When I first started taking Greek language lessons, I had visions of where I’d be a year later: I’d have a new circle of Greek-speaking friends that I’d practice weekly with; my mom and I would talk exclusively in Greek over the phone because my new skills would naturally trigger her memories of speaking it as a kid; ordering in Greek would be effortless at all the Greek restaurants in my neighborhood, making me a remembered “regular” (which is oh-so-hard to achieve in Los Angeles); and I’d have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly to Athens for an important work meeting that required a fluent Greek speaker to negotiate something important, despite the fact that my job has nothing do with Greece, traveling, or negotiating.
Now, more than 15 months into Greek lessons and I will be honest: none of the above has happened. Not even close! Still, learning Greek has been the highlight of my past year. While I am far from what I would define as “fluent,” I have no intention of stopping now. It’s just the beginning. 🙂
Full disclosure: I take Greek lessons once a week for 2.5 hours over zoom. In addition to doing my homework, I spend about 10 minutes on Duolingo every day. I do not surround myself with the Greek language and I work in the United States with English-speaking family members, friends, and co-workers.
10 lessons I’ve learned from taking Greek language lessons for a year-ish:
1. The Greek language is hard
The question I hear the most when I tell someone I’m taking Greek lessons is: “is it hard?” Yes. It is hard. At least for me. According to the Greek Reporter, Greek is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn (up there with Russian, Polish, and Thai).
I was born in an English-speaking household and I have taken a combined 10 years of Italian and Spanish. Both were a challenge to learn. However, after a year of each, I felt pretty confident in my ability to get by.
Greek is different. It’s not just that the alphabet is intimidating and the pronunciation is hard for me to get right. The different participles of verbs (future, present, past, imperfect, perfect, wishful…) and sentence structure make my brain feel like it’s constantly shuffling through puzzles pieces of words to keep up with everything. Oh, and don’t get me started on listening to Greek… I definitely wish I had a slow-mode button to take things down 10 notches speed-wise.
Of course, learning any new language comes with its hurdles. I can think of countless reasons why English would be a mountain of work to learn. But overall, Greek has undoubtedly been harder to get a grasp on than I thought it would be.
2. Progress is slow but rewarding
Yes, Greek has been a challenge to learn. No doubt about it. But it has also been very rewarding. As the saying by Fauja Singh goes, “Anything worth doing is going to be difficult.” Learning Greek certainly falls in this category for me.
Just a few days ago, I was listening to a podcast in the car and I couldn’t understand 85% of it. But then, I had a brief moment of realizing the hosts were talking about birds — big birds, small birds, pelicans were mentioned somewhere in there. It was an amazing feeling. I felt like I unlocked access to a whole new world! New sounds! New words! New everything! So much new! Then a minute went by and I was transported back to the land of confusion. But still, the moment was special.
So in an effort to celebrate the wins, here’s a glimpse of what I’ve learned in a year:
- The Greek alphabet (lowercase and uppercase) + pronunciations of different letter combinations (eu, ei, ou…)
- Greetings and everyday phrases (Good morning, where are you from, how are you, I want a cup of coffee, where is the bathroom)
- Masculine, feminine, and neuter variations
- Vocabulary (places, jobs, food, family, weather, furniture, animals, clothing, day of the week, numbers, time)
- BASIC understanding of verbs – this is one of the hardest parts for me. There is a world of information about verbs… so many conjugations, so many types, so much to learn… I feel I have a good grasp on present, past, and future, but I’m still learning and getting confused often.
Overall, I feel relatively confident in simple sentences that contain familiar vocabulary, which is more than I could say 15 months ago. But I know there are still so many things I don’t even know I don’t know yet.
3. I don’t know English as well as I thought I did
It’s humbling learning a new language only to realize you have major holes in your understanding of your native language. Subject vs. object. Who vs. whom. These are just some of the concepts that I seriously need to brush up on…
Since so many English words originate from Greek words, it’s also fun learning more about a language I’m familiar with by learning a new language. Feels very full circle.
