Monday, March 23, 2009

Learning Greek in Cyprus

When we moved to Cyprus, at the end of 1997, we thought we would need to learn Greek. I had the advantage of having studied Ancient Greek as far as A-level, so I could at least read the alphabet and understand some basic words when I saw them.

I had to totally re-learn all my pronunciation, but modern Greek is phonetic, and it wasn't too difficult. There are plenty of books available, and we bought a good dictionary to enable us to 'decode' (as the boys put it) labels on food, or junk mail, or other documents in Greek.

However, we apparently look English. So we found that people in shops, or neighbours, would automatically speak to us in English. And Cypriots, by and large, speak extremely good English. Perhaps if we had lived in a small village in the mountains, we would have had to learn at least some Greek to be able to communicate at all, but in Larnaka it isn't necessary.

Still, I thought it would be good to speak the local language. We had no funds available for lessons, but there's an excellent free online course called Learn Greek. It was originally a radio course in the 1960s, so it's a bit dated. But it was made in Cyprus, and seemed like a good way to get started. There are lessons with Real Player audio files to listen to, about fifteen minutes each. There are also complete transcripts of each lesson, and a discussion forum for each.

There were some technical problems in our early years in Cyprus, which made us use this course less than we might otherwise have done, but the boys and I got through the first few lessons. Tim then learned some Greek at Cub Scouts, and Daniel at the Municipal Band, and both of them picked up some Greek just by mixing with bilingual and Greek-speaking friends at the church youth group, at the theatre, and elsewhere.

I kept thinking perhaps it would be good to learn a bit more too, and managed to get to about lesson 24 in the Learn Greek course. But it always seemed to get so complicated. All that vocabulary... even though only a few new words are introduced in each lesson, and one can listen to it as many times as one wishes.

I tried - half-heartedly - several times to get back to it. I would back-track to around lesson 18, and listen to it with confidence. Then I'd move forward, over a couple of weeks, until I got to lesson 23 or 24, but somehow I would feel defeated, and give up again. Or else some new technical problem would arise, making it impossible to listen.

About four months ago I decided to try again with Greek. I felt bad that I couldn't communicate at all with Greek children, and my new hairdresser was shocked that we had lived here eleven years without learning more than a few words. I agreed with her, and determined to try once more with the Learn Greek course.

I went back to lesson 18 again, and decided to listen to the same lesson every day for a week. That way, I thought, I could move through fairly fast.

I haven't succeeded in my aim. However, I did reach a milestone last week when I completed lesson 30. That's further than I've ever got before, and it's the end of what the Learn Greek site considers 'elementary'. Lesson 31, which I have now started, is considered 'intermediate'. And, indeed, it introduces past tenses in all their forms, which are new to me. It's beginning to feel a bit overwhelming again, but I'm determined to keep going.

The trouble is, when I listen to people speaking Greek, it's so fast that I don't pick up more than the occasional word. It doesn't come naturally to me to speak in anything other than English, and even when a shop assistant says words which I do know (such as 'two euros' in Greek) I don't 'get' it if I'm not expecting it. I look blank, apparently, so they repeat in English.

Moreover, I'm not an extravert, and I don't naturally speak in Greek to anyone. I find it hard even to say 'thank you' or 'hello' in Greek, for some reason, although I'm quite capable of doing so. And a couple of times when I have attempted to answer a simple question in Greek, to my embarrassment, I have spoken in French instead. It's as if my brain things 'foreign language'... and while my French is far from fluent, it's still more advanced than my Greek.

It isn't necessary to speak Greek here at all. But having lived here so long, I feel as if I should have at least a basic understanding of the language. I don't want to take lessons - quite apart from the cost, there would be a time commitment, and probably homework assignments which would make it feel like hard work. If I could get to the end of the Intermediate level of the Learn Greek course, I would hope to be able to communicate a little better - if only the Cypriots would speak slowly, using vocabulary I already know!


Phil said...

What Greek conversation I know I learnt through my best friend Sarah,who now lives in Limassol. One of the major hurdles I have is that I learnt "Athenian" Greek and in Cyprus there are a lot of dialect words used or words simply pronounced differently e.g. oshi instead of ochi for No. Then I have to work so hard to get people to speak in Greek rather than English.

Anonymous said...

I do sympathise about the 'hard work' bit, as learning Russian is what I consider 'hard work' too. However, I think I'm at an advantage as not many people speak English here in Kiev - and I think that's the key - it's amazing what you can do when there are few options!
Perhaps you could ask your hairdresser to practise speaking slowly with you - a little contrived, I know, but may work. All the best!

Steve Hayes said...

When my daughter comes home after being in Greece and people speak Afrikaans in shops, she tends to reply in Greek -- it's that "foreign language" syndrome again.

I've tried to learn a bit of Greek and Russian, but the hardest thing is the accents, I find (except in written Greek, of course). People never put the stress where I expect it, and I never put it where native speakers would expect it, so they look blank.

Unknown said...

Hi from Italy .. I would to relocate in Cyprus ..any info about cost of house there? nice life? weather? thanks for any info you will provide to me .. francesco

Unknown said...

sorry thanks