learning greek for beginners

Learning Greek for Beginners – A Student’s View

Studying languages has always been a huge interest of mine. I graduated in Foreign Languages (University of Rome) and then moved on to study other languages on my own, for a total of about 7, although I only speak 4 of them decently. Then, after a hiatus of about 30 years, I landed on modern Greek a few years ago. As an absolute beginner, I had taken five years of ancient Greek in high school, which I thought would help hugely  — and it did, but not that much. Here are a few tips I feel could be of help to a new learner of languages, and Greek Language in particular.

Motive and Purpose

Why are you (thinking of) studying Greek? Is it because of your ancestry, or of your significant other, or just out of curiosity? How well you would like to master it? Do you want to be able to “just get by”, or actually interact with native speakers on a deeper level? Knowing what you want is the first step to deciding what kind of learning experience you’re after, and how much of your time and energy you’re willing to commit to this project. Also, if you are studying it for professional reasons (eg if you’re into religious studies, archaeology, Hellenic studies, etc.), you may need more to be able to read it than to speak it, which will obviously affect the way you study it.

Learning Greek – The First Steps

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve already toyed with the idea of learning Greek. You can probably say a few words, maybe you can decode the Greek alphabet, or maybe you’ve tried studying it on your own here and there. This last scenario is a dangerous one, somehow. Greek is not widely taught around the world, and those of us who decide to study it cannot often find a course nearby; resorting to self-study seems a viable option, if not the only one. This is precisely how I started studying Greek, and a few years later I can say that I regret not looking into other options at the time. When you study on your own, not only do you not have a teacher to explain or correct the mistakes you make, you also tend to hurry through the nasty bits (conjugations, declinations, dry grammar points) in order to get sooner to the rewarding part (listening skills, speaking, Greek pronunciation), only to discover too late that without mastering the nasty bits there is indeed no reward. After a couple of years of trying to learn it on my own, I decided to invest time and money and registered in a one-week course in Greece, where I learned that I needed to unlearn all or most of what I’d learned until then in order to re-learn it properly. End result: I’d wasted two years and learned things the wrong way.

Consistency and Discipline

After taking a couple of summer courses in Greece it became evident that I would not be able to progress in my learning experience if all I could do was actually study it for one week a year. I subscribed to the only Greek-speaking cable station available in my country, I downloaded podcasts, visited websites, listened to radio stations, all resources nowadays easily available from the comfort of our home, thanks to the Internet, but still, little progress was made. I needed to find some course that would see me attending classes on a weekly basis. Locally I could only try the university programs, which are offered on weekday mornings, when I am at work, so that was not an option.

With a little final nudge from the ongoing pandemic, I decided to try online Greek language courses with a personal tutor, an experience I had never made before. With a 10-hour time difference between the place where I live and our teacher in Greece or Cyprus, that meant getting up at 6:30 am on Saturdays in order to attend the class at 7:30 am. Tackling Greek grammar that early on a weekend was hard, especially at first, but little by little it became a weekly appointment to look forward to. There are times when I am tempted by laziness and consider cancelling, but I almost always end up getting up in time to attend class and feel rewarded afterwards. Consistency is key, in learning a language as in many other endeavours. Understanding a complete sentence from live Greek TV for the first time magically erases the effort of sacrificing my Saturday morning sleep-ins.

More is More

Following weekly classes is the pillar of learning a language for me, but may also be only the beginning. If you can and if you are determined to master it, don’t stop there: try reading articles and newspapers, try podcasts such as the excellent ones of the Hellenic American Union, join an online language exchange program, find a Greek Meetup group in your city, follow the video-recipes of Greek celebrity chefs such as Akis Petretzikis, try solving a crossword puzzle, explore the web for useful sites, watch a film in English with subtitles in Greek (do a search in Netflix for “Greek”), in short try exposing yourself to Greek as much as possible during your day – and make sure you get at least some level of exposure every day.

When I started studying Greek I found a novel in Greek and I started reading it. I understood practically nothing, but I continued to make the effort to read a few paragraphs every night in bed. I have never lost the habit of reading a book in the Greek language in bed – whether I understand its meaning or not is not the point here: the important thing is that I expose myself to it (but when you actually understand a whole sentence, boy, what a delight!).

The Age Factor

When I decided to start studying Greek, I based myself upon the memory I had of studying languages – but I was in my twenties then! Very soon I discovered that the effort it took now was significantly stronger than 30 years ago: while the structure of the language did not puzzle me, memorizing the meaning of words proved to be a lot more difficult than in the past. When I could “hook” meaning to a memory or to a similar word in another language I speak, that was ok, but when I had nothing to associate it with, then it got difficult. I would encounter the same word many times and every time I did, I knew I’d encountered it, but I failed to remember what it meant. This battle is still ongoing, of course, but I find it is a challenge worth taking, because of the satisfaction I get every time I finally succeed in remembering what that word means.

Practise your Language Skills

Even if you don’t have anyone with whom to practise your Greek, make it a habit as you learn it to translate small sentences in your mind during your day. You’re walking to the grocery store to buy some pears? Try to translate it in Greek, if you have the grammar. If you find you miss some words, or don’t know how to express them, make a mental note of it and as soon as you are in front of a computer or phone, have the web translate that sentence for you and see if it matches what you thought. This is also a good workout for your brain!

Another good exercise for more advanced learners is to find a Greek book or article or website that you can access also in its English translation and translate a paragraph of it from English (or whatever your mother tongue is) back into Greek – and then compare it to the original. Very enlightening!

Exercises, Exercises, Exercises

For me, there’s nothing like exercises to practice a language. Whether you are following a proper language course or not, supplement your learning with more exercises. Purchase a book of exercises with its answer key and do the exercises (without cheating!): actually, write down the answers before rushing to see the correct answers. A good book for this is: “Αυτό ακριβώς!”

Keep studying Greek! Don’t give up!

Luigi Sarno – Greek Language Student

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