4. Daily repetition > weekly cram sessions
As mentioned above, I take classes once a week for 2.5 hours. I do my homework (most of the time), but besides that my exposure to Greek is minimal. And I wonder why I’m not better…
One of the other students in my class is in a relationship with a Greek speaker. Needless to say, he is FAR and BEYOND better than I am. The reason is obvious: he’s surrounded by a Greek who is speaking the language, plus he makes a concentrated effort to incorporate Greek in his everyday life rather than just on Thursdays (like me).
So while I cannot magically make my husband into a fluent Greek speaker, I can at the very least carve out 20 minutes every day to do my homework and see how that changes my experience.
5. Duolingo is a fun addition to other language tools
I have mixed feelings about the Duolingo app. As of writing this, I am on a 124-day streak (insert: patting myself on the back). A part of me is obsessed with it. I love learning the vocabulary, the sounds, the game element, the cute little owl. But, do I think I’d probably be better off dedicating time to my workbooks, listening to Greek podcasts, TV shows, and music? Yes, definitely.
I find Duolingo the most helpful when it comes to learning new words and hearing the pronunciation of words and the way words go together in sentences. My problem is: I often find myself just memorizing the correct answer rather than learning why I made the mistake in the first place. I also should be taking the owl’s advice and start writing words down after each lesson.
All this is to say, I think Duolingo can be a wonderful tool if used mindfully in combination with other tools (workbooks, real-world experiences, etc). But at least for me, I don’t think it’s enough to fully grasp Greek in a way that I want to. Or perhaps I just don’t have the stamina to use it in a productive enough way.
6. It makes me feel more of a connection to my roots, my family, and to myself
I’m a Greek American. Well, half-Greek but I feel “full” Greek. Beyond spending time with my Greek family and celebrating Greek Easter, I mostly connect with Greece by eating Greek food and making recipes from my Yiayia’s handwritten cookbook.
Learning the language has deepened my love and appreciation of where I’m from, and ultimately, of myself. I think about my Yiayia and Pappou often, wondering what language tips they’d give me, what stories they’d share, and what they would think if they knew I was studying Greek. I hope they’d be proud.
There’s something incredibly fulfilling about tapping into this part of myself that I always knew was there but didn’t fully explore. Highly recommend!
7. Learning a new language instills a sense of purpose
While I’ve learned languages before in middle school, high school, and college, it is different learning a new language as an adult outside of school. Doing something for the sole reason because I want to do it (and not because I have to do it) changes the overall experience. It adds depth and purpose to my everyday and gives me something to work on outside of work and family, which is an oddly wonderful, confidence-boosting feeling.
If you find yourself craving “something” outside of your routine, learning a new language may be that missing piece for you too.
8. I appreciate words more
You know how some words just feel special? I love lots of Greek words and phrases (read about my connection with Siga Siga here). But learning Greek has made me more appreciative of language in general. How wonderful it is to be able to express ourselves, connect with others, and articulate our thoughts.
I also pay more attention to language and get excited when I come across a word I didn’t know. For example, my friend was talking about how she felt reticent on a date recently. I wasn’t familiar with the word and asked her what it meant. I’m not sure I would have done that before taking Greek lessons. I think I would have been embarrassed or felt shame not knowing it! Now, I’m so used to not knowing things and discovering new words in class, it has made me more receptive to learning new things and perhaps less reticent. 😉
9. One year isn’t THAT much time
When I searched “how long does it take to learn Modern Greek” I saw answers ranging from 44 weeks to 2.5 years. I am sure many people can and do learn Greek along with many other languages in that amount of time. That won’t be me. And that’s OK.
With these self-motivated hobbies, I’m accepting that some days, weeks, months, maybe even years are more enjoyable than others. But just because progress may feel slow to the point of un-moving doesn’t mean it actually is!
Every new word I understand, every “aha” moment, every time I understand a few minutes of a podcast is a moment that keeps me excited to move forward.
10. Lastly, learning Greek gives me motivation to save money to go to Greece
Since that important work trip never happened (shocker), I’m so excited to put my new language skills to use! I can’t wait to go to Greece and be surrounded by Greek words on menus, signs, ferries, taxis, storefronts, packaging, anywhere, everywhere… In the meantime, I’ll keep learning and getting better day by day. Siga Siga (slowly slowly).
Do you have any life lessons you’d like to share about learning languages? Let me know in the comments!