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Sunday, October 16, 2005 

The Importance of Learning Ελληνικά

If you understood Greek, you would be laughing now.

The life of an expat is not an easy one. Homesickness, culture shock and illiteracy in our new language are the three things guaranteed to take the shine off our decision to move to a new country. Language is probably the most important which we must conquer. Once we learn the language, homesickness and culture shock become less of a concern.

There are basically 5 kinds of expats and people in each category face these obstacles to varying degrees.

work related- -people who move to a new country because of a job transfer or to start work in a new position
married--people who get married to a citizen of another country and end up living there (that's my category)
ethnic--people who were born in one country, raised in another and then move back to the country of their birth or that of their parents
retired--people who choose to live in another country once they retire
refugees-people who were forced out of their country due to persecution, wars, famine, and/or economical collapse in their own countries. These people decidedly have it much worse than the rest of us.

(For more on what refugees face here, visit Diva's blog because the difficulties the rest of us experience in our new countries are nothing compared to what they deal with and I wouldn't presume otherwise.)

That being said, we still encounter problems. Language being the most formidable. While reading one of Melusina's blogs, I was transported back in time to my first year in Greece. I didn't even know how to say "hello" in Greek. How I made it through that first year, I have no idea. My husband, who is a fluent English speaker, did not exactly pressure me to learn Greek. In fact, he said it wasn't important to him whether I learned it or not. Most English speakers will agree with me on this when I say that learning Greek is not essential to our survival in Greece. Most of the movies and television we watch is in English. It's not difficult to find english publications to read...either through the Internet or at bookstores which sell them. Many Greeks do speak some level of English and prefer to speak English with us rather than listen to us stumble along in Greek. All of these factors combined almost ensure that the most we'll learn in Greek is "please, thank you, hello and goodbye". It makes us even lazier to learn when we don't have this sense of urgency to communicate. Non-native English speakers like Albanians, Bulgarians or Polish will usually learn Greek and speak it better than we do in half the time it takes us unless they don't work, have satellite TV and associate only with their countrymen.

In order to learn the language, expats must first WANT to learn. No amount of chiding, coercion, or shaming will do it. In fact, in my case, it made me become even more isolated and homesick. I knew that every time I went anywhere with Greeks, the only time they ever spoke to me directly was to deride me for not knowing Greek. Of the few words I attempted in Greek, they would laugh at my accent, spend the whole time correcting me so I forgot what it was I was trying to say in the first place, or worse...completely ignore me in social settings because they didn't have the patience to hear me mutilate their language.

Then I went through a period where everyone I met was going to "teach me" Greek. They would give me 'lessons' over coffee, "lessons" while I watched the news, "lessons" at the beach. Usually, these lessons never amounted to more than a one-hour history of a particular word and proved that it was possible to fall asleep standing up. Fat lot of good it did me to know the origins of periplaniemai if I didn't know how to use it in a sentence. Despite their good intentions, it has now been almost 8 years, and not one of my Greek friends or relatives has even so much as bought me a Greek-English dictionary. I bought one myself and then realized I needed to know the Greek alphabet in order to use it. So I learned the Greek alphabet and armed with that knowledge, I began to read in Greek. Watching movies with subtitles made me semi-literate. Then I took a 3 month course and learned the basics of the Greek language. From then on, it became a matter of practice makes perfect.

The person I credit the most for my foray into the Greek language was my mother-in-law. She was perfect because she doesn't speak a word of English, had enough patience to correct me in Greek without dragging out the whole process and always encouraged me to keep speaking no matter how frustrated I became.

Even though I'm far from being an expert on the language, I'm just so proud that I can succesfully drive to Penteli without fear of ending up in Romania, order meat from the butcher without having to play "Name the Mystery Meat" with my husband once it came time for me to cook it, and most importantly, I no longer feel like the retarded cousin at social gatherings. I can actually participate in conversations. I may still have difficulty pronouncing my soft gammas or words like fthinoporo and xrisimopoio but at least I know what they mean. It's a far cry from the days when someone would say kali sas mera to me and I had no idea it was the same as kalimera.

