“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.
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.
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.
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!