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31 July 2007

How come you speak Greek fluently?

A question that sometimes comes up

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.

Posted by betabug at 10:49 | Comments (15) | Trackbacks (0)
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Life in Athens (Greece) for a foreigner from the other side of the mountains. And with an interest in digital life and the feeling of change in a big city. Multilingual English - German - Greek.
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Re: Why do you speak Greek fluently?

Hey ya, it was interesting to learn more about you and how you came to Greece, and thanks for including me too.

I probably know a lot of Greek from doing so much bureaucracy as a non-EU citizen, but my boyfriends, friends and co-workers have been less than cooperative about speaking Greek. Everyone wants to practice their English (even sometimes at the grocery store, even though I keep trying to get them to switch back) and I've found I have a lot more misunderstandings in Greek than English; and there's nothing worse than hurting someone and not knowing the words to fix it. The best thing is immersing myself in Greek neighborhoods, pretending to not speak English. Some have even asked, "why do you speak Greek?"

You've done a great job, and I've always admired how you can write in three languages since I started reading your blog ages ago. Who cares if you don't know the grammar perfectly? I know the grammar and no one cares; it's only important if you have a writing job.

I really enjoyed hearing about your past and present, and thanks for sharing! :)

Posted by: CaliforniaKat at July 31,2007 20:16
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

Btw, I also spoke Greek in New York and that came in handy. I was locked inside my apartment and couldn't climb down the emergency ladder because it was snowing. Since none of my neighbors spoke English, I yelled in Greek and told my neighbors to get my building manager who ironically spoke Spanish and no Greek. So the poor Greek guy had to drag the building manager to my door, and then I explained to him in Spanish what I needed. See, no English necessary :)

Posted by: CaliforniaKat at July 31,2007 20:20
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

One week with bebu on Limnos and I could drink and chat with the locals, crazy!

Posted by: wiwi at August 01,2007 10:42
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

...especially the "drink" part!

Posted by: betabug at August 01,2007 10:51
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

Thanks for this excellent blog entry!

Posted by: Saad Kadhi at August 01,2007 11:50
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

Kat, no reason to thank me for including you - your post inspired this one :-) Force your boyfriend to have a few fixed Greek speaking hours! Also start to write blog posts in Greek and force your boyfriend to correct the stuff! That helps a lot.

I once asked in a Greek restaurant in New York for how far it is to central park. We were with someone who had walked us all day up and down in Manhattan. We were tired and our "guide" said "it's only a few blocks". We couldn't ask without hurting her feelings, but she didn't speak Greek, so I used the "secret" language to my advantage, hearing that it was indeed a big distance to walk. We then found "reasons" to tell our guide why we had to do something else with less walking.

Saad, spanx, was a pleasure!

Posted by: betabug at August 01,2007 12:30
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

I've surprised many a people with my knowledge of Greek, from which revealing it made some people ashamed (because they thought they'd been speaking behind my back for months - ha!) and some people quite happy (the Archbishop, my NY neighbors, an Olympic artist, etc.). :)

Posted by: CaliforniaKat at August 02,2007 12:03
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

For someone who says they have little knowledge of English grammar, your writing is impecable. Better than many English people's in fact! I envy that you are so multi-lingual... well done!

Posted by: Bekah at September 25,2007 00:30
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

Hi Bekah, thanks for the compliment! I'm trying to do my best with writing here, it gets me some practice :-)

Posted by: betabug at September 26,2007 10:51
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

Hey betabug, very entertaining post. I am an Italian born in South America, with a Greek name, who speaks Spanish and lives in Miami, you manage the language quite well! Congratulations!

With your background, if you study a little Latin, you would have ready access to Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.... :-)

Best regards, Nestor
PS: sorry my post is a litlle late...though

Posted by: Nestor at September 25,2008 08:16
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

Hello Nestor, thanks for the comment, late or not :-)

Indeed I speak some French (and a tiny little bit Italian) and once I was for a couple of months in Portugal and had picked up the language quite well (though unfortunately forgot everything of it again). I'm just not so sure about the "study Latin" part, as I'm not good at learning languages by memorizing words, I want to use stuff to learn it, which is of course difficult with Latin.

Posted by: betabug at September 25,2008 08:43
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

Fantastic story. Very good points on the matters of language Very interesting stuff!

Also very encouraging on the subject of not living in one's origin country, but abroad in a "totally" foreign place.

Cheers mate

Posted by: Adonis at August 06,2009 21:46
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

i am surprised by the great amount of courage you 've have shown in orderto achieveyour goal in greel learning congrats ! i could help you out if you 're interested in getting some more expanded knowledge though i live and work in corinth for the government

Posted by: panagiotis at December 01,2009 09:39
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

Thanks Panagioti! I don't think of myself so courageous... and I get to expand my knowledge of Greek all day long now.

Posted by: betabug at December 02,2009 11:35
Re: How come you speak Greek fluently?

Alright, handsome,fit body, fluency in many languages, talent in writing and photography, good financial-management skills, not to mention that you are a rare bird in programming. Now a decent thing for you to do is to give us, ordinary female mortals, prescriptions of how NOT to fall in love with you, as we can't help it.

Posted by: Aliaa at May 03,2011 11:24
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