Several hours into learning Greek, one of the most difficult things to say is, “I don’t speak Greek.”
In preparation for our departure, I have been attempting to teach myself to speak and read the language. Though I’ll only be able to learn very basic aspects of Greek before being immersed in it, I think even that will help me communicate more effectively with the residents of Athens and Thessaloniki and navigate my way through the cities.
So, for a couple of hours each week I alternate between the online app Duolingo and the Greek keyboard on Google Translate to learn words like και (and), μήλο (apple) and βουβάλι (buffalo).
As I was detailing this same narrative to the inquiring woman behind the counter at a thrift shop in Hull, Massachusetts, I heard a voice behind me utter a few words in the semi-familiar tongue.
“Έχετε ένα καλό ταξίδι,” she said.
Intrigued, I turned around and asked the woman to repeat the phrase, but slower. I recognized all but one of the words and finally parsed out that she was telling me to “Have a good trip!”
I was awestruck that in the middle of the small town I was visiting, I had somehow stumbled upon someone who actively spoke Greek. The fact that I understood her encouraged me further, and I was excited to get back to learning the language when I returned to my residence that day.
Learning Greek is more difficult than Spanish (which I studied for five years in school) and German (which I began to teach myself using Duolingo, but have since stopped) because it has an entirely different alphabet than English does.
The alphabet wasn’t entirely new to me: I still remember most of the letters from my sixth grade class, in which we had a unit on Ancient Greek culture and mythology and had to learn the alphabet through song. However, many of the letters make different sounds than the way we learned them in sixth grade and are pronounced with different accents than our elementary-aged selves were taught.
In addition, many of the greek letters have show up in different aspects of American life, such as in math and science textbooks where Greek letters represented different mathematical functions. For instance, λ (lambda) represents wavelength and Δ (delta) represents change. In college, they also show up as symbols for fraternities and sororities.
Even after developing an understanding of the individual letters, putting them together to form words can be increasingly difficult because they look like a jumble at first glance. Words can be impossible to sound out and parsing through sentences can be painstaking and frustrating. By the end of an hour I’m usually exhausted and need to focus on something else, like coding in Java or working on my final essay for history.
Despite the difficulty, learning the language of Greece is making me increasingly excited to interact with its people. I continue on in the hopes that my efforts will help me better tell their stories.
This blog post also appeared on Northeastern University School of Journalism’s website, https://camd.northeastern.edu/journalism/