Learning Greek – Part 1

You hear so many stories about people who have been living in Cyprus for five, 10, even 20 years and never bothered to learn Greek. I definitely didn’t want to become one of them, so I arranged to start classes even before I left the UK. That was in early January. A long eight weeks later, I’m done with beginners’ Level A1… and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

What You Can Expect

Greek uses the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages so what you can expect to get out of Level A1 is pretty standard. In my class we covered things like:

  • The alphabet and phonetics
  • Greetings and introductions
  • About genders
  • Some cases (singular)
  • Basic expressions and questions
  • Some articles and prepositions
  • Numbers
  • “to be” present tense
  • Type A verbs present tense

Essentially, it is all really useful, salt-of-the-earth type stuff, but there is by no means any Greek prowess in my brain at the moment (as you’ll see in the mistakes below). Be under no illusions: Greek is tough and you won’t learn to speak it in eight weeks.

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Some of my Greek-learning paraphernalia.

What You Don’t Expect

Right now Greek and I have a love-hate relationship. She drives me crazy because of all her quirks, which I perceive as superfluous because they make my life more difficult:

  1. I have never looked at a calendar and thought: “You know that these months need? Two names each! Oh, except for August, it’s cool with one.”
  2. I already speak two languages fluently, neither of which is highly inflected. Surely all these declensions in Greek only exist to make me unhappy?
  3. There is no need to give everything a gender. English got it right when it decided to do without during Middle English. I’ll blame the Real Academia Española for keeping Spanish with two. But surely three genders is just unnecessarily absurd?
  4. Why would an alphabet have three letters for I but no U?  And, in case those three options don’t satiate your short-I needs, you can also make the same sound with three extra vowel combinations: ει, οι, υι.
  5. Forget any concept of autonomous identity you might ascribe to names, because names change in Greek, particularly men’s names. So when I talk about my husband he is Σίμος. But when I talk TO him he suddenly becomes Σίμο. Having to remember two names seems like all the hassle of polygamy without any of the perks.

The love part of my relationship with Greek, is still only budding. Truthfully, I love the way it sounds; it is a beautiful language to listen to, particularly the Cypriot dialect with all its funky CH and J noises. And there is a lovely satisfaction whenever I watch TV, listen to the radio or overhear a conversation, and realize that I can understand just a little bit more each day.

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In the foreground, the months of the years (all 23 of them). In the background, homework with lots of red corrections.

Embrace the Mistakes

On their website my Greek school enigmatically states their philosophy as: “Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage”. I’ve interpreted that line from Cavafy’s Ithaca to mean: Don’t worry about how totally crap you are, just enjoy the journey of learning. So, fortified by their ethos, I’ve tried to dive into it as unselfconsciously as possible and have, as a result, made an amazing array of mistakes along the way. Here are a few of the situations I’ve been in, and their relevant lessons:

  1. When you want to write “very good” but end up with “city good”, because they are homophones:

    very – πολύ
    city – πόλη

  2. When you want to show off your meager sentence construction skills at a family BBQ and think it’ll be nice to tell the small children about your dog, but rather than being impressed that you understand genders, their mother informs you that you’ve been saying “bitch” repeatedly. No wonder they were giggling so much.

    male AND female dogs – σκύλος

  3. When someone asks you to do some simple arithmetic and your response goes a little something like this: 50 + 20 = week

    70 – εβδομήντα
    week – εβδομάδα

  4. When you want to describe someone as a housewife but instead end up saying that “She doesn’t work because she is a family”.

    housewife – οικοκυρά
    family – οικογένεια

  5. When, in response to “how are you?”, your teacher replies with a new word and then goes on to ask if anyone knows what it means. You rapidly scan your mental vocab bank and remember the word from last week’s lesson on punctuation. You realise it makes no sense, so confusedly ask in English whether that wasn’t the same word as “period”. At which point everyone, including yourself, erupts in laughter because you realise you’ve just asked the male teacher if he is menstruating.

    perfect – τέλεια
    period – τελεία (which, incidentally, is only used for the punctuation)

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Some lovely books that I am not able to read yet.

What to Consider

Despite my frequent bursts of frustration, I am really enjoying learning Greek and would certainly recommend it to other expats. There are a lot of options for learning though, so everyone should weigh up which is best for their schedule, budget and learning-style. I decided to pay for group lessons because I knew that they would be the most effective for me in terms of speed and cost-efficiency.

I’d tried at-home CD/book programs before, thinking I could learn some Greek to use on holidays but, when you have no pressure to study regularly, or people to practice with and ask questions to, you aren’t going to learn much and you will retain even less. Using language is inherently interactive, so learning in a group setting, where I was forced to react and contribute has been valuable. It is also cheaper than having private tuition.

I know that the Cypriot Ministry of Education offers free Greek lessons, but after a bit a research I found that these have a reputation for large classes and varying teaching quality. They also only run twice a week.

So, instead, I chose to go with Learn4Good Larnaca, essentially because I’d heard through the Cypriot grapevine (eg, my father-in-law spoke to a neighbor, whose daughter’s friend’s cousin had taken classes) that they were good and I have not been disappointed. In fact, I’ve masochistically signed up for Level A2 with them as well, so we shall see how the love-hate relationship develops!

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