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When the mother country would rather speak to you in your language than have you speak to them in theirs

I started my last week of class today. It’s Immersion Level V. Different teacher, different classmates. Different ballgame, in fact. Why?

Well, here’s the deal. There are two other people in the class — one is Fedelique, a French woman who has been in Greece for thirty years. Thirty, as in 3-0. Her Greek is already nearly flawless. Why is she taking the class? Because she’s spent much of that time in the country, and she wants to sound more like an Athenian.

The other person in the class is Irini, a young Greek American woman (who, incidentally, just graduated from IU and was also a student of Frank Hess’ during her time there) who, you guessed it, has grown up hearing it all of her life, speaks it nearly flawlessly, and is mostly here killing time before she starts law school at University of Chicago. Dimitra, the teacher, is a native speaker, φυσικά.

Oh yeah, I’m there too.

At the break, Dimitra asked me, “Is this going to be okay for you?” She asked this because all three of them were speaking so quickly in class that I clearly had major comprehension difficulties. Even simple sentences I couldn’t follow because of how words were running together; even when they slowed down, words were compressed together in a way that I couldn’t even break out the individual words properly the way they were talking, let alone parse them correctly.

I explained. I had a good chunk of Ancient Greek before I started Modern Greek; this gave me enough of a grammatical foundation for Modern Greek that Frank thought it appropriate to bump me from first semester to fourth semester; this had the benefit of keeping me from being bored out of my mind for three semesters, and keeping up with the grammar was no problem, but the university classes unfortunately did nothing for my listening ability. In first semester, people spoke slowly and made a lot of mistakes; in the fourth semester, they were speaking really fast but still making the same mistakes. My ear had nothing to latch onto, and when Frank spoke I didn’t have any idea what to listen for, because while he was speaking correctly, he was also speaking quickly. So, I’ve been hearing it spoken for less than a year, and mostly by non-native speakers. Reading comprehension isn’t a problem, grasp of grammatical concepts isn’t a problem, I just need everything repeated five times in order for me to get half of it.

Here, my problem has been that Greek people don’t want to speak Greek to me once they find out I’m an American or hear any hint of an American accent. Remember what I said about the guy at the bakery on Aegina? That was the other dynamic to that encounter. I asked, in Greek, what a particular pastry was; “Cheese pie,” he said in English. “Τυρόπιτα;” I repeated in Greek, to try to emphasize that he should talk to me in Greek, at which point he just nodded and put one in a bag for me. I asked again, in Greek, what something else was, and exactly the same thing happened. I have to be honest and say that I don’t understand at all what happened there; if it really was a way for him to hard-sell me or if it was just that confusing to him that I was trying to speak to him in Greek. At a café yesterday, I told the waiter, in Greek, I was ready to pay, and he replied in English, “You want the check?”

Then there was the guy who played a song for me and said, “It’s in Greek. Listen and see if you can understand.” The first line of the song wasn’t even over when he just started translating, making it impossible for me to hear the Greek words at all.

The other frustrating part is that there are times when I get hung up on a particular part of something somebody says, and I’m trying to parse it in my head, and the other person just assumes I didn’t understand any part of it and repeats the whole thing in English. Or, perhaps the person repeats in Greek, explaining the meaning of every Greek word in English as they go.

“Yeah, that’s very common,” Dimitra said, nodding. It’s difficult because I could really slow down the flow of the class for the other two, but grammatically it’s the most appropriate section for me to be in. She’s not sure what to tell me except that when I don’t understand something, I need to insist on having it explained, and that she’ll give me as much advance warning on readings and whatnot as she can so that I have time to prepare. The bottom line is that I’m only there for the first week, so it won’t be too disruptive. It’ll be a good closing windsprint for me, I suppose, then I’ll be gone and they can do what they need to do.

I mean, fine, I get that if you’re not a language pedagogue, and your English is better than my Greek, it’s probably just going to be faster to speak in English. However, that can come across sometimes as “You’re really wasting your time, to say nothing of mine, by trying.”

The part that I wonder about is this. Since I was thirteen or so, my musical tastes have, in one form or another, included material to which I cannot listen for content. Cocteau Twins was the first dip of the toe into this kind of thing; that plus the years and years I listened to opera (to say nothing of sacred music) before I was ever able to study the languages meant that I had to ignore the meanings of words and simply listen to sounds. This means I have spent God only knows how many hours over the last twenty years or so with that part of my brain deliberately disengaged when I listen to a large chunk of my music collection. Might this be an issue? I really don’t know — I want to say I didn’t exactly have this problem with German, French, or Italian, but I also never tried to do quite as much with those three.

Maybe the bottom line is just this — a lot’s been crammed into my head in the last year and it needs time to settle and take root. I am, to be sure, hearing better now than I was six weeks ago, it’s just not as dramatic of an improvement as I would have liked. As well, in the last class and in this class, I’ve started to get used to new words being explained to me in Greek, and Anna, the teacher from levels III and IV, said that she thought I was probably ready to start using a Greek-Greek dictionary. That’ll help with vocabulary, sure — but I’m not sure what it will do for my listening comprehension.

Guess it’ll be interesting to see how the week goes.

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7 Responses to “When the mother country would rather speak to you in your language than have you speak to them in theirs”


  1. 1 Joseph 28 July 2009 at 2:12 pm

    I’ve had this exact problem in the past (albeit Japanese and not Greek). It doesn’t seem to matter if I am in Japan or in the US, as I will always get English answers to Japanese questions. As someone who did a lot more reading and writing than listening I can attest to it being a completely different skill with the additional layer of difficulty being that depending to who I am talking to they will be using completely different words (man, woman, boss, co-worker, etc.).

    As for Greek itself I’m finding it very difficult to latch on to the flow of sentences. Any suggestions on entry-level Ancient or Koine Greek textbooks?

    • 2 Richard Barrett 28 July 2009 at 3:17 pm

      Well, Hansen and Quinn’s Greek: An Intensive Course has served me well, and has the advantage of being the one for which I’m writing an answer key. 🙂

  2. 3 rjhargrav 28 July 2009 at 11:43 pm

    These folks are excited for a chance to practice their English on a real native speaker.

    I daresay you’d accost an innocent Greek visitor to America the same way– when he starts trying out his English, you might reply in Greek?

  3. 5 rwp 29 July 2009 at 5:51 am

    You speak the global lingua franca. It makes far more sense for them to use you to practice English than vice versa.

    • 6 Richard Barrett 29 July 2009 at 5:21 pm

      If true, ironically enough, that makes Greece perhaps the worst place to do a Greek immersion program!

  4. 7 Alex 5 August 2009 at 8:48 pm

    “…using a Greek-Greek dictionary.”

    I use this one online. I heard a negative comment about it once (I don’t remember what), but it’s served me pretty well.

    http://www.komvos.edu.gr/dictionaries/dictonline/DictOnLineTri.htm


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