The long route from ALPHA to OMEGA …

At the beginning of April, I spent five days attempting to learn Greek.

Or rather, I spent a week trying to begin to be ready to start learning Greek.

I think, truly, that was my goal:  to break down the sense of total panic and sheer, inhibiting frustration that rose up every time I tried even to remember a phrase.  Or a letter. Or how to say ‘yes’ without saying ‘no.’  (to non-Greek speakers, this is not nearly as easy and idiotic as it sounds …)

I arrived in the third floor classroom of the City Lit Institute, a lovely purpose-built college squashed between Holborn and Covent Garden, anxious, concerned, but determined to at least come away with some gain.

And I struggled.  For the first two days, it was only my sense of pride that prevented me from giving up and simply wandering around London looking at the shops instead of focusing for 5 hours on the impossibilities of Greek.  And it was exhausting.  Draining.  Mind-blown tiring.

But no-one found it easy.  We were a mixed age group – 12 adult students ranging from millennials up to – well, possibly a few years older even than me.  And none of us spoke much Greek at all.   A few words, vocabulary for ordering wine, coffee, saying good morning, good night – that was about the extent of it.  The teacher, Flora, a native Greek speaker, was insistent on us all taking part from the start, however: role playing, mini conversations, exchanging greetings – and this was supplemented by YouTube lessons and numerous hand-outs and sessions on the black board.  It immediately created a relaxed and supportive atmosphere that felt safe and friendly.

And by day 3, by Wednesday morning, I began to think I was not going to drown entirely.  In fact, for the first time ever in my pathetic attempts to learn Greek over the years, I started to feel that progress – slender and skinny – was nevertheless within reach.

For a start, I could, at last, now write and understand the alphabet.  I could begin to read some words, write down some of them.  I began to see and understand some of the difficulties and complexities of the language – rather than simply throwing up my hands in despair at the impossibility of the challenge.  I could see, as it were, the steep hills ahead rather than considering them unconquerable mountains.

By day 5, I was hooked.  I began really to want to do this frustratingly difficult thing of learning Greek.  I was committed to the idea.

Of course I can still hardly say a word – although I can pick up bits and pieces if people speak slowly and carefully to me.  When we arrived in Crete just two days after the course finished, I was thrilled to go into a shop on our way from the airport to our house, buy a few food items and understand when the girl asked me in Greek for 20 euros!  Another of my (very moderate) successes and thrills was when, a few days later, my use of some very basic Greek phrases in another shop was greeted by ‘oh, you speak some Greek!’

There is, obviously, rather a long way to go.

But I do now feel ready to begin to learn Greek.  In September, I am going to enrol for a Level 1 course (my April week was Beginners’ pre-level 1 …)and slowly, patiently, try to learn some more.  It will probably take years and years, but I am loving it.  It is a beautiful language and it’s exciting to feel I am learning something entirely new that’s challenging and stimulating.

And useful too.

You see, ‘YES’ in Greek sounds like ‘No’ in most languages.  And ‘NO’ sounds more like – you get the idea.  It feels counter-intuitive every time I try to choose the right one to say.

But I’ll get there. Hopefully.  In the end.


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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jude – I’ve managed to get some conversational basics in a few languages over the last decade or so despite being in my 50s/60s over that period. The approach I’ve found most effective by far is Pimsleur and stuff like it, which forces you to keep forming phrases and speaking them out. Listening is part of it to, but the key thing is how you’re constantly forced to recall and speak.
    The Pimsleur courses are a bit weird and occasionally make me uncomfortable. They seem to aimed primarily at American businessmen who are doing a sideline in trying to pick up local women. But that’s just one thread which pops up here and there. In other respects I find them excellent.

    1. Jude Hayland
      Jude Hayland

      Sounds great – and I will make sure I avoid the sections relevant to picking up local women!! – I am finding that familiarity with the alphabet is helping – if I can write a word or phrase it helps me to remember it – something to do with having a visual memory, I think. Of course there’s the matter of the Cretan dialect to consider too … but that’s merely one more hurdle 😀 The ideal solution seems to me to spend even more time there…!

  2. Avatar

    Hey – and well done learning some Greek! It’s not the hardest language I’ve taken a stab at (that would be Mandarin, with Russian a close second], but it’s far harder than the likes of Spanish and Italian.

  3. Avatar
    Linda Anderson

    I can understand where the phrase, “It’s all Greek to me” comes from! Consider me impressed. I have very little aptitude for learning languages, so make that “very impressed.” I’ve always been grateful English is my mother tongue since it’s thought of as being a hard one to learn. I wouldn’t skip any Pimsleur; you might pick up helpful linguistic tips on how to repel any unwelcome advances from American businessmen. I applaud your efforts, Jude.


    Thank you! It’s hard, hard, hard and takes me ten times as long to remember things now compared with learning languages at school. And yes, that’s a valuable thought about the Pimsleur – will make sure I acquire those essential phrases!

  5. Avatar

    Yes – writing/reading stuff helps memory a lot. I use that in parallel with the audio-only approaches like Pimsleur, even though it’s not recommended. You can often find (unofficial) transcripts of Pimsleur lessons online. I only use them after completing lessons.
    Another great technique especially for learning vocab, is “spaced repetition” – an approach based on flash cards. For example check out the free tool called Anki. It’s a little clunky, takes an hour or two to find your way around, but will save you many more hours later.
    The key insight in all of this is, I believe, that the way to memorize is to have to recall, over and over and over again. It’s the act of recalling (much less so hearing or reading or any other kind of experiencing) which locks in memories. I wasted lots of time going nowhere much learning languages years until I fully recognized that.
    Have fun! 😄

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