My journey in learning Greek

My journey in learning Greek

I’ve been learning Greek for a few years now and I thought I’d share my thoughts on the process and offer some tips for beginners.

The importance of reading and writing Greek

When you start learning Greek, you need to think about your reason for learning the language and what you want to achieve. Even if you’re thinking about developing spoken fluency, I think you’d be well served to learn how to read and write Greek. For me, this proved to be quite a long process and it took me a while to feel comfortable reading Greek. The difficulty is not with Greek letters which do not exist in the Latin alphabet, such as θ and ψ but those letters which look similar in both alphabets but which are actually quite different. For example, ‘r’ in the Latin alphabet is ‘ρ’ in Greek and ‘p’ in Latin is ‘π’ in Greek. Similarly, ‘v’ in Latin is ‘β’ in Greek and ‘ν’ in Greek is ‘n’ in Latin. Apart from these cases, the Greek letters are not too difficult. But I think it is important to learn to read Greek. I know some expats living in Greece who can speak quite fluently but they have a lot of difficulty with things like banking, paying bills, online shopping etc because they decided not to learn to read or write Greek.

I think reading and writing is important for another reason. In general, people are visual creatures. Most people, although by no means everyone, can remember things better when they have seen them, rather than when they have heard them. So, reading and writing Greek plays to that strength that exists in most people.

Type of lessons you can take

Consider what type of lessons you want to take. If you live in Greece or Cyprus or a large city with a large Greek community, you should be able to find tutors who run traditional classroom lessons. You can also consider online lessons. If you are an extremely gifted and determined language learner, you may be able to learn Greek on your own. I chose online learning and when lockdown started, nothing changed for me and I continued as normal. Friends of mine who had been doing classroom lessons before lockdown found the switch to online learning quite difficult and stressful, especially for group lessons.

Start speaking Greek as soon as possible and practice listening

For most people, being able to speak Greek is the top priority. It is important to look for and take advantage of every opportunity you can find to speak Greek, no matter how little you know. In the beginning, when you only know a little Greek, people will often reply to you in English but I try to persist in Greek, saying that if I don’t use the little I know now, I’ll never be able to become fluent. And as someone who has learned and taught other languages as well as Greek, I think this is the most important piece of advice that I can offer. No matter how little you know, you need to start speaking as soon as possible.

It is also important to listen to Greek as often as possible. In my case, I found it very effective to listen to and watch Greek TV and radio. After a time, you can hear the same things being repeated, especially the adverts. The language used on TV is a good mixture of fairly formal language such as the news and fairly informal language such as reality shows. My favourites for language learning are quiz shows such as Wheel of Fortune and The Weakest Link. Another show called Δες και Βρες is a great way to develop your listening skills. The idea is that the presenter reads out information on a particular topic, often quoting lots of dates or statistics. Then he asks one question about what he has read. The contestants need to try and remember all of the information in order to answer the question because they have no idea what the question will be.

Understand how YOU learn! 

When you start learning Greek, you need to develop techniques for remembering what you are learning. Everyone learns in a different way and remembers and recalls information in different ways. Maybe you already have techniques that work for you. I like to write things down and I like to use colours. For example, I use different coloured paper to write lists. For verbs I use yellow paper, green for nouns, purple for adjectives and pink for adverbs, conjunctions etc. I also like using coloured highlighters.

You need to consider if you learn better in a one-to-one situation or in a group lesson. Both settings have advantages and disadvantages. I did some group lessons in the very beginning. It was fun meeting new people and being with them in the lesson, especially as we were all interested in the same thing. But I found it very easy to sit back and listen but not say very much. I also got discouraged because the second group I joined was a mixed ability group with a few beginners like me, intermediate learners and even some people who spoke Greek relatively fluently all together in the same class. I ended up at the back, whispering to the other beginner when we both lost track of what was going on in the class.

Then I switched to private online lessons and this was much more effective for me. The disadvantages were that it was much more expensive and since it’s only you in the class, you must work all of the time. And that can be tiring and stressful. I used to get very stressed before each lesson, feeling that I wouldn’t be able to understand anything or say anything. But those disadvantages were also advantages at the same time because they motivated me to learn and to make sure I was well prepared for each lesson. Because I had an excellent teacher, I came to realise that I had no reason to be stressed. Another thing that pushed me to work in between lessons was the cost of the lessons. Because it was more expensive than the group lessons, I made myself work harder by telling myself that there was no point in paying that amount of money if I wasn’t prepared to do the work. I learned far more, and more quickly, than I ever could in the traditional lessons I had previously done in the university lifelong learning department.

In summary, I’d say that to learn Greek effectively you need a structured plan for learning such as formal lessons of some sort, you need to put in time and effort and you need to be willing to stick your neck out and start speaking as soon as possible. Don’t wait for the ideal moment when you can put together a perfectly grammatical sentence. Unless you start with baby steps, you may never reach that point at all.

Ursula Byrne, Greek Language Student 

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