How come you speak Greek fluently?
Kat, an American in Athens posted a very interesting article titled Why don't you speak Greek fluently?, which explains about how she never got around to really learn Greek fluently after 10 years living here. In short: circumstances. My story is totally different. If I may say so myself, I speak Greek fluently (although with an accent, and making certain mistakes over and over). Let me explain how I got there...
I don't really like to talk too much about it, but I've got some Greek heritage. The most important fact about that, language wise, is that I never learned Greek as a child, nor was I really exposed to a lot of Greek, nor did I grew up in any Greece related environment. I once went on a vacation to Greece when I was 12 years old. What did happen to me though was that my family moved from Hamburg, Germany, to Switzerland when I was 6 years old. The German speaking part of Switzerland, for those of you who have a bit of a knowledge about European language distributions. The problem in this, for a small child is that the German spoken on the street in Switzerland has nothing to do with the German spoken in Germany. Swiss-German is a dialect that is as far removed from German as is Dutch (and it's also varying wildly wherever you go). As a child it's "learn to speak like that, or stand out forever". I later heard reports that I must have sounded terrible at first, but I dove right in, head first, and I speak Swiss-German now as well as being able to talk real German without a swiss accent.
When I was 17 I decided I'd check out Greece, to get to know some of my roots. My trip was planned for half a year. I got some help from Greek friends from my family side (help that I back then very much under-appreciated, thank you for all you did Zeta!). I had taken some Greek lessons before I left Switzerland, about 20 hours. I got the alphabet, I knew some basic stuff.
Learning Greek while playing Ice Hockey
Almost for the first year I got along speaking English (and improving my English a bit in the process). But at one point I had left Zeta's family to live on my own, and I was more and more thrown into a world where I could (or had to) dive into Greek more. My new landlady spoke only Greek and Portuguese (having lived in Brazil). I started to play Ice Hockey again (yes! there were 4 ice rinks in Greece back then) and even though some of the players were Greeks who had grown up in Canada an the USA, a lot of the others had grown up in Tchechoslovakya (or Russia for some in the Thessaloniki team) and some were even plain Greek kids, attracted to an exotic but fun sport. I was in the "international western and Greek team" in Athens. At some point I wound up something like a coach. Translation was awkward, so after some time it was less awkward to just babble on.
Talk like a mechanic
Did I mention that I just dove in? I just talked. I just tried to understand. Unfortunately I don't know of any recording of me speaking back then, but I would pay a lot of money to hear me talking like I did, I guess I'd be laughing my butt off now. My six months turned into 3 years. I dabbled with being a professional photographer, I helped out at a friends motorcycle repair shop. Ah, the repair shop. I've learned a lot of Greek there. I know all the swear words. Actually when I'm in polite company I sometimes have to watch my tongue. I still talked a lot of English, particularly with some closer friends. But most of the other people I knew I spoke Greek with, either because they didn't speak English (or German of course) or because I decided so. Yes, in fact I talked Greek even if I could have taken the easy way out. It just seemed the right way to do. This means that I preferred my (say) Level 2 ability of Greek to my (estimating now) Level 4 ability of English.
The village life
Zooming forward many, many years (during which I only rarely had the chance to speak Greek, but tried at every chance), I decided I've had enough of Switzerland for a while. I was looking around for a place to stay, finally settling on Greece again. I came here 3 years ago (so I've spent something like 6.5 years in Greece altogether). After a short stay in Athens, I moved to a little village on Limnos, where I stayed for 6 months, with almost zero exposure to anything but Greek (OK, correction, anything but the Limnos regional variant of the βλάχικα dialect :-). When my money started to run out and it was clear that there were no programmers jobs to be had there, I moved back to Athens.
Back to Athens life and work
In Athens after a short while, I found a room in a shared flat. My flatmates where Greeks at first, so it was talking Greek all the time too. A (now former) Greek girlfriend helped too, even though she speaks perfect English, of course we spoke only Greek. Apart from speaking Greek with me even when I had to ask back 3 or 4 times what she meant, she corrected my first attempts at Greek blog writing and played Greek scrabble with me. A while later I found a wonderful job here (yes, big luck again, I'm κωλόφαρδος sometimes, as they say in Greek). Even though practically everybody in this company speaks English (our website is even in English only, a lot of our customers are multi-nationals), I speak only Greek here. I throw in a lot of English computer slang, but I speak Greek only. I still live in a shared flat, nowadays together with non-Greeks from different countries. What do you think? The common language at our place is Greek. I spoke mostly Greek even with flatmates from German speaking countries. It's a matter of choice, even though it complicates finding flatmates when someone leaves.
Oh, the sum of my Greek lessons is still at about 20 hours total. I know nothing about Greek grammar (not surprising, since I practically know nothing about English, French, or German grammar either), I learn languages by ear. I started expanding my vocabulary by reading a bit, but I find most Greek authors to be utterly boring (sorry dudes and dudettes) and most journalists write like they miss the good old times when they were entitled to write in katharevousa so people from the streets wouldn't understand them. Tiresome. I do enjoy my own writing in Greek, even though I make horrible mistakes sometimes (and I often get asked "what are you actually talking about, this doesn't make sense!?")
My conclusion: I've learned fluent Greek through a mixture of luck, diving in, and conscious decision to not follow the easy path.