although I’m pretty sure there I didn’t manage to put together one correct sentence, they understood everything I tried to say and did not mind at all if I asked them to repeat or rephrase something so that I could understand it.

So after a week in Greece, my speech echoed the clarity and ornateness of a toddler’s. Don’t laugh, for me that really is an achievement for two reasons. One, I can now have basic conversations with my grandparents in Greek; and two, I have now identified the many sacrifices I need to make when attempting to speak in a language I barely know. Here’s a collection of tips you may find useful in the earliest stages:

  • Tenses are overrated. (Greek has so many that I’ve stopped counting!) Fair enough, languages wouldn’t be as sophisticated without them, so make sure you do learn and enjoy them all later on. But for now, stick with the three main ones: past, present, future. Thanks to a magical power of context and expectation, people will almost always understand whether you’re referring to something you did an hour ago, something you used to do when you were a child, or something you have already finished doing. After all, languages like Hungarian manage with just the three.
  • Rephrasing helps! It doesn’t matter if you’ve started a sentence or are just about to do so, as soon as you realise it isn’t going anywhere, rephrase it. For instance, I tend to find it a lot easier to replace complex forms of indirect speech with direct speech. Yes, you will sound like a one-person theatre company, but take into account the benefit of being understood. You may wish to experiment with some rephrasing in your free time too! Oh, and dear Greek-learners, please tell me if you’ve managed to find a way to say something in the conditional without actually using the conditional. I admit I failed that one!
  • Don’t stress over the ‘aesthetic’ stuff. Genders, dative case and so on. Greek is full of things like this; and so are Slavic languages. As I said before about the various tenses, they are all amazing and must be appreciated, but please don’t let them stop you from speaking in the early stages. As far as Greek is concerned, I’ve mastered the basics, but I wasn’t at all embarassed when everything I wanted put in the genitive case whilst talking ended up being masculine. And then what? Will they still understand you? Yes, they will!
  • Ask for an explanation without ruining the conversation – it’s possible! I’ve been told by others several times that they often refuse to ask about a word they don’t understand because it stops the conversation flowing. Let me just ask one thing: doesn’t not having a clue what the other person is on about ruin the conversation? Fair enough, your conversation partner may get slightly annoyed if you keep repeating the well-constructed sentence “Excuse me, I didn’t understand that word; could you please explain to me what «λεωφορείο» means?” My technique is the following: as soon as my conversation partner uses the word, I softly and quietly repeat it as a question. “Leoforeío?”

So What’s Next?

Some of you may be aware that I’m moving to the beautiful seaside town of Bournemouth (South West England) in 2 days as I’m about to start my first year at university. And now the good news: Bournemouth is renowned for its Greek and Cypriot populations – well, at least among all the Greeks and Cypriots living in England! There are shops, restaurants, community gatherings and lots of opportunities to practise the language. My university even has its own Hellenic Society! Having said that, my course leader is Greek too; and I’ve already met two Greek-speakers from my course alone. So Ladies and Gents, let the game begin!

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Bournemouth, my new home. If the weather was better and the houses weren’t Victorian, I’d think I’m in Greece! (Source: Hermitage Hotel)

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Czech This out, Everyone!

If anything truly shows the gravity of my ten-month absense from the world of blogging, it must be the fact that I’ve only just come across my first (and, so far, my last) encounter with a Slavic language: a paragraph in Czech which I remember being rather keen to show off on here. The story in a nutshell: last summer I asked my pen pal Kristýna from Olomouc to write a short and simple letter to me in her native tongue, thus challenging me to reply in a language I’d never worked with before. It was not until I received her letter that I began to realise how much of a pickle I’d got myself in.

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I guess declining Czech adjectives works out cheaper than a trip to Olomouc… (Source: Palacký University)

Alright, conjugation wasn’t too hard to get my head around, but I must admit declension proved to be much worse than I’d expected it to be. As Wikipedia kindly informs us, “Czech has seven cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, locative and instrumental. This essentially means that a word can have 14 possible forms in singular and plural.” And on top of all this, Czech has three grammatical genders. The concepts of declension and the case system had already been familar to me from Hungarian, which happens to be an agglutinative language. But combining all this with gender seemed a bit too much to me, despite having had considerable practice with this kind of stuff when studying Modern Greek grammar. Anyway, here’s the letter I received:

Ahoj! Jak se máš? V Česku právě začaly prázdniny. Já a moje rodina poletíme v sobotu do Řecka. Já se moc těším. Užij si prázdniny! Hodně štěstí s českým jazykem. Čau!

“Hello! How are you? The holidays have just started in the Czech Republic. My family and I will fly to Greece on Saturday. I’m really looking forward to it. Enjoy the holidays! And good luck with the Czech language. Bye!”