We owe it to ourselves and our adopted country to be able to communicate in their language regardless of how difficult and frustrating it may be. It's the key to integration.

So, to all the Greeks who smile and listen to me as I mangle your language in the effort to speak it, I thank you. For all the Greeks who want to practice their English with me, I'm grateful to you for making the effort to communicate with me. For all the Greeks who laugh at me, beware...I know how to swear in Greek now.

Well, at least I arrived in Greece with full knowledge of the alphabet and the very basics. Beyond that, my vocabulary has evolved to the genre of shows I like to watch, like police dramas. I recognize all the words for suspect, proof, crime, rape, court, lawyer, weapon, murder, etc.

The other day my mother-in-law told me "you see how I stumble over English and get it wrong, you should do that with what Greek you know".

Of course, she has no idea how much I hate to be wrong. I hate to stumble over anything, least of all language. When I come out speaking to the world, it will be perfect. OK, probably not.

It will be nice to go someplace and not feel like I am deaf.

First of all, good choice picking an Arkas cartoon, if your a fan. I'll forward all the cartoons my cousin emails to me.

As for the language issue, you've totally hit the nail on the head in one sentence, you have to WANT to learn it.

It doesn't matter if your husband speaks English perfectly and Greek is never uttered in your home (although I don't like the 'In fact, he said it wasn't important to him whether I learned it or not', if you want to learn Greek. You'll learn it. If you don't, well then that's your choice but I for one cannot understand your decision. It'd drive me nuts if I couldn't understand what was going on around me.

I agree that language is the key to intigrating in a new society and personally, it's never bothered me when someone makes mistakes in Greek. It makes me so happy that they've made an effort.

There's another category, although it's probably quite small, and it's the one I belong to. It's the person who was born and grew up in another place, but felt an inexplicable bond to this place. It's something completely irrational, because I had decided that this was where I wanted to live ten years before I actually came, and without really knowing what I was getting myself in for.

I'm sure I've been inflexible about the issue of adapting here in your other post about the bonuses, but that's because ex-pats usually do not have a case for criticising the way things are done in their adopted country without referring to the one they left behind. I know, because I've done it myself and have been taken to task for it.

That's an apology, in a way, if what I wrote in reply to the other post seemed rude.

Mel...I hate making mistakes too but I figured I had to start somewhere or I'd remain "deaf" around other Greeks forever. Right now, with your vocabulary, you can talk to cops! LOL
Ellas...I don't like the fact either that my husband said it wasn't important to him whether or not I learned. He's wrong, wrong, wrong. He propelled my arse into a language course within 5 minutes of me arriving here. He still does not get how difficult life is for an expat without the language.
Thomas...no apology is necessary whatsoever for stating your opinion. It wasn't rude, insulting or offensive. It was simply your opinion. My blog would be totally boring if everyone agreed with me. I like your contributions so keep making them! As for expats not having a case for their criticisms, some don't if all they want to do is re-create their own country in their adopted country. But some laws (especially the tax laws) ARE inane and need to be changed. If a country can take my taxes out of my paycheques then I do believe I have every right to have a say in what they do with them. If women didn't criticize laws which kept them without a vote and the right to work, we'd still be second-class citizens. If blacks didn't challenge segregation laws, they'd still be working on plantations. If you're a legal immigrant in another country, work and pay taxes, I believe you have the right to voice your opinions. As an immigrant, I definitely don't like it when immigrants refuse to integrate and do their best to remain on the fringes of their new society. I don't send my son to the American school, I don't join any expat associations or hoard what little money I have outside the country in bank accounts or foreign property investments. I want to work for this country. I'm tired of seeing Greece on the bottom of every single economic and development report. Greece and Greeks deserve better than what their government is giving them right now.

I have another category.
Someone who was born and brought up in another country and then falls in love with someone born in different country, moved to a another country but who had an inexplicable bond to this place.
Ha. Or maybe that's just me and not a category at all.
As for language, I totally agree with you all that it is essential to learn. I am not at all talented with learning other languages and I really struggle with greek It's not an easy one. But I do try, very hard. I have met people who refuse to listen to me mangle the language or make no effort to understand what I am trying to say. But for the most part, people are patient and like the fact that I am trying to learn their language. I hate making mistakes too. I hate that I sound like a rather dim seven year old in conversations but it's a fact. I feel that I will never really be able to speak the language well enough to sound as intelligent I am or to be as funny as I want to be. In the meantime, I try.

And by trying, you get some really nice compliments.

Diva...you got me there. Other than you, I don't know anyone else who falls into your very own category. You are a minority amongst minorities. LOL I bet your Greek is better than mine. Does your son go to a Greek school? And if so...does he make fun of your Greek like my son does?

Sissoula...I don't believe I've welcomed you to my blog. Thanks for taking the time to read it and comment. If I've already welcomed you before, just take that to mean that I'm doubly happy to see you here! (And yes...the majority of Greeks will tell me I speak "mia xara" when I'm trying to muddle through verb conjugations mentally trying to find the one i need)

A minority amoungst minorities. COOL. My mum always told me I was special.
Yes, my son goes to Greek school. His Greek is perfect (sometimes better than his english) He doesn't say it now but I think my Greek embarrasses him sometimes. I don't blame him. It embarrasses me too. But I guess what counts is I make myself understood somehow and I try.

I too am not talented with learning other languages and I still find myself struggling with English more often than not. I'm on my sixth year in the UK and I feel my English still embarrasses me. It's not as though I hang around with Greeks at all, I think it's because most of the time I speak English with other non-native English speakers who are struggling to form a simple sentence like me. I've yet to get a grasp of the British mentality or British humour but I get to learn some new expressions every day in the end.

And I agree; I've met a good sample of English-speaking people in Greece and their Greek is still basic despite the years they've spent there, whereas Balkan immigrants get to learn it at a faster pace.

I think I'll be visiting here more often. It's good to see how a xeno sees your country, especially since mainstream news are filtered. I'd really like to see a blog by an Albanian or Bulgarian worker, one who works for 20 euros a day. Since they have been through such hardships, I'm sure they will have a lot of stories to say and w have a great deal to learn by them. Of course, there is Gazmend Kapllani, but I'd be curious to see blogs written by every day people, aside from those by known columnists.



I thought I'd throw my 2 cents worth into this discussion. I absolutely agree that you have to learn Greek in order to really understand the people here. I arrived in Greece with zero knowledge of the language, but thankfully decided that bumbling along in "taverna Greek" was just not good enough and did some courses.

One of the things that spurred me on was my disgust at expats, usually from the UK, who refused to learn anything other than the absolute basics.

Heya Teacher Dude! Your "2 cents" is always spent well in here LOL

It used to bother me too when expats didn't learn the language but then I thought I needed them around because then my Greek becomes the 8th Wonder of the World compared to them! hehe

I just think how irritated I used to get in Canada when I'd talk to my Greek/Lebanese/Indian friends' mothers and after 30 years of being in Canada, and they couldn't string a sentence together to save their lives ...ie., Sit. Eat. You good girl. You no marry my son. That sort of thing. LOL


I've lived here for 20 years and speak fairly decent Greek, but still I get some (not many) Greeks who tell me things like, "I have an Albanian maid who speaks better Greek than you."

Do you know what I do? I tell them, oh, would you prefer we speak in English and then I feign I don't understand them, correct them constantly and make them feel as they try to make me feel.

If they don't speak English then I tell them, well, maybe your servant girl has to speak Greek better because she won't eat if she doesn't. I have my own money and no need to speak Greek if I choose not to.

I speak Greek because I CHOOSE to not out of ANAGEE as they say.

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