And after about a week of diving into Czech grammar and sweating blood trying to construct a handful of basic sentences, my reply followed:

Ahoj Kristýna! Mám se dobře, děkuju. Řecko je krásná země a Řekové jsou velmi milí lidé! Moje rodina přišla z Řecka, proto strašně se mi líbí jazyk a kultura. Čeština je velmi těžky jazyk! Je to skoro tak těžké, jako maďarština. Užij si prázdniny!

“Hi Kristýna! I’m fine, thank you. Greece is a beautiful country and Greek people are very friendly. My family came from Greece so I’m obsessed with the language and the culture. Czech is a very difficult language! It’s almost as difficult as Hungarian. Enjoy your holiday!”

Well, Kristýna congratulated me on my effort and claimed that my paragraph appeared to have been written by a native speaker. Yet for some reason I doubt that a thorough search on the internet could provide me with an inexplicable divine power to eliminate all little mistakes in written Czech. Feel free to point them out one by one!

My name in 43 scripts – Exploring the world’s writing systems: Level 1

“43 scripts? You must have put a lot of effort into that!” Indeed, thank you! Let this be my excuse for delaying my new series of articles as much as I possibly could. So, let’s talk about the series. The next 7 articles, this one included, will consist of me going on about my experiences with writing my given name (Bálint, in case you’re wondering) in 43 different scripts. I’m not going to sound modest at all but I must tell you that every single one of them required an in-depth study of the writing system. Should you use the wrong tone marker on a mid-class sonorant consonant in Thai or type the wrong conjunct symbol in Oriya and you’ll end up with a wrong transcription! Oh, and I haven’t yet mentioned the struggle with fonts, and keyboard layouts, and Unicode and all the rest… Nevertheless, I had a lot of fun, and I hope you will too! Continue reading

‘Huckleberry Finn’ – An Unusual Attitude to Linguistic Diversity

Since you are reading my blog, I assume you are aware of the fact that there is a wide variety of languages in existence around the world today. It may even be hard for you to imagine that many African slaves in the 19th century United States had no knowledge of the concept of ‘language’. They had no access to education and were very unlikely to encounter foreigners in their area. In addition, they had neither the right, nor the money nor the will to travel abroad. So with regards to an understanding of linguistic diversity, they were just like us in our childhood years! I remember hearing my grandparents talking in Greek and not being aware that they were conversing with each other the way I did in Hungarian. In other words, I saw foreign languages as gibberish. Have I got evidence for this? Of course I do! Once I shouted out a made up sentence in front of my parents and finished with the following remark: “This is my Greek.” I’m not sure if this experience would have foretold my future passion for constructed languages and glossopoeia, but it did leave my parents astonished, there’s no doubt about that.

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Best of 2013 – The 15 Most Popular Articles of the Year

First of all, I wish you all a New Year that brings luck and prosperity, fills your home with joy and spirit, and gives you new confidence and courage for a fresh start. Let me re-introduce the 15 most visited posts of 2013 on ‘I wish to be a polyglot!’. It seems to be quite a diverse list of articles, which encourages me to continue exploring a wide range of topic areas in the New Year. With over 5000 views and 120 comments, my blog has become my proudest achievement of 2013 – besides my GCSE results, of course. I would like to thank you all for being kind enough to sacrifice some time and have a quick look at the stuff that go through my mind. Oddly enough, your comments indicate that some of you even consider my articles ‘interesting’ – special thanks for that! A propos, I am aware of the issue with the comments and promise to answer them all as soon as possible. Continue reading

English in blocks – An overview of the ESA project

Thanks for reading polyglot_ESA2  I know, that does look a bit strange! But in reality, it isn’t anything special, just ‘I wish to be a polyglot!’ written in the English Syllabic Alphabet. You’ve heard of the ESA, haven’t you? Well, if you happen to be nodding, I can guarantee that you are confusing it with a similar script. The only reason why I declare this with so much confidence is that this article is the first ever written mention of my newest project. So what is ESA about?

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Spelling ðe old ƿēᵹ, mēcing oe ċēnġe

Þrughæut ðe histori of ðe Inglisc lenguiġe, ðēre heve bīn numerus oettempts tu simplifǣᵹ its rāðer complicētid ōrþografi. Ænd, olðough ǣᵹ hefen’t fæund æni prūf fōr ðis, ǣᵹ æm scōre ðæt oemong ðe sæcgested spelling rīfōrms ðere ƿōere oe fᵹū ƿhiċ intēnded tu ristōre Ænglo-Sæxon ōr Middle Inglisc spellings. Æs ƿī ōll nōƿ, sæċ prōġects tend tu fēᵹl feri īsili, æs tudēᵹ’s Inglisc-spīcing sōsæᵹeti is sō oeccæstomd tu ðe modern ōrþografi ðæt ðe æᵹdīæ of rīfōrm is nefer tēcen sīriusli. Continue